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Home > Publications > Quill > We Own the Future of the News



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Wednesday, August 8, 2012
We Own the Future of the News

A new generation of independent and emerging journalists is reshaping the industry in a time of upheaval

By Genevieve Belmaker

Do an informal survey of any group of news professionals and ask who and what is shaping the future of the industry, and you’ll get a wide variety of responses.

Predictably, the level of angst over professional uncertainties is high among veteran reporters with decades of experience as well as freelancers just beginning to get a professional foothold. But there’s also a degree of optimism that the fundamental core principles of journalism will ultimately survive as the foundation of the news industry’s next phase.

“Opportunities for freelancers are better because there are more outlets,” said Brian Steffens, director of communications for the Reynolds Journalism Institute and an adjunct associate professor at the University of Missouri. He is also a former editor of Quill.

Steffens points out that the options for independent journalists to sell stories used to be limited to a handful of magazines and local daily newspapers, but the possibilities today are much broader. However, he cautions that having good business sense is key.

“If you hope to have a mortgage and pay for it, and have a family, you’d better know something about how to market yourself,” he said, adding that it’s not just about being easy to find online.

He also sees flux in the industry affecting a wide array of age groups.

“There’s been so much downsizing, so many layoffs, when I go to these meetings of independent journalists, I see a lot of people in their 30s, 40s or 50s.”

But Ann Peters with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting said there is reason to be optimistic.

“I think the key is how we seize these opportunities and view this time as a time of opportunity and see what can be made of it, including continuing to make sure information gets out to the public,” she said.

CROWDSOURCE FUNDING

One option that Steffens and many others see as a ray of hopeful light is crowdsource funding. Despite being weak on the ability to verify sources of donated funding, the platform makes it easier to find individuals who are willing to financially back specific projects.

One of the most popular crowdsourcing platforms, Kickstarter, has helped numerous journalists successfully raise funds. They have included $25,999 for editorial cartoonist Ted Rall to return to Afghanistan; $23,316 for photojournalist Gerd Ludwig’s project on the 25-year anniversary of Chernobyl; and $140,201 for a collaboratively commissioned long-form journalism project about major issues in technology and science, called Matter.

The common thread among such successful funding campaigns is that the projects are imagined and run by journalists with a significant amount of experience and recognition who can draw on vast personal and professional networks. Many are run by teams of such journalists who have heavy-duty expertise in a beat as former employees of legacy media, including The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Economist, BBC and others.

Younger, less-experienced reporters have had mixed success.

Jason Houge, a freelance photographer who posted a solo project on Kickstarter about poverty in middle-class America, raised only $3,721, failing to reach his goal of $22,150. Houge had intended to use the funds to travel throughout the U.S. to photograph and record middle-class Americans forced into a “gray area” of poverty.

“In some respects it’s a little bit unnerving and depressing because there are projects on (Kickstarter) that are getting money and they are all entertainment-based,” said Houge, who thinks a primary reason he didn’t reach his fundraising goal is that he’s “not well enough known yet.” But he is still doggedly pursuing the project, called Poverty Now, and he hopes it will ultimately result in a book and film.

The only crowdsource funding platform solely dedicated to journalism projects, Spot.Us, provides a more heavily filtered avenue and targeted support for reporters. All reporters are vetted, and their pitches are carefully reviewed before going live. Spot.Us is the brainchild of David Cohn, who got it off the ground and built it after winning the Knight Foundation’s

News Challenge.

One journalist with repeated success funding through Spot.Us is Lindsey Hoshaw, a freelance multimedia journalist. Hoshaw raised $2,500 for a story about fog harvesting and $6,000 to report on the Pacific Garbage Patch, which resulted in her piece running in The New York Times.

Despite her fundraising success (Hoshaw says she mentioned the campaign to “everyone” including strangers on airplanes), she also experienced the trickiest part of crowdsource funding: weighing your financial needs for a project against how much money you can realistically raise.

For her garbage patch story, Hoshaw was only able to cover part of her travel expenses and had to pay for everything else out of pocket, including airfare, meals and lodging. Even with payment from The New York Times and photo sales to publishers, she is still in the hole from the reporting venture. But Hoshaw said in an email that she wouldn’t change the experience “for the world.”

Her advice to others who have a story they want to bring to life? “Find something you’re truly passionate about and go at it,” she said. “I like to think that that conviction is part of why people supported me and why the public was willing to help get the garbage patch story to print.”

Hoshaw cautions that crowdsource funding requires being comfortable playing dual

roles of marketing professional and journalist.

“You have to be willing to self-promote even when it feels uncomfortable,” she said. “If people don’t know who you are, they can’t help turn your ideas into reality.”

Andrew Haeg, product manager and co-creator with Public Insight Network/Spot.Us and American Public Media doesn’t see any ethical conflict with crowdsource funding. In fact, he sees it as a necessity.

“As far as journalists going out there and raising money for their work, I don’t see any problem for that,” Haeg said. “I think it almost makes journalists more entrepreneurial — isn’t that what freelancers have to do anyway?”

Haeg adds that Spot.Us prefers that people come to them saying “here are the questions I want to ask,” rather than presenting a finished story, thus allowing the funding and the creation of the piece to go hand-in-hand.

“We’d rather be a platform for journalistic discovery and enterprise,” he said. “The kind of journalism that starts with great questions (is what we’re looking for).”

Other crowdsource funding platforms gaining in popularity are the photography site Emphas.is and IndieGoGo, which is widely accepting of any and all projects. Most of IndieGoGo’s successful journalism-related campaigns are what CEO Slava Rubin calls “writing-related projects.” They include Happiness Ahead, one woman’s journey across America to find the happiest communities.

The spirit with which Rubin and his founding partners Eric Schell and Danae Ringelmann started IndieGoGo in 2008 was out of frustration over the difficulty in raising money online.

“We wanted to democratize funding for anybody anytime in the world to raise money for anything,” Rubin said.

IndieGoGo also provides weekly metrics reports and a “customer happiness” program with representatives available to help campaigns meet their funding goals.

All crowdsourcing platforms share a common problem, though: How does a journalist committed to reporting a story find time to work and market for funding?

Kickstarter and IndieGoGo highly recommend working in teams of two or more, or starting with a significant network. Using video to augment online campaign pitches is lauded by all sites as a means to significantly increase chances of funding success.

INDEPENDENT AND EMERGING

Though crowdsource funding is gaining in popularity among journalists savvy enough to have tamed the platform and its vagaries, it still takes a backseat to more traditional freelance approaches.

For Dima Gavrysh, a Ukrainian photojournalist based in New York City, being a true freelancer means that he decides what to photograph and when. After spending about two years shooting regularly for The Associated Press, The New York Times and Bloomberg, he realized he was making money but becoming creatively stagnant and increasingly ungratified by his work.

“(At that point) there were only about five or 10 photographs I would put in my portfolio,” Gavrysh said of the work that resulted from the narrow standards wire services apply to the types of images they want.

“I realized I was burning my best years on meaningless work,” he recalls, adding that he wanted to create images with more heart and purpose. “I do believe that photography can change people’s lives.

“There’s always this very difficult choice: You are either broke but working on things you like, or making money,” he said. But ultimately he decided to make a change and enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design. Creatively and professionally, he has evolved past working at the behest of others just for a paycheck.

“Documentary photographers put themselves in the position where they are accepting just above minimum wage,” Gavrysh said, adding that it undermines possibilities for everyone when freelancers accept fees that don’t even pay the bills. He recommends flatly refusing to do such work to avoid becoming a “content provider.” He also argues that from a business angle, photographers should never agree to give away their copyright, as that is where significant long-term income comes from.

“I’m not going to give (away my photos) for $200.”

His more high-minded approach seems to be working. Now armed with an MFA in photography, Gavrysh is working on publishing his first photography book, “Inshallah,” a project that explores the Soviet and American occupations of Afghanistan.

Other photojournalists are stepping outside the confines of the old model of work, including an elite team led by veteran Magnum Foundation photographer David Alan Harvey at burn magazine.

In 2008, Harvey launched the online magazine/journal as a platform for emerging photographers. Now also published in a high-quality book format a few times a year, the magazine provides a valuable incentive to emerging photographers who get their work published: a paycheck.

Once a year, burn magazine awards a $10,000 Emerging Photographer Grant, and it regularly buys photo essays at $1,000 apiece. The grant is awarded through the Magnum Foundation, a non-profit set up by photographer members from Magnum Photos Inc.

As curator of burn, Harvey uses his lifetime of mentoring experience to spot talent that he thinks deserves cultivating.

“What I’m trying to do is eliminate all excuses that any young photographer could have,” Harvey said. He adds that when young photographers say they don’t have magazines like Life or Look to showcase their work, he reminds them they have chances to connect to their audience that didn’t exist in the past.

According to Harvey, funding comes from donations (there is no advertising revenue) and must be given “without any strings attached.” Harvey interviews every person interested in donating to find out the source of the money.

“It’s a really exciting time; we’re out there competing with the big guys,” Harvey said. “I don’t worry about any big boss, I don’t worry about any schedule. We don’t even print the magazine on a schedule.”

Greek photographer Panos Skoulidas has had his work published by burn several times. He also worked with Harvey on the recent publication of the Magnum photographer’s interactive photo book called “(based on a true story).”

Skoulidas said that with the decreasing fees independent photographers can earn from freelancing for newswires and the lack of jobs for photographers at larger newspapers, those involved with burn wanted to provide an antidote.

“We realized we needed to bring something new to the table,” Skoulidas said. “We need to save the profession of photojournalism.”

His take is that the best way for photographers to keep their head above water financially and professionally is “to stay independent and stay freelancing.”

But he warns that just knowing how to take a good picture isn’t enough anymore.

“To be a good freelancer you have to be a great storyteller.”

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a freelance journalist and associate editor for Electronic Intifada, an alternative news website on issues in the West Bank and Gaza. She takes the idea of having a unique voice a step further, saying freelancers need to have high standards for what they agree to work on, regardless of the pay.

“I think some of the best journalists doing some of the most important work are independent and freelancing,” she said. “Being able to be beholden only to the story is extremely valuable.”

As far as the field of competition being as tough as it ever was, and maybe even tougher because of downsizing at media companies and closures of publications that employed working journalists, she thinks the overall environment has created a window of opportunity.

“Mainstream media is forced to look at the independent journalist cadre because there’s such a wealth of information coming (out),” she said. “I think it’s now possible for independent journalists to make a name for themselves.”

She said that independent media has the power to circumvent the “corporate stranglehold” on mainstream media and provide useful information to the public.

Chicago-based freelancer Anna Tarkov is living proof of that. Holding a degree in political science and with no formal journalism education, Tarkov found herself bouncing from internship to internship with PR and marketing firms when she decided to use her writing and research skills to start writing about a personal interest: politics.

“During one of my many bouts of joblessness, I started writing a blog about the mayor of Chicago,” Tarkov said. The blog she started writing for, Windy Citizen (which no longer exists), lacked political content. So she wrote for them five days a week, gradually making a name for herself. But, according to Tarkov, her most important move was when she got down to serious networking.

“I got to know everybody I could in the media in Chicago,” Tarkov said. “I made it my mission to get to know as many people as I could so that if there was ever a job, they would think of me first.”

A major part of Tarkov’s approach was to use Twitter as a networking tool. As of mid-July, she had sent out more than 53,000 tweets.

“Every time people followed me, I would follow them and send them a message saying that if they ever heard of jobs to let me know.”

Her approach worked, landing her at least one freelance job with the Chicago Tribune. Several attempts to get in touch with the editor didn’t work, until a friend recommended that she call and say: “I hear you’re looking for stringers.”

“I didn’t even know what stringers were,” said Tarkov, who ended up reporting on city council meetings in Chicago suburbs. But the heart of her freelance approach is still Twitter.

“For me this is a real platform for what I can use to present myself. I take it seriously; it’s not just fooling around. I use it in a professional way.”

Now balancing working as a full-time freelancer and being a mother to her baby son, Tarkov continues to get breaks from maximizing her network. A recent insider tip about media content farm Journatic resulted in a paid piece on Poynter’s website.

Despite her experience, Tarkov warns that major life changes can throw an independent reporter off track.

“Before I had the baby I would be at every event, I would be at every happy hour, to do whatever I had to keep myself in the game,” she said. Her advice to others who want to make a living as a freelancer is to “be strategic.”

“Anyone can write for free an opinion piece or commentary,” she said, adding that unpaid work is worthwhile only if you have full control, such as your own website or blog. “If you are going to write for free, it should be something major.”

NEW VENTURES AND ALTERNATIVE FUNDING

Playing an increasingly prominent role in the work life of independent journalists are numerous organizations and groups that provide funding opportunities, professional support, guidance and education.

Reporting Unlimited, which branched out from the publication of 50-year news veteran Mort Rosenblum’s book “Little Bunch of Madmen,” develops curricula and aims to inspire students to work abroad as well as help journalists from different cultures see the broader story.

Reporting Unlimited is described on its Facebook page as an “open exchange” that combines veteran experience with fresh thinkers in the younger generation.

“Reporting Unlimited is a sort of personal obsession,” Rosenblum said. “I’m getting a lot of response. And the idea is to expand that into large conversation.”

Rosenblum said that what’s interesting for him are the responses from all kinds of people all over the world, not just journalists.

“This tower of Babel, this big debate, talks about news people as if it’s only about news people,” he said. “The purpose of Reporting Unlimited is two things: one is to equip aspiring reporters with new techniques and values, and the second is to engage a broader public to recognize what it is and how to find it.

“It’s the message, not the medium.”

Another concept to support reporters and allow them to engage with the story without restrictions is Newsfunders. Project coordinator Josh Wilson says that right now, Newsfunders is just a conversation. But they are working with the non-profit Investigative News Network, and he hopes to make it a viable source of funding for independent beat reporters in the next 12 to 18 months.

[Correction: The above paragraph previously misidentified the Investigative News Network as "Independent News Network."]

His solution with Newsfunders is to play the role of fundraiser for beat reporters.

“The first thing we need is scale — lots and lots of people giving,” Wilson said. “Most crowdfunding pits story against story. (But) you just want people to be able to go out there and do their jobs.

“One of the challenges of the current crowd-funding model is that you have to do your own marketing and you have to break out of your own network,” he said. “If you’re not a good marketer, your options are kind of limited.”

Genevieve Belmaker (formerly Genevieve Long) is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. She regularly report on issues related to journalists and the journalism industry. Reach her on Twitter @Genevieve Long or email genevievemlong@gmail.com.

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