Israel Mirsky likes to give the following analogy about the role of journalism in a democracy: a free society can only function if it has a strong immune system. Investigative journalists serve as the helper T cells that find and fight infection, by directing the attention of prosecutors, lawmakers, and public opinion toward corruption.
But because the Internet changed the news business model, resulting in outlets struggling to pay their reporters sufficiently, that immune system has become weak.
Earlier this month, Mirsky opened an Indiegogo campaign to raise the capital to launch another crowdfunding platform, Uncoverage. The aim is for people to back investigative journalism projects, relieving newspapers and magazines’ financial burden and allowing reporters to do their thing. If a pitch gets funded, Uncoverage can try to help it get placement in a national publication.
“As someone who’s a total news addict it was scary watching the money bleed out of investigative content,” Mirsky said.
Crowdfunding journalism isn’t a new idea. Spot.us, which was acquired by American Public Media in 2011, was founded in 2008 with a focus on local news. Beacon Reader launched in September as a subscription service in the vein of Netflix that gives users access to writers’ stories for $5 a month, divorcing journalists’ work from ad sales.
Uncoverage isn’t for citizen journalism. In order to get his or her pitch on the site, a reporter needs to have been published in existing outlets.
It’s not solving hyper-local news, either, Mirsky said: Uncoverage pitches should have a global, national, or regional scope, appealing to wide audiences. Nor will it help with the state of photojournalism, although he does hope that photographers will pair with journalists on their stories.
With 17 days to go, Uncoverage has raised a little over $11,820 of its $55,000 goal.
Backers will be able to fund both specific pitches and broader topics, each of which will have an editor. Sharona Coutts, the startup’s financial corruption editor, said she will be working with journalists to assess and sculpt their pitches, although her role could change over time.
Similarly, the topics available for funding aren’t set in stone yet. Mirsky gave financial corruption and the business of prisons as examples. Others will depend in part on which editors and partners come on board first, and also on public interest.
Mirsky expects that Uncoverage writers who receive funding will pitch stories to editors in varying stages of completeness, from fully written stories to partially written ones to 500-word pitches. Uncoverage is explicitly looking to work in conjunction with publications, although removing the paycheck could change the power balance between editors and writers.
“If part of the funds are coming from the individual, then it’s a very different conversation,” Mirsky said.
But despite that changed conversation, the plan isn’t to usurp editors.
“The goal is to get placement in major national news [outlets],” Mirsky said. “I want to make it easier for all of them to get investigative work done.”
[Image: Flickr / NS Newsflash]