The Center for Public Integrity has won three Sigma Delta Chi Awards from the Society of Professional Journalists.
In the online, independent category “Civil rights group's FCC positions reflect industry funding, critics say” won the top prize for investigative reporting. The story was written by Center contributor Jason McLure and edited by John Dunbar, who oversees political and financial coverage.
The story profiled the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, a nonprofit which has received extensive industry funding as documented by the Center, and has taken positions that seem to reflect those of their benefactors.
“After the Meltdown” won the online, independent category for non-deadline reporting. The series of stories was written by Alison Fitzgerald, Dan Wagner, former intern Lauren Kyger and Dunbar. It was edited by Fitzgerald and Dunbar.
The three-part series won a George Polk Award for business writing, which was handed out last week.
In it, The Center revisited those who were most responsible for the financial meltdown in 2008 and discovered few if any had suffered any legal consequences. It also reported that executives from all 25 of the top subprime lenders identified in a 2009 Center story are back lending again.
In the online, affiliated category, the Center and ABC News shared the prize for investigative reporting for “Out of Breath: The Untold Story of Big Money, Black Lung and Doctors for the Coal Companies.” The winners were Chris Hamby of the Center and Matt Mosk, Lee Ferran and Brian Ross of ABC News.
The news comes two days after the Center won its first Pulitzer Prize for “Breathless and Burdened: Dying from Black Lung, Buried by Law and Medicine,” the Center’s three-part, 25,000 word investigative series.
The project has won numerous awards this year, including the prestigious Goldsmith Prize for investigative reporting.
For this year’s contest, judges selected 85 honorees from nearly 1,800 submissions. Entries included selections from television and radio broadcasts, newspapers, online news outlets and magazines.
The Sigma Delta Chi Awards date back to 1932, when the Society honored six individuals for their contributions to journalism. The current program began in 1939 as the Distinguished Service Awards.
America’s most powerful special interests are collectively regaining their appetite for old-school government lobbying.
About half of the nation’s top 100 lobbying entities reported spending as much or more on lobbying during this year’s first quarter than they did the year before, according to a Center for Public Integrity of analysis of new congressional disclosure reports and Center for Responsive Politics data.
These new numbers reverse — at least temporarily — top lobbying forces’ shrinking investments in the kinds of conventional government influence efforts that they must by law report publicly. Some have increasingly funneled resources into influence activities just outside the scope of public disclosure.
Big-name trade associations, advocacy groups and corporations representing a range of industries, including chemicals, medicine, social media, shipping and beverages, led the way in early 2014, federal lobbying filings show. The increase was likely thanks, in part, to modest signs of congressional movement on legislation key to their interests after what’s been a year marked by gridlock.
Dow Chemical, for example, spent more than $5 million on lobbying this past quarter, or about $2 million more than during the year before.
In a statement, the company attributed the hefty spending to “increased collaboration in public policy, specifically in energy, trade and agriculture” as well as payment of annual dues to trade associations that represent its interests. The company also noted it spent more on lobbying thanks to its “successful 2013 earnings results.”
The American Chemistry Council’s lobbying spending jumped from $1.9 million during the first quarter of 2013 to nearly $3 million during the first quarter of 2014. Such action is was prompted in large part, spokeswoman Anne Kolton said, by the trade group’s push to pass legislation reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act, which regulates the production, use and disposal of industrial chemicals.
The Business Roundtable, which represents chief executive officers of major corporations, spent $4.23 million from January through March — a 53 percent increase from the same period in 2013.
That, spokeswoman Amanda DeBard said, is because of an aggressive effort by Business Roundtable Chairman Randall Stephenson to promote “top policy issues” that include “tax reform, immigration reform, expanded trade and fiscal stability.” She added: “Going forward, we will continue to advocate these issues.”
Other lobbying entities reporting notable lobbying spending increases during 2014’s first quarter from 2013’s first quarter include United Parcel Service ($3.04 million from $1.42 million), Coca-Cola Co. ($2.6 million from $1.36 million), the Grocery Manufacturers Association ($1.12 million from $670,000), the Open Society Policy Center ($2.8 million from $1.7 million).
UPS, which did not return requests for comment, indicated in its disclosures that it heavily lobbied on Russian trade issues, Obamacare benefits and U.S. postal reform, among other matters that could potentially affect its revenues.
(Update, 5:56 p.m. April 22: UPS spokeswoman Kara Gerhardt Ross wrote in an email that her company's lobbying expenditure increase was generated by "accounting changes in the way our lobbying activities are calculated," including dues to and compensation to lobbyists. "UPS expects that lobbying expenditures in 2014 to be relatively the same as in 2013," she added.)
Those reporting more modest increases include the American Medical Association, Koch Industries, National Association of Broadcasters, defense contractor United Technologies, FedEx Corp., health firm Amgen, Shell Oil, Prudential Financial, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Duke Energy, American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, 3M Co. and the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association.
Overall, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce retained its regular perch as the biggest-spending lobbying entity in the United States, posting a $25.2 million figure for the year’s first quarter. That comes with a caveat: The Chamber, unlike many corporations, trade associations and special interest groups, opts to disclose state- and grassroots-level lobbying, as well as some political organizing costs, alongside its federally focused efforts.
In one case, at least — that of Facebook — a company’s lobbying expenditure spike doesn’t necessary mean it’s bombarding Washington, D.C., with more pressure than usual.
The social networking giant spent $2.78 million from January through March — easily its most expensive single quarter since the social media company began lobbying in 2009. In a statement, Facebook explained that the “vesting of restricted stock units” among its in-house federal lobbyists primarily accounted for its lobbying expenditure increase.
All the same, Facebook reported lobbying Congress, the White House and numerous federal agencies on a variety of topics, from digital privacy issues and online advertising to immigration reform and research and development tax credits.
Twitter, in contrast, continued its modest foray into formalized federal lobbying by spending $50,000 in the year’s first quarter on issues including patent litigation reform, digital privacy, government surveillance and data security.
Some prominent lobbying entities did curtail their spending in early 2014 compared to early 2013.
Those cutting the most, percentage-wise, include a number of energy interests and defense contractors, such as Northrop Grumman, General Electric, ExxonMobil, Chevron Corp., Edison Electric Institute, BP and American Electrical Power.
Ford Motor Co., drug maker Merck and Co., the AFL-CIO, machinery-maker Caterpillar Inc. and the American Farm Bureau also reported dips.
Although not among the biggest lobbying spenders on Capitol Hill, firearm-related groups — both advocates for and opponents of gun rights —continued to press lawmakers early this year with left-leaning lawmakers still pushing about gun control legislation despite little success last year.
Chief among pro-gun groups was the upstart National Association for Gun Rights. Although down from its quarterly peak of $1.9 million, it spent more than $1 million during the first quarter of 2014 and again outspent the better-known National Rifle Association.
“There’s a reason [gun control] legislation] hasn’t been going anywhere — we’ve been investing a lot of money to make sure of it,” said Dudley Brown, the executive vice president for the group. “We’re not going to stop. We’re not cutting deals, not compromising.”
Mayors Against Illegal Guns, comparatively, spent $310,000 during the first quarter of 2014, a slight increase from its spending during the first quarter of 2013.
These fashion guerillas hoisted their digital cameras, their iPhones, and their iPads aloft in order to capture the drama on the runway — and its environs — and transmit it directly to their followers. They live-blogged and they tweeted and they initiated a real-time conversation where once only silence existed. The first generation of bloggers, such as Bryan Yambao, Susanna Lau, Tavi Gevinson, and Scott Schuman were contrarians. In their words and images, there was an earnest and raw truth that did not exist in traditional outlets. They had unique points of view and savvy marketing strategies. They had a keen awareness of how technology could help them attract the attention of hundreds of thousands of like-minded fashion fans who had been shut out of the conversation…
Slowly, the legacy media fought back. Editors went on the offensive. Glamour editor Cindi Leive, Lucky’s Eva Chen, Joe Zee (formerly of Elle), Nina Garcia of Marie Claire — the very people who once were envied for their front-row view of fashion week — were now tapping out quips and bon mots to all who would listen. Legacy editors began watching the runway from the backside of their iPhone cameras as they shared their up-close views with the virtual world. Critics, instead of reserving their droll commentary for post-show dinner patter, now spewed it fast and succinctly on Twitter.
I note this not because fashion criticism is a particular interest of mine (just look at me!), but because it’s an instance of a well worn cycle: Slow incumbents leave room for insurgent newcomers. Some insurgent newcomers get co-opted and join incumbents. Others lose interest. Incumbents learn from the newcomers, and the advantages of the new class get blunted. Reminds me a lot of what we saw with political blogging in the early-to-mid 2000s, for instance: Some got hired by Big Media, others got bored, others provided the roadmap for older outlets to start their own political blogs. And then the cycle repeats when a new wave comes along.
The Establishment…will not give up ground easily. And mostly, newcomers are drawn to fashion, not because they are determined to change it, but because they are mesmerized by it. They want to be the next Anna Wintour — not make her existence obsolete. They love fashion. And fashion loves them back. Then swallows them whole.
Expect this much from the U.S. Supreme Court's McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling: New groups will emerge that allow big-time political donors to fund multiple candidate and party committees with a single check.
It's not yet clear how prevalent these new "jumbo-joint fundraising committees" will become — or if lawmakers or regulators will take any steps to curb their newly granted powers.
But the nation’s largest Republican groups have already formed a new collective fundraising venture to amass money from wealthy donors, as Politico first reported.
Known as the "Republican Victory Fund," the organization can solicit up to $97,200 per donor annually to benefit the National Republican Congressional Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Republican National Committee.
Prior to McCutcheon, a donor could give no more than $74,600 combined to party committees over a two-year election cycle.
(Update, April 22, 2014, 2:40 p.m.: A "jumbo-joint fundraising committee" has also been created to benefit the campaigns of 19 Republican U.S. Senate candidate. The "2014 Senators Classic Committee" can solicit up to $98,800 per donor — double the amount allowed before the Supreme Court struck down the aggregate contribution limits.)
Democratic Party groups might also create new jumbo-joint fundraising committees to boost their own coffers and their most vulnerable candidates, to say nothing of keeping pace with their GOP counterparts.
For months, campaign finance reform groups have warned of a scenario in which lawmakers ask for $3.5 million donations through jumbo-joint fundraising committees to support every single candidate and national party committee on their side of the partisan divide.
During McCutcheon’s oral argument, Justice Samuel Alito dismissed such examples as a "wild hypotheticals."
Nevertheless, Paul S. Ryan, an attorney at the Campaign Legal Center, is still concerned.
"Members of Congress will be soliciting big contributions from people with business before Congress," said Ryan.
Kirk Jowers, a campaign finance attorney at Caplin & Drysdale, told the Center for Public Integrity that the use of joint fundraising committees will "absolutely proliferate" after McCutcheon.
But, he added, "I don’t think it’s going to be the huge earthquake that some predict."
Prior to McCutcheon, a donor could not give the legal maximum to more than nine candidates before hitting one of the aggregate limits then set by federal law. Now, that restriction is gone, which illustrates why jumbo-joint fundraising committees could become attractive options.
Take the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee: This November, Senate Democrats will be defending 21 seats, and political observers currently rank more than a dozen as potentially competitive.
Or assume, for instance, that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wants to aid its most competitive candidates.
Currently, two dozen incumbents have been named by the DCCC to its "Frontline" program, which seeks to assist vulnerable incumbents. And there are another 35 candidates who are part of its "Red to Blue" program, which aims to boost competitive challengers.
If the DCCC created such a hypothetical jumbo-joint fundraising committee — or whatever you’d like to call such a group — it could accept contributions of roughly $340,000, even as each beneficiary receives no more than the "base" limit.
Likewise, the National Republican Congressional Committee could itself establish a similar effort.
There are currently 15 members of Congress who have been named to the NRCC's "Patriots" program, which aids embattled incumbents, and there are more than six-dozen candidates who have emerged as potential contenders for its "Young Guns" program, which aids challengers.
Such a hypothetical jumbo-joint fundraising committee could receive contributions of more than $400,000 per donor per year.
While plausible, Dan Backer — the conservative attorney who helped Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon bring the campaign finance lawsuit that now bears his name — predicts that the number of jumbo-joint fundraising committees will be nominal.
"The administrative burdens are not linear and getting up to a level where you can distribute $250,000 is probably going to be more hassle than it's worth," Backer said.
History shows that politicians have been increasingly embracing joint fundraising committees, and the most prolific ones, in terms of financial success, have been tied to presidential candidates.
During the 2012 election, both President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney operated joint fundraising groups that often asked each donor to give $75,800 — the aggregate limit at the time. This money was then split between each man’s campaign and various national and state-focused party groups.
If they chose to, lawmakers could rein in jumbo-joint fundraising committees — although Backer predicts such a move would be unlikely.
"Congress can just do away with joint fundraising committees, or apply an aggregate limit on joint fundraising committee checks," Backer continued. "But they won’t because it wouldn’t be in their best interest."
The Tow Center at the Columbia Journalism School is out with Act 1 of a new report that examines the ways TV news organizations and online media companies employ user-generated content. “Amateur Footage: A Global Study of User-Generated Content in TV News and Online” is a survey of over 1,000 hours of TV and more than 2,200 online pages from channels like Al Jazeera (Arabic and English), BBC World, CNN International, France 24, NHK World, and TeleSUR.
While the report finds that UGC is used daily, there’s no consistent method of labeling material from the audience or crediting those individuals. And the reasons why news channels air user-generated content — and how they discover it — vary widely.
User-generated content is used when other pictures are not available, as the ongoing reliance on it to cover the Syrian conflict demonstrates. The way that UGC was integrated during coverage of the Glasgow helicopter crash and the razing of Lenin’s statue in Kiev during the Ukrainian protests suggests that UGC is often employed as a stopgap before news agency pic- tures emerge—interestingly, even if the professional ones are less dramatic. This was demonstrated during the coverage of Nelson Mandela’s death. The news organizations had so much material stockpiled from planning for the event that there was no need to seek out UGC. This, even though there were compelling pictures filmed by people on the streets of South Africa documenting the way the country was reacting to Mandela’s death.
UGC also inspired stories that would otherwise have been ignored, as long as the pictures were compelling enough. Within our sample there were a handful of stories that were driven solely by the UGC that emerged. Some were kicker stories like one about a ship’s cook who was unexpect- edly found alive by a dive team sent to investigate a sunken ship. Others were shocking cases of police brutality captured through secret filming on camera phones.
Researchers found that the majority of content came from Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, but that many outlets also rely on agencies like Storyful, the Eurovision Newsexchange, or Reuters to supply user-generated material as well. You can read the rest of this part of the report here; the full report comes out May 30.
Reporters Without Borders is appalled by the shooting attack on leading journalist Hamid Mir, the host of Geo TV's political talk show “Capital Talk,” as he was driving to his office shortly after landing at Karachi airport on 19 April.
The local police said four individuals on motorcycles opened fire on Mir's car hitting him in the stomach and legs. He was rushed to a local hospital for an emergency operation and his life is reportedly no longer in danger. His assailants have not been arrested.
Mir had told Reporters Without Borders on 7 April that Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's leading intelligence agency, was “conspiring (...) to cause me harm.” After the shooting, his brother, Amir Mir, told Geo News: “Mir had previously told us that if he is attacked, the ISI, and its chief, Lt. Gen. Zaheerul Islam, will be responsible.”
“Although shocking, this attack unfortunately comes as no surprise,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk. “Hamid Mir has been the constant target of press freedom's enemies, starting with the Taliban and the intelligence agencies.
“We take note of the prime minister's decision to create a special commission of enquiry, but we point out that this is not an end in itself. The government must be ready to take concrete action on the basis of the commission of enquiry's findings.”
Mir has been the target of various threats for the past two years. His investigative reporting on the intelligence agencies has been extremely sensitive. A court in Quetta, in the southwestern province of Balochistan, issued a warrant for his arrest on 7 April following an article about enforced disappearances blamed on the ISI.
The case may have been the reason for attacks on Mir, who said he knew that someone could target him. There are parallels with Mir's appearance for a hearing in Quetta in September 2012, when he was the target of an attack and was saved by a police officer who was murdered shortly thereafter. According to Mir, a judge who refused to issue a warrant for his arrest was also murdered.
A bomb was found under his car (and defused before it could explode) in November 2012, shortly after he expressed strong criticism of the Taliban shooting attack on schoolgirl activist Malala Yousafzai.
Pakistan is ranked 158th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. With seven journalists murdered in 2013, it is also one of the world's deadliest countries for media personnel.
Greg Palast’s approach to investigative journalism can be summed up in one phrase: Stand up for the underdogs, and take on the fatcats. His hard-hitting reports on corporations like ExxonMobil, politicians like Bush, and shadowy institutions like vulture funds stem from an impulse to challenge those players with the power to bend the rules to their private advantage. That’s why functioning democracies need people like Palast.
Such a role faces two unique challenges though. Firstly, powerful institutions and individuals tend to hide behind walls of secrecy that extend over vast geographical space. Investigating a corporation, or a government spy programme, requires a lot of time, a lot of travel, and a lot of prying into hard-to-access information sources.
Secondly, it entails a lot of risk. People like Palast by necessity must make corporations, governments, and powerful individuals very angry, but those are also the parties that have the most ability to hire expensive legal teams to intimidate challengers. They also frequently own the media outlets, or have the most ability to buy the advertising space that media outlets rely on for income.
Therefore, not only is investigative journalism the most expensive style of journalism, but it is also the most likely to incur further liabilities once a story gets published. Providing finance to underdog investigative journalists – fronting them money to go off in search of stories – has always been a risky undertaking.
In an era when media groups are under increasing financial stress then, the position of the investigative journalist is under threat. Pressure to deliver advertising click-throughs, for example, drives online publications towards shallower stories with limited shelf-lives. I call this FMCJ, for ‘fast moving consumer journalism’. Like fast moving consumer goods, the aim is to create a high volume of low cost media product to be quickly consumed and discarded.
Rather than prioritising investigation and analysis, FMCJ journalism rewards content that draws short-term attention whilst inspiring minimal reflection. It thus has much in common with the field of marketing, with the same use of catchy taglines and graphics to churn social-media sharing. Most journalists don’t want to be marketers though. They want to do meaningful reporting that makes a lasting impact. To do this, they need new outlets for publishing, and new ways to finance themselves.
Alternative Model 1: Project-Based Crowdfunding
So where does Palast get his financing from? He draws at least part of it from the Palast Investigative Fund, a non-profit fund that individuals donate to in order to support his ongoing muckraking. In essence it’s a personal crowdfunding site, enabling him to remain independent.
Drawing on one’s readers for direct financial support has grown much easier in an age of digital communication, and established crowdfunding sites like Indiegogo have been used to this end already. For example, Peter Jukes recently raised £14 552 on Indiegogo to live tweet the UK Phone Hacking trial. Likewise, journalism startup Matter raised $140 201 on Kickstarter, allowing them to fund long-form pieces to be published on the Medium platform. Indiegogo and Kickstarter are generalist platforms for raising money, but even more interesting are those sites that offer niche services and support for journalism in particular.
Take, for example, Indie Voices, which aims to match up independent journalists in the developing world with readers – or ‘social investors’ – who wish to fund them. The Indie Voices team curates the process, only allowing media projects (including documentaries and articles) that seek to improve the media landscape in developing countries. Projects can then seek contributions in the form of donations, and, in the future, in the form of no-interest loans, low interest loans and equity investments (where funders buy ‘shares’ of ownership in a media project such as a film).
A second example is Inkshares. Unlike Indie Voices, which is explicitly political in nature, Inkshares is open to anything from science writing to children’s stories. Initially set up with the aim of creating an equity crowdfunding platform for books, Inkshares now also provides a donation-based crowdfunding platform for thoughtful long-form articles. And unlike normal publishing, the author retains the rights to the work that gets funded, which means they can also publish the material elsewhere.
Alternative Model 2: Subscription-Based Crowdfunding
The shortcoming of sites like Indie Voices though, is that they’re really geared towards once-off projects. What if you wish to run a year-long investigation of tax havens, during which time you plan to run a series of 12 articles? Do you try raise the whole lot in one go, or run 12 separate crowdfundings?
One startup with an interesting solution for this is Beacon Reader. Rather than funding a once-off project by a particular writer, Beacon Reader is a platform for writers to collect paid subscribers who will offer an ongoing stream of support. While a normal crowfunding project only succeeds if a minimum amount of money is raised, a Beacon Reader crowdfunding campaign succeeds if a certain amount of people (normally 25-100) pledge to pay you $5 a month on an ongoing basis, in exchange for ongoing access to your stories, but also access to all the other stories on the site.
Backing a particular writer on Beacon is thus a gateway into a broader subscription to the work of the whole Beacon writer collective. It feels loosely like a kind of writers co-operative, but a competitive one in which writers have to earn their place (and a share of the resultant income stream) by securing a certain number of new subscribers (and to continue building more subscribers over time). Writers get 70% of their subscribers’ cash, and the surplus goes into a collective bonus pot to reward those whose stories receive the most recommendations, thereby incentivising consistent high quality writing.
Crucially though, the writer still owns the rights to the pieces produced, and they can published elsewhere or sold on to media outlets to further monetise their work. This might be a great option for a writer looking to work through a big issue in small chunks, and who needs stable baseline support to cover their basic costs whilst waiting to get the pieces accepted by bigger publications.
A second attempt at a subscription model is Uncoverage, which is being set up by Israel Mirsky. Mirsky, recognising both the increasing marginalisation of investigative journalism, and professional journalists’ need for ongoing financing (‘serial funding’), is explicitly targeting the site at professional investigative journalists. Like Beacon, the goal is to establish a subscriber base for individual journalists, but unlike Beacon the ambition is also to create an ‘open, lean newsroom’ that provides a suite of key services like fact-checking, editing, legal support and technology solutions.
Alternative Model 3: The ‘Credit Union’ Approach
In the examples discussed above, the ‘crowd’ is mostly conceived of as readers who wish to financially support the quality journalism they enjoy. What if the crowd was given a closer role in the actual article production process though? That’s what Contributoria attempts to add in. When one becomes a member, you get the right to pitch articles to be funded, but also to financially support other’s articles, and to offer editorial advice to those who you’ve backed.
It thus has the feeling of a true writers’ co-operative, or perhaps a credit union for journalism in which members support each other. This very article, for example, was originally pitched on Contributoria, but in joining I got to vote for other articles I want to see, including Joel Benjamin’s guide to Freedom of Information requests, and Dom Aversano’s exploration of city soundscapes. This also gave me the right to provide input into those articles. As a user of the platform I am thus a hybrid between a receiver of funding, and giver of funding, a receiver of editorial services and giver of editorial services.
Right now though, Contributoria is in beta phase, and is free to join, which means it still hasn’t started asking members to pay dues. It will be fascinating to see how the process is managed going forward. Could it become a vibrant self-sustaining community of writers, readers and editors, or will members’ dues need to be supplemented with money from external sponsors? Another key question is how to incentivise members to devote time to checking each other’s articles. Could editors and writers team up to be funded together?
Democratic Commons in Commercial Context
The diverse crowfunding platforms discussed above have a number of common themes. Firstly, they set themselves against both corporate-backed media (in developed countries) and state-backed media (in developing countries) by offering a technological means to decentralise funding, and thereby to ‘democratise journalism’.
Their claim to democratisation rests on the assertion that they both maintain independence of journalists, but also give voice to journalists that might otherwise be ignored. This message is complemented by the claim that this can be a sustainable way of financing high quality journalism (after all, a platform might be democratic, but that’s no guarantee of quality or long-term viability).
Secondly, the platforms are converging on a model of prepayment by some, for the common benefit of all. In contrast to the buyer of a magazine, who purchases content once it is produced (and thereby pays back the original financiers and publisher), the crowdfunding backer in essence prepays for material that will be developed in the future, and thereby brings production of the material into being.
That said, although the core body of funders bring an article to life, they frequently do not have exclusive access to the material, but rather subsidise the broader public who will get access to the stories too (via, for example, the articles being published elsewhere on a Creative Commons license). In essence, private individuals are holding the commons open for others to use, in much the same way as Wikipedia gets supported by donations from a small percentage of its users.
Interesting, and potentially conflicting, commercial dynamics emerge from this. We could argue that what the crowd is actually doing is shielding a writer from normal media commissioning processes – whether those are corporate or state led – maintaining the independence of the journalist to the point where an article is ready to be released into the public. In the cases where the journalist retains the rights to the article though, and the resultant piece is then sold on, we could also argue that the crowd is subsidising media companies who would otherwise have to take on the risk of commissioning work.
If this was to become widespread practice, we could begin to see a separation of journalism production from distribution. Platforms like Uncoverage might begin to serve a role analogous to a literary agent, providing a platform to develop quality journalism which is then cherrypicked by publishing outlets. We could conceivably even see the emergence of journalism ‘offtake agreements’, media companies offering advance guarantees to publish content if it gets initially funded by the crowd.
The Reader as Creative Producer
But what kind of reader is prepared to fund articles which may then be used by the broader public or potentially even commercial media outlets? Perhaps it is a new sort of reader, seeking a more active, creative role.
The irony of our information-saturated era is that in the face of overwhelming amounts of content, people feel a sense of ‘opportunity cost’ to engaging with it, the perception that committing to reading anything must entail not reading something else which is also available. Thus, many people find themselves skimming a lot shallowly but reading very little deeply. It’s questionable whether a person browsing websites every day absorbs any more information than a person in 1897 with a single weekly newspaper.
The real question then, is how to create a society with wide access to diverse media, but one in which people actually engage with such media meaningfully. One might imagine, as a thought experiment, a giant benevolent foundation that funds all manner of amazing content, only to dump it into people’s already saturated Facebook newfeeds. True democratisation is not just about what content gets created. It’s about how people use and act on that content. Is an article about corporate fraud just another dramatic item in a stream of flickering entertainment passing by you each day, or is it actually something that might make you get out onto the streets to protest?
Creating a decentralised crowdfunding infrastructure perhaps offers one means of combining the creation of diverse content with a new means of connecting with it. People who have prepayed for content in the knowledge that they are helping to bring forth unique critical voices, are also people who wish to move past being mere passive consumers of media. Instead, they are hybrid producer-consumers with an interest in critically engaging with the content they helped bring to life. And perhaps it is in the development of this new type of participatory reader that the true democratic potential of crowdfunding lies.
Brett Scott is the author of The Heretic's Guide to Global Finance: Hacking the Future of Money. This article was originally published on the community-funded journalism platform Contributoria.com as Crowdfunding Critical Thought, included in the April 2014 Press Freedom issue, sponsored by the International Press Institute (IPI).
The facts of the present won’t sit still for a portrait. They are constantly vibrating, full of clutter and confusion.
Every 45 years, roughly half of the medical knowledge about cirrhosis and hepatitis is disproven or becomes out of date.
“This is about twice the half-life of the actual radioisotope samarium-151,” writes Samuel Arbesman in his book, “The Half-Life of Facts.”
Arbesman’s book argues that we can measure the obsolescence of knowledge and facts the same way we measure radioactive decay. “It turns out knowledge is a lot like radioactive atoms because it decays over time,” he wrote in a Harvard Business Review article adapted from the book. “And when we’re dealing with large amount of facts and information, we can actually predict how long it will take for it to spread or decay by applying the laws of mathematics.”
Researchers came up with the 45-year calculation for cirrhosis and hepatitis after studying medical journal articles and determining the rate at which findings faded away over time.
We don’t have the same calculations for news articles, but the recent launch of Vox.com provided an interesting bit of data.The half-life of cardstacks
In their launch post, the site’s cofounders described Vox as an effort to “build the vast repository of information that will make it possible for us to explain the news in real time.”
They want to provide a comprehensive place to read the latest news while also enabling people to understand the context thanks to explainers (formatted as card stacks) offering the necessary background. It’s real-time news plus rapidly updated topic pages.
It’s also a huge challenge, due to the rapid decay of facts related to news stories and current events.
To attain its goal, Vox has to create and maintain in close to real time stacks of cards about an ever-evolving and increasing set of topics related to public policy, politics, world events, and myriad other areas. Adding to the challenge is the reality that facts about these topics will change at any given moment due to a news event, or something more obscure, such as a government report or academic research paper.
For example, soon after Vox’s launch, a card about the crisis in Ukraine needed to be updated to reflect new facts. Since then, another card in that stack was updated “to reflect a UN draft report on election abuses in Crimea’s referendum vote.” In all, there have been five Ukraine cards updated and one added in about two weeks. A card stack about income inequality has been updated three times. (Not all those updates were a result of new facts coming to light, but they nevertheless required someone to make changes.)
The gender wage gap card stack hasn’t yet had any changes, but its final card is entitled “What else should I be reading about the wage gap?” That reading list will need to stay current in order to offer value. (There’s also a joke to be made about the number of updates that a card stack about Congressional dysfunction will warrant — but I’ll just note that so far it’s been updated once.)
As a point of comparison, I asked David Cohn, chief content officer of mobile news app Circa, how many times they’ve made new updates to their ever-evolving story about the missing Malaysian Airlines plane. Cohn said they’ve officially made more than 20 updates since the flight went missing on March 8. He added that the number of changes to the story would be even higher if you counted each tweak and addition.
The faster a card stack is overcome by new facts, the more frequently the Vox team will need to make updates. The more card stacks they create, the more complicated it will be to keep all of them current.
“We want them very basic,” Klein told New York magazine when asked about the kind of topics they will tackle in card stacks. That means a lot of card stacks — and a lot of facts and knowledge to manage. As of this writing, there are 17 card stacks displayed on the Vox’s “cards” page, though that’s not the full count of what they’ve produced. Vox could easily get to 50 card stacks by the end of the month. And on and on and on…
This is what it means to aspire to a “vast repository of information.” It makes the 45-year half-life for cirrhosis research seem downright glacial. It’s not hard to imagine a card stack having a half-life of 45 hours due to new developments. Others may be current for weeks or even months. Then, suddenly, they’ll need to be updated. Someone at Vox is going to need to know which card stacks to update when, and to deploy the right person(s) it quickly. Otherwise, they’ll have out-of-date explainers. No one wants a vast repository of old information.A managing editor for facts?
This knowledge management challenge is arguably new to news writing. But it’s familiar territory to librarians — a particular species whose ranks have been thinned out in newsrooms.
“[I]n the 1970s librarians everywhere were coping with the very real implications of the exponential growth of knowledge: Their libraries were being inundated,” writes Arbesman in his book. He continues:
They needed ways to figure out which volumes they could safely discard. If they knew the half-life of a book or article’s time of obsolescence, it would go a long way to providing a means to avoid overloading a library’s capacity. Knowing the half-lives of a library’s volumes would give a librarian a handle on how long books should be kept before they are just taking up space on the shelves, without being useful.
In the context of Vox, it’s less about space constraints and knowing what to discard; it’s about the challenge of unlimited topics and the rapid obsolescence of facts related to those topics.
This presents an intriguing challenge: How can Vox keep all of its card stacks as up to date as possible with the least amount of time and effort? What triggers will they use to know which ones to update? Can they begin to predict the update patterns of card stacks in specific topic areas, much like the researchers did with cirrhosis?
I asked Vox cofounder Melissa Bell about the challenge of keeping an ever-growing number of card stacks factually up to date. But this very challenge is one of the things keeping her too busy to talk right now.
“Thank you so much for your interest in my site, and that’s a great question, but the truth is: I am drowning right now,” she wrote back. “I just don’t have a spare second right now. (I need to get to work on making sure we’re meeting that challenge!)”
So, allow me to offer a couple of suggestions without the benefit of insider knowledge. (Which means my facts may soon be obsolete!)
One option for Vox over time is to recruit and reward a Wikipedia-like retinue of volunteer editors who can demonstrate the relevant knowledge to own specific card stacks. To hear Klein talk, Wikipedia is in his sights. “I think it’s weird that the news cedes so much ground to Wikipedia,” he said in the interview with New York magazine.
At Wikipedia, there are an average of 96 edits per minute to articles on the English site. In 2012, it had over 75,000 editors who made at least five contributions to the site in the span of a month.
It’s not hard to understand why news currently cedes the explainer market to Wikipedia. Explaining requires scale and speed to keep pace with the half-life of facts.
The celebrated product folks at Vox Media have an opportunity (or perhaps an imperative) to create a system that helps deploy the right human resources to the right card stacks when needed, and to enable people to ignore the ones that can be left alone. Otherwise, it will be incredibly difficult to scale their explanatory efforts.
Maybe that means a scheduling function for card stacks whereby the owner(s) is reminded that they haven’t updated in x days or weeks. Maybe it means notifications tied to Google Alerts or other sources as a way to nudge a certain card stack to the top of the pile, based on fact-based activity.
One thing I hope happens is that they collect data about card changes — in order to get a sense of the half-life of card stacks and the facts therein. This would guide their efforts, but my admittedly selfish desire is to have better data about the half-life of facts related to newsworthy topics. How will marijuana legalization compare to income inequality? What about the Pope versus bitcoin? Global warming versus fracking?
A final suggestion with no self-interest is that co-founders Melissa Bell, Ezra Klein, and Matthew Yglesias go looking for a research librarian/editor to become their managing editor for facts. After all, who better than a librarian to manage an ever-growing card catalogue?
Just when we learned what “Citizens United” and “super PACs” were all about, the U.S. Supreme Court has again roiled the world of campaign finance, voting 5-4 to allow even more money into a political process that is pretty well saturated with it.
So what does it all mean? We at the Center for Public Integrity shall try to provide some answers.
What did the Supreme Court do?
In essence, the court said that the government cannot prevent citizens from giving campaign contributions to as many different candidates and political parties as they want. Previously, they were capped under the “aggregate limit” rule.
What were the limits?
Prior to the case, known as McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, individuals were prohibited from giving more than $48,600 combined to all federal candidates. They were also prohibited from giving more than $74,600 combined to all parties and political action committees. Altogether that added up to $123,200. These aggregate limits are now gone.
Does that mean donors can give a candidate as much as they want?
No. Because the Supreme Court upheld the existing “base” contribution limits, McCutcheon does not mean that billionaires are free to give as much money as they want to any particular candidate.
The maximum amount one donor can give each candidate is still $2,600 per election, or $5,200 counting the primary and general election. The maximum contribution to a national party committee is still $32,400, and the maximum PAC contribution is still $5,000.
Why do aggregate contribution limits exist in the first place?
Congress created the aggregate limit rule to prevent donors from circumventing the base limits by contributing to several groups, which would in turn give that money to a single candidate.
But the rules have changed since the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, when aggregate limits were introduced. Now, if one donor used a network of affiliated PACs to fund a single federal candidate, he or she would be breaking the law.
So what does McCutcheon mean for candidates?
Candidates can now more easily band together and raise big money from the same individuals through legal entities called “joint fundraising committees.” These committees let contributors write a single large check to an umbrella group, which, in turn, splits the money up among several beneficiaries.
How much money are we talking about?
The short answer is we don’t know. During the 2012 election, both President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney operated joint fundraising groups that often asked each donor to give $75,800 — one of the aggregate limits at the time. This money was then split between each man’s campaign and various party groups. Now, the sky’s the limit, but it remains to be seen how it’ll play out in practice.
What does McCutcheon mean for the political parties?
McCutcheon means more money for the national party committees. Want to give the legal maximum of $32,400 apiece to the national party committees of your choice? Now you can. In fact, the Republican National Committee, National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee have already formed a super-sized joint fundraising committee that is legally allowed to receive $97,200 per donor per year.
Will McCutcheon affect state laws too?
McCutcheon’s ripple effect could soon be coming to a state near you, and with it, more money from wealthy donors. At least eight states — and possibly as many as 20 — could see laws overturned, depending on how regulators, government officials and judges interpret the McCutcheon ruling.
How is the McCutcheon case different than Citizens United?
The Citizens United decision in 2010 didn’t affect contribution limits to candidates or parties. It affected spending. There’s a difference. Citizens United, along with a lower court ruling, allowed for unlimited donations from corporations, unions and individuals to go to super PACs and nonprofits, which, in turn, could spend the money on ads blasting or praising candidates. That’s not considered a corrupting influence because these groups are banned from coordinating their spending with candidates.
Why are some people so concerned about McCutcheon?
Campaign finance reform advocates are concerned about a sort of systemic corruption that may arise through the formation of jumbo joint fundraising committees. The leader — possibly a ranking party member — might become a sort of power broker, and the person who wrote the check would no doubt be remembered fondly as the Congress goes about its business.
SOUTHFIELD, Mich. — Carl Icahn is not pleased. On this Monday morning in early March the activist investor is taking to CNBC to respond to eBay after it rejected his bid to remove some members of its board.
This is a big news event for Benzinga, a network of financial news and information sites, and a handful of staffers have crowded around the news desk to watch the interview unfold.
“Good answer, good answer,” Benzinga CEO and founder Jason Raznick says to nobody in particular as Icahn avoids a leading question from the anchor.
Raznick started the company in his basement in 2010, and it’s grown to include three separate platforms: Benzinga, a free site featuring news-you-can-use investment tips, both aggregated and original content; Benzinga Pro, a subscription service that has a constantly updated feed of financial news; and Marketfy, an online marketplace where investors can solicit products and trading advice from experts called “mavens.”
Within the first two minutes Icahn is on the air, a Benzinga Pro analyst, who sits before a bank of eight computer monitors, sends out four alerts to subscribers. That afternoon, a news story covering Icahn’s comments was posted to Benzinga.com.
“Anytime they do an interview [with Icahn] there could be something big,” says Jake L’Ecuyer, who oversees Benzinga Pro.
But unlike other media organizations covering the Icahn-eBay brouhaha and finance in general, Benzinga is not headquartered in a skyscraper high above Wall Street or Midtown Manhattan. Instead, Benzinga is run out of a squat one-story building in an office park just north of Detroit. It also maintains a small space in Chicago and a one-person office in Delaware.
Raznick initially bootstrapped the company, later securing investments including a $1.5 million investment in 2011 from Lightbank, the venture fund started by the founders of Groupon.
The company breaks even — or is slightly cash-flow positive — on a month-to-month basis, Raznick said. Benzinga is in the process of securing additional investors though Raznick said he could not disclose who he was meeting with since negotiations are ongoing.
But attracting additional investment has not been a top priority for Benzinga since the company is able to support itself in its current iteration, said COO Fernando Prieto, who joined last November with a mandate to “put metrics and data in the company.”
“If you ask a venture capital fund, they would probably not want you to focus on profit and just to focus on growth, but I think there’s a conflict of interest there because they have 20 companies in their portfolio,” Prieto said. “If you go bust, another company may make up for you if they get extra return on their investment. But for us, having the option to raise more money or just keep doing what we’re doing — you know, sign a few more deals and licensing deals, and then hire more people as soon as we can actually afford them — that gives us options.”
Benzinga has about 40 employees, in addition to a network of contributors, and it’s looking to grow. Still, the company prides itself on its startup mentality. “You can eat what you kill here,” Raznick told me.
And despite its drab exterior, even Benzinga’s spacious open-plan office and work culture look and feel like a stereotypical startup with brightly painted blue and orange walls and gaudy orange couches as well as ping pong, air hockey, and foosball tables. Recently, when I called the number listed on the Benzinga Pro website to inquire about a subscription, Raznick was the one to answer the phone.
A native of metro Detroit, Raznick says he’s committed to the area, and the company is now looking at moving into Detroit itself or to Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan, which is about 40 miles west of Detroit.
“We could be in Chicago or New York and recruiting would be a little easier, doing interviews would be easier, but we really want to impact the outcome here,” Raznick said.
In addition to looking to hire a number additional developers to continue to build out its products, Benzinga is also looking to expand its editorial staff by hiring up to 10 people this year, including an executive editor, Raznick said. (As a metro Detroit native myself, he even asked me several times if I knew anyone who may be interested in working for Benzinga.)
Benzinga gets about 1 million unique visitors per month to its free site, Raznick said, but the company also has licensing deals for its content with CNN Money, Yahoo Finance, MSN Money, and others. With all its partnerships, he says Benzinga content is seen by about 10 million users monthly.
The content partnerships all link back to Benzinga’s site — Prieto said he expects Benzinga’s traffic to continue to grow as the company plans to ink more partnership deals.
“That gives us the ability to take that traffic, monetize it with advertising revenue or create free leads for Benzinga Pro or our Marketfy products,” Prieto said, noting that they will use the products to promote one another. For instance, many of the Marketfy Mavens write columns on Benzinga.com that are available for free.
The site was initially focused on covering only smaller companies with market caps of $300 million to $2 billion or so. But Benzinga has expanded its coverage to include investment tips and more as the sites it partnered with wanted additional content.
“We’re trying to bring that knowledge to the average investor,” Raznick said. “It’s not easy because people only have so much time in the day. So are people going to go read the Wall Street Journal and then come read Benzinga? How do we impact the people on the first 20 seconds of reading our articles or reading our data? That’s what we have to think about.”
The company also licenses use of its Benzinga Pro newswire, which it launched in 2011, to about 10 different brokerages including TD Ameritrade, Trade Station, and Lightspeed. Individuals can purchase a subscription to Benzinga Pro starting at $39 per month. That’s a fraction of the $2,000 monthly price for a Bloomberg Terminal. But the company says it’s not aiming to compete with financial data heavyweights like Bloomberg or Thomson Reuters. Raznick declined to offer concrete subscription data on Benzinga Pro, but said the number of subscriptions is “in the thousands.”
On an average day, about 2,000 updates are sent across Benzinga Pro’s wire, but during earnings season that total can reach up to 10,000, said L’Ecuyer. Benzinga Pro includes some original reporting, but also focuses on press releases and alerts on events like earning reports and interviews like the one Icahn gave with CNBC.
“You can get any of this information pretty much for free online if you dig enough, but the amount of time it would take you to build a Google News aggregator with alerts and all that and then a really well curated Twitter account and really solid set of chats, you’re talking a couple years to do that because you have to vet everything,” L’Ecuyer said. “It’s a lot of wasted time, but we’ve already done that and put it in this feed.”
Benzinga Pro focuses on U.S. equities, and Prieto admits the company hasn’t spent much time or resources doing additional development or marketing of Benzinga Pro, noting that “it’s a good product, but it’s kind of limited in terms of technology [and] needs to be improved dramatically.”
“We need to pick our battles, and we are choosing to spend a lot of time on Marketfy,” he said.
Marketfy, meanwhile, launched in early 2013. Each Maven contracts with Benzinga to sell their product or service on the marketplace. The professional investors and their products are all approved by Benzinga in an attempt to give consumers confidence about the products.
When it started there were about 45 mavens and 100 different products on Marketfy. Only recently has Marketfly began to add to the product, because Benzinga wanted to slowly develop without overloading it, Prieto said.
“They take care of all the technology and administrative garbage,” said Tim Melvin, a Marketfy Maven who focuses on value investing and offers several products on the platform. “I just do good research and focus good stocks”
The Knight Foundation is lending a helping hand to new tools and technology that could be useful to journalist. The latest round of the Knight Prototype Fund includes 17 projects that will each receive $35,000 to push ideas one step closer to a formal launch.
Some of the prototype fund awardees may be familiar to journalists, including Tabula, an open source tool created by Mozilla OpenNews fellows that pulls data from PDFs. Others — like Project Fission, a newsroom tool for collecting information, or Capitol Hound, which would develop a searchable database of transcripts from the North Carolina legislature — have plenty of potential value for reporters.
Each of the projects will go through a six-month training and prototyping program where they will learn about human-centered design in advance of a demo day. Below are the journalism-inclined projects. For the full list of winners go here.
Capitol Hound: Offering the public a searchable database of the transcripts of North Carolina legislative sessions, including an audio archive and alert system for General Assembly sessions and committee meetings.
Louder: Testing the use of a crowdfunded advertising platform that allows users to donate small amounts to spread news and information that is important to them.
Minezy: Creating a tool to help journalists more easily find information in email archives received through Freedom of Information Act requests by analyzing data and highlighting important social relationships, dates and topics.
MLRun: Helping journalists create deeper stories through a user-friendly Web platform that helps analyze large data sets by discovering patterns in documents.
News On Demand: Increasing the “quality time” people spend with news by building a system that provides news based on a reader’s available time and attention level.
Open Data Philly: Improving government transparency and citizen engagement by expanding OpenDataPhilly.org, which provides access to data related to the Philadelphia region.
PressSecure: Preserving privacy and freedom of expression by developing a secure media sharing and storage app for citizen journalists that will give them more control over their mobile content.
Project Fission: Creating a newsroom tool that allows journalists to collect and explore small units of information that can be pulled together to create new story formats.
Tabula: Improving an open-source tool that makes it easier for journalists to extract data from PDF documents.
Tipsy: Making it easier for content providers to generate revenue by developing a new way to fund news sites through micropayments from readers.
Uncovering Cost, Examining Impact: Developing a crowdsourcing tool to collect data from California residents about what they pay for common health care procedures and making the information available to journalists and the public through KQED, Southern California Public Radio and ClearHealthCosts.com.
Whilecard: Creating a tool that recognizes user preferences for news and information based on their activities (i.e. world and sports in the morning, and stocks and tech when working).
Wiredcraft: Creating an open source tool that allows people to collaboratively edit and publish geographic data and related maps quickly and efficiently.