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How freelancers are funding independent journalism with Contributoria

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How freelancers are funding independent journalism with Contributoria

Julie Schwietert Collazo | May 04, 2015

When Keph Senett, a freelance writer from Toronto, Canada looked at the stories she wanted to cover in 2014 and 2015, she realized there were a couple challenges that might prevent her from fulfilling her reporting goals.

Senett had carved out a niche for herself covering global human rights issues and soccer, two topics that often intersect, and most of the stories she was following were outside her home country. Without staff affiliation or a confirmed assignment from a publication covering her expenses, which would involve fixers, translators and transcriptionists, there was no way she’d be able to afford to report on women’s soccer in Mexico and Peru.

Then there was the issue of getting articles placed. The kind of reporting Senett wanted to do would result in long-form articles, and while she had impressive clips at relevant outlets, including Al Jazeera America and Sports Illustrated, shopping around feature-length articles that hadn’t yet been reported or written and were, as she notes, “outside the news cycle,” was another investment that might not pay off.

So when Senett learned about Contributoria, an online platform that acts as both funder and publisher, she was willing to experiment with the site.

Journalists can register for a free account on the site and are able to propose a new article idea each month. They set their own fees--in pounds, since the site is based in the U.K.--and the site generates a corresponding number of points that must be earned by the writer in order to guarantee that Contributoria, which was funded by Google at its inception and is now supported by The Guardian and a host of nonprofit and nongovernmental organization partners, pays out the fee. When backers sign up for a free account, they also receive an allotment of points that they can put toward articles they choose to support.

Three assignments later, Senett says, “I wouldn’t have been able to fund and report these projects without Contributoria.” By leaning heavily on the points of friends, family and colleagues, Senett has been able to report on women’s soccer and LGBT issues in Mexico and Peru, as well as Russia.

Users can also pay for premium accounts to receive more points. The number of points needed to fund a project is not fixed from one month to the next, so it is all but impossible for a journalist to know how many backers she’ll need. It’s like crowdfunding, but without the crowd doing the funding, and with the goal posts shifting each month.

The fact that supporters aren’t paying out of their own pockets to back a project should make it easier to see an assignment to fruition, right?

Not necessarily, says Robin Marty, a New York-based writer who has used Contributoria to fund two projects and who is currently working on a third. Although it only takes two minutes, at the most, for a user to register for the site and even less time to allocate their points to the project of their choice, the site can be confusing and off-putting to visitors.

“Instead of building a resource system you can tap into with each new proposal, it feels like you are building from scratch with your backers every time you launch a new project,” Marty says. “That gets frustrating to them and can result in a loss of participants. People who are eager to help the first time start to find it tedious as time progresses, especially for writers who offer a new proposal each month. It starts to look like a never-ending beg for support,” she adds.

Senett agrees. “My least favorite thing about Contributoria is the incessant begging for points,” she says. “Almost every month I'm in a position of badgering my friends and networks to back me. There's confusion about this (Didn't I back you last month?) and I hate having to go hat-in-hand all the time.”

She adds that backers have faced technical problems on the site, and once that happens, they’re loathe to go back and try again. Finally, backers remain anonymous to journalists unless they specifically mention--on Facebook or Twitter, for example--that they’ve allocated their points to a project. The site itself doesn’t make backers visible to journalists with projects, which, Senett says, makes the act of being a supporter “quite thankless.”

I have also used the site to fund several projects, including reports from Mexico and Puerto Rico. Like Senett and Marty, I’ve found Contributoria vital as a form of financial support, not only to fund reporting but to actually earn an income off of doing so. I’ve also found one of the site’s other benefits--having some pieces published in an insert in The Guardian--to be attractive (albeit unclear about who and how the work is chosen for said insert).

At the same time, I’d agree that the inability to predict the number of points and the “never-ending beg” that Marty and Senett reference are obstacles that become more difficult to surmount each month. This is true despite the fact that the addition of the nonprofit and NGO partners--among them The Nature Conservancy, UNESCO, The Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom of the Press Foundation, and the one that I’ll be working with, PBS Media Shift--lends the site more caché.

But the confusing interface and other features that undermine credibility--including the fact that professional journalists’ work appears alongside that of authors using pseudonyms and writing typo-ridden pieces--may make supporters less inclined to take the time to back projects more than once. “Anybody can publish as long as they can get their proposal backed,” Senett notes.

Taking the pros and cons on the balance sheet into account, is Contributoria worth a journalist’s time? The short answer is yes, says Jen Wilton, a freelance journalist based in Oaxaca, Mexico who has been using the site for the past year.

“It has been a really valuable resource,” Wilton says, “allowing me to dig deeper in my research and spend more time on the craft of writing. I hope to be using Contributoria for a long time to come, although I would like to see a stronger community develop, facilitated by improved functionality of the site. It is an innovative approach to journalism that is particularly helpful for those new to writing."

Despite its shortcomings and regardless of whether it’s a solution for the long-haul, it can be a very useful resource for journalists, especially freelancers who are reporting from outside their home countries and incurring extra costs. It may be particularly good for journalists who don’t intend to use it monthly or those who propose projects with less onerous reporting requirements and lower fees, and it’s an untapped resource for freelancers who live in non-English-speaking countries and produce work in other languages.

Contributoria staff says they’re aware of many of the site’s shortcomings, and are working to correct them while growing the site. It’s the dilemma of many websites, of course, but one I hope can get resolved so Contributoria remains a useful resource and perhaps even becomes a model for similar services.

Contributoria has since decided to close its doors, and all content will be archived starting Oct. 1, 2015. 

Image CC-licensed on Flickr via hernanpc

 

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