The question was put to a New News panel on crowdfunding by freelance journalist Melissa Sweet.
Crowdfunding works on the premise that small sums collected from many donors can kick-start new projects. It evolved from crowdsourcing, the banding together of like-minded people to create a project. Wikipedia is probably the most notable example of crowdsourcing, the result of more than 100 million hours of labour and collective intelligence.
Crowdfunding was begun by the online site Kickstarter in 2009, a practice since replicated by more than 450 different venues and platforms.
Rick Chen, the co-founder of the Melbourne-based crowdfunding site Pozible, which targets the arts and creative projects, said the company had raised $13 million in three years with 55 per cent of the projects meeting their funding aims.
“I must admit, journalism is not a big category for us,” Mr Chen said. “But that’s because people aren’t pitching stories. The success of crowdfunding is really about how the project creator pitches to the public. Humour and ‘quirky’ work well.”
The cartoonist Andrew Marlton, whose satirical “First Dog on the Moon” is published by Crikey, noted the power of crowdfunding in two of his own fundraising efforts.
“Both sold merchandise and were interactive,” he told the New News session. “I asked what cartoon image people would like to see on a clock face and on tee shirts, then I drew them on and sent them out. The response was just mental. In the first campaign, I raised $2000 in less than five hours and in the second I aimed for $3000 and actually made $6000 in 12 to 24 hours.”
But ConnectWeb journalist Bronwen Clune said the merchandising model wouldn’t work for quality public interest journalism.
“It might work for a publication but not for a story,” she said. “The traditional crowdfunding model is you get something back for your investment but what can an independent journalist give back? We need a new model.”
Mr Chen said people needed to identify strongly with a project to pay money and social media played a part in making this happen.
“People share with their social networks on Twitter and Facebook and this attracts further support.”
Mr Marlton, a self-confessed Twitter addict, agreed, adding that when he contributed to crowdfunding appeals he received a thank-you via Twitter.
Ms Clune said funding journalism in this fashion also raised ethical issues.
“If one person gave a substantial sum, could they then influence the story? Or even pay for the story not to be published if they didn’t like it?”
Ms Sweet, who is behind the public health blog Croakey, said many journalists were uncomfortable about pitching stories to raise funds from the community they’re reporting on.
“A group of us have formed the Public Interest Journalism Foundation to endorse good, worthwhile stories that have potential. I think our role will be as a kind of broker to maintain the independence needed in this kind of reporting.”
Mr Marlton said the idea had potential. “Crikey started with one man in his room writing emails and he gathered a following of like-minded people,” he said.
“There are people out there interested in important issues. If I felt there was a really important issue to be investigated and no-one else was doing it, I would support it. I would give 20 bucks or whatever.”
The discussion concluded on a high note. An audience member pitched a story for Pozible. He called it “Board Watch” — an investigation into those who sit on publicly-funded state and federal government boards and their connections through family and power networks. He received immediate endorsement.
“I would fund that story personally,” said Pozible’s Mr Chen. “I think it’s a great idea.”