I’ve been thinking recently about ways that we might sustain investigative journalism, particularly at a local level. Because I’m not a big fan of largely ad-supported options, I’ve been trying to identify ways that news providers can offer value that people are willing to pay for.
Hyper-local news coverage is already offered by businesses like Aol’s Patch, but the service is traffic-driven and ad-supported. Most of its coverage focuses on news, controversies and local oddities, not investigative efforts. It’s unclear if Patch will ever earn enough ad revenue to justify sustained investigations.
A couple of weeks ago, Mathew Ingram, whose GigaOm posts frequently touch upon content business models, asked “Could Kickstarter be used to crowdfund journalism?” After offering some examples of moderately successful efforts, Ingram concludes that the answer is “maybe not”.
I think platforms like Kickstarter might be useful in funding acts of journalism. I don’t see it as an option for sustained reporting, whose open-ended nature doesn’t provide the beginning, middle and end that a successful Kickstarter project requires.
Rather than crowd-source projects, it might be more useful to build platforms that can be used to store locally produced content in ways that support querying and re-use. The content would vary from town to town and district to district, but the platform could be one that was shared and adapted repeatedly.
We’ve already seen investigate efforts that started with a database. In 2009, for example, the Guardian asked its readers to help sort through 700,000 expense documents so that it could uncover abuses by members of the British Parliament.
It’s still an anomaly, but it need not remain so. To their detriment, services like Patch replaces one container, the newspaper, with another: the article. I think this frames the offer in a way that limits subsequent uses.
If Patch, or its equivalent, instead focused on building a platform that could store a wide array of local information, reporting could become a reader-driven act. Stories that almost never get reported could then be surfaced:
- How did a regulation change as it was debated?
- Were any of the people who testified for a policy also contributors to the elected officials who voted for it?
- What departmental budget has grown the fastest in the last ten years?
Rather than be a repository of (aging) articles, the local journalistic enterprise could be the trusted source for public information. Anyone with an interest in understanding history, trends and relationships could query the data set for a reasonable fee. "Subscribe now and get unlimited access for a year."
It’s possible, now. On a local level, it’s manageable today. It could provide significant value, and it doesn’t require the kindness of strangers to work.
Edited August 4 to add: Porter Anderson pointed me to a synopsis of Esther Dyson's thinking in this area (part of his weekly Writing on the Ether recap). He also provided a direct link to Dyson's writing on "The Quantified Community". I'll try to come back to both in the near future.