Using the audience, building credibility for non-profits

In a 2006 Washington Post article, the independent film company Brave New Films is profiled for their financial strategy to fund a movie about war profiteering in Iraq. By simply asking for money from their online audience, the organization received over $200,000 in small donations, including from a billionaire.

This kind of audience-author relationship — one that respects and utilizes the passion and interest of their readership — is necessary in order to create lasting independent outlets. This also goes hand in hand with the speech Josh Marshall gave at Ithaca College a couple of years ago. He mentioned that using the audience to receive information and uncover alternative narratives helped expand the scope of his outlet’s coverage.

Combining these important endeavors — using your audience to gain both isight and funding — needs to be taken seriously among journalists, including indy writers of the future. The symbiotic partnership between those who create and those who consume is, paradoxically, the best thing for the indy news media. You demonstrate your respect for your audience whose various roles in society matter while simultaneously building your news outlet’s content and capacity to create more content.

I think credibility in non-profit/indy outlets that rely on this revenue model more heavily than advertising needs to be discussed, too. In an article from Slate.com, blogger Robert Gammon believes the non-profit media model values inexperienced student writers over “professional” journalists.

Such a condescending viewpoint, however, assumes years of training automatically yield quality journalism. This is not necessarily the case. While experience plays a significant role in shaping the type of journalism produced, good leadership and credible content teaches newcomers fresh out of school what works and what doesn’t. A revenue model that tries to avoid confrontation with advertisers and profit motives doesn’t necessarily determine the demographics or development of a site’s writers.

In the end, I would argue there is a role for non-profits and for-profits. As long as we have a society that values and continues to value through discourse the need for an extensive range of writers and viewpoints (the messy reality that is an effective democracy), we will have good journalism. Conglomerates at the corporate level are what many non-profits seek to criticize, not small-town, for-profit papers with excellent local coverage. It’s about balancing and questioning.

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