As anyone can tell you, it's hard out there for a journalist. With so much media moving online, virtually anyone with enough passion, talent, and endurance (as well as a thick skin when it comes to rejections) can find a way to get his or her work published and, likely, build a portfolio as a writer.
The open access and demand for constant content online can be a double-edged sword for writers, however, who are trying to earn a livable wage and support families. Working on an article-by-article basis as an independent writer means a fee for one piece has to cover not just the time spent writing, but the researching, pitching, and editing, too. Costs associated with extensive research, long interviews, and on-the-ground reporting are rarely covered for online content, and while print may have a higher pay rate, it could be months before that article gets in front of an audience, often rendering the content obsolete.
Truly in-depth reporting is slowly becoming a luxury that only staff writers on salaries can accomplish, and those staff writing jobs are increasingly located in high media markets like DC, New York, and California, even for those online publications covering news throughout the US. While seeking grants is always a possibility for freelancers, it adds an additional hurdle into the already time-consuming pitching process, since writers must often pitch both a fund and an outlet in order to get a story approved.
When I decided over a year ago that I wanted to do detailed, data- and interview-rich historical pieces on abortion clinics in the United States, I knew I would have a number of roadblocks. They would be long, ranging from 1500-2500 words a piece. They would be expensive — I would need to travel to clinics, and I wanted to conduct interviews in person whenever possible. I needed to investigate what sorts of protests or other activities happened on the sidewalks outside their doors, photographing and documenting whatever I could. This didn't seem like the type of series most mainstream magazine publishers would be willing to take on, and I couldn't afford to do a project like this through an online outlet for a single article fee.
Instead, I went straight to my own audience and asked for help, and they responded generously.
Within hours of putting the summary of my clinic history project online, I'd received over $6000 in donations, more than enough to do the first article. Within two weeks the second was funded as well. Now, a few months later, I was able to publish “Clinic Stories: The Story of Chicago,” a 20-page photo documented article on the history of legal abortion in the city, told through the lens of one clinic with two warring factions of anti-abortion activists outside its door.
Crowdfunding isn't that new of an idea for investing in investigative journalism. After all, funding sites have already been used for raising money for journalists and other writers to work on books or magazines they wish to self-publish. Beacon has been creating a highly successful subscription paywall site that encourages authors to get subscriptions from their own fans to subsidize work, and Patreon allows a person to finance a creator through a monthly donation system as well, without the additional access to other writers that comes from using Beacon.
Just as “traditional” media have dissipated as more content moves online, the traditional ways of funding media are changing, too. For a freelance writer paying a mortgage or buying groceries one article at a time, self-funding can mean a reliable chunk of income that provides stability to produce quality, meaningful, and, hopefully, groundbreaking work. The alternative is unsustainable for most writers — a few quick pieces would only keep my family afloat for another month.
Is crowdfunding the solution to help freelance writers get the same opportunities for high-quality, in-depth journalism that staff writers can more easily access? Maybe not. But for me, it's allowed for the possibility to see one research project come to fruition already, and that's something I couldn't accomplish during a year of working piecemeal articles to multiple outlets.