Archive for the ‘Reporting In Public’ Category

Reporting in Public 3 – Leaping From Lily Pad to Lily Pad

August 11th, 2011 No Comments

I’ve done it! With the help of 125 supporters, I’ve raised $7000 to finance this story through the online non-profit Spot.Us, a site that helps journalists fund their projects. I also received two big grants to fund another story related to that one: $10,000 from the Nation Institute Fund for Investigative Journalism and a separate $10,000 grant from the Polk Grant for Investigative Journalism.

I feel great about having my work supported by the community and by such prestigious institutions. And I’m very grateful to all my supporters, those who contributed as much as $1000 to my fund (thank you Phil Rosenthal!) or as little as a few dollars.

How to stay alive as an independent investigative journalist

The whole process took four months, two months less than originally planned. Now that I’ve succeeded, I want to consider the benefits and troubles and necessity of this method of crowd financed journalism.

Long form investigative journalism is vulnerable in the shaky world of publishing. Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor at the University of Virginia and the author of The Google-ization of Everything, remarked recently now that, through digital technology, we know how much time people spend on a page, it’s obvious what a small percentage of the public reads long form investigative journalism. One could consider this kind of writing a luxury good, he said, something that appeals to only a few people and costs a fair amount of money to create.

The distinction is that, in contrast to a Hermes scarf, long form journalism has a social purpose. A well-written, meticulously reported story can open eyes, change minds, and perhaps, change public policy. So, in that way, I can’t see it as a luxury, even though many magazines that are trying to hold on in a tough market obviously see it that way. They can’t see the economic justification for paying for it if it doesn’t sell magazines. Hence the need to fundraise.

When I started this process, I was cocky. I had the exhilaration of someone who was breaking free from the old rules and avoiding the gatekeepers and authority figures. Very quickly though, that changed.

Asking for money is humiliating, even if you believe strongly in the thing you’re hawking, as I did. One suddenly looks at one’s friends in a different way, along the Y axis of how much money they have and the X axis of how generous they are likely to be. This is not a kind way to assess friendships. The attitude I had about this, stated to myself and to others, was that I was grateful for any contribution. Yet I was of course assuming that some of my more prosperous friends would be very generous to me and the less flush one would at least give me something based on our long association.

My first salvo was a heartfelt email personally addressed to people who were close to me. That approach yielded quick results and some surprises in the ways people turned me down.

Many of my friends are just holding on as unemployment continues high, although you wouldn’t know it from the brave faces they display in their Facebook postings. A few people wrote back that they hadn’t worked in months or were about to lose their jobs and therefore couldn’t help me out. I felt really bad that my request just reminded them of how little money they had. As one friend wrote, “your continued appeals are humiliating at best. Take me off the begging list.” The begging list? I felt as though I had been slapped! Yet I also understood how that answer reflected my friend’s frustration with his situation rather than his opinion of my project.

Another friend explained that she couldn’t donate because her husband hadn’t worked in a year and it was extremely tough for them to survive in an expensive city as a one-income family. I felt terrible that I’d even asked her in that I knew her situation. This feeling persisted for a few days until she announced on Facebook that she and her husband were flying across the country to keep her birthday dinner reservation at Chez Panisse.

This definitely is the downside of raising money from your friends. I didn’t expect to be ignored by some of my close friends, nor did I expect to get involved in their personal finances in this way. Objectively I realize that people get to spend their money any way they choose and if they don’t want to spend it on me, so be it. Emotionally, I felt differently and it was a feeling I didn’t really want to experience.

The man who founded and runs  Spot.Us, David Cohn, said that I’d have to ask people seven times before I could consider them to have truly rejected me. Not only was it a bit embarrassing to be writing my friends asking them to support me, I had to keep asking them. I had to become a pest.

In the end, more than half of the small contributions I received came from strangers, which was very gratifying to me. Now that it’s done, I see that it can work, but I also know that it’s not really something one can do very often.
I can be grateful for broad support from the community, but in reality the substantial contributions came from close friends. I can’t ask my friends for money for something like this more than one every few years or it would strain our friendship. The contributions of strangers were mainly between $5 and $10. I suppose if I was willing or able to wait for a year or more to raise that money, I could have done it through accumulating many small contributions.

That means, however, that I’d have to figure out a way to support myself for a full year waiting for this $7000 to write this story. In the end, that’s not a way to sustain my life as an investigative reporter.

As pleased as I am to have succeeded in this experiment, it does reveal how shaky the world of investigative reporting has become. I thought of it more visually, as leaping from lily pad to lily pad, staying quick and nimble in order to keep doing the kind of work I love to do. I suppose all of us are doing that in one form or another in this economy.

Reporting In Public, 2

April 17th, 2011 1 Comment

Most people hate to hear their voices on a recording.  The voice they hear on the audio sounds very different from the voice that they hear when they speak.

For journalists, this can be excruciating.  Journalists have been trained to think that we are not the story, just the  servant of it.  Yet an interview is a conversation and often the give-and-take of that  exchange slips out of the bounds of professionalism and into the easy tone of two people exploring a topic.  Establishing a climate of trust is important, as are gentle remarks along the way that make your subject knows that he or she is being heard.

Often when  I hear my voice on a recording, I’ve cringed at my inelegant phrasing of a question, or the obsequious way I sometimes encourage the person I’m speaking with to go further.   I think I’ve never been more discomforted by my presence on a  recording than I was in my interview with the two young women I spoke with for, “I Rode Suicide.”

In my reporting on the Gutter Punks story, I’m nowhere near being a neutral observer.  I was nearly undone by my daughter choosing to hop trains, and having a chance to ask her friends the questions I didn’t ask my daughter at the time brought out fierce maternal feelings.  When I was editing this interview down from and hour and a half to the three clips that total fourteen minutes, there were moments where I actually said to the young women, “speaking as a mother” in that same high moral tone of all mothers who are about to deliver the “young lady, this is a serious matter” lesson.  I cut those.

Yet these young women are not my daughters.  Simultaneous with the fear I felt at the danger they were putting themselves in, and my shock at their casual law breaking, I could hear in my voice a little bit of admiration for their outlaw life: bombing down the road in a stolen car that they’d disguised with graffiti, raising their fists at the sky, getting away with it.  I was drawn to that feeling, the “fuck it, I’m outta here” that so many of us dream about, but so few do.  As I listened to the recording, I heard myself drawn in at one moment and horrified in the next.

There’s are also several passages in the tape that I considered cutting, but left in.  These are places where, if it was my daughter telling me the story, I might have started to disapprove. Yet in the recording, I’m laughing. And there is a passage where I describe one of the many, many fears I had when Marissa was riding the rails, trying to provoke an answer to the question, “What if you stay out so long in this life, you can never come back?”

When I heard that passage, my professional self immediately hovered over the delete button. What will my colleagues think of me being so personal, so candid about how I feel, in my questions?  This is not something I would ask, or at least not something I would ask in that tone, if this was a different story, a story where I was detached.

In the end, I left it in. This is a story where I cannot proclaim I am objective. The passionate feelings in these questions are the passion of a mother who loves her daughter and cares about her daughter’s friends.  That’s a feeling that I cannot hide and won’t  disguise.

This is another facet of reporting in public, then: revealing the bias and being clear about the point of view. Let the chips fall where they will.


March 22nd, 2011 No Comments


Magazines are broke, and so am I.

That’s not completely true. I’ve got a few dollars in the bank, but it appears most magazines do not.

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been trying to sell a story that is very important to me about the GutterPunks in New Orleans, and a  tragic fire that killed eight of them in a squat at the end of last year. The story is much bigger than that, as you will see if you read my previous post: Why Can’t I Sell This Story? These days anyone who is a magazine journalist finds it harder and harder to sell stories, and gets extremely low fees for the work. As a result, fewer good narrative pieces are being published, and many fear this form will die off.

I’m trying something new as of today, a new way of paying journalists to do their jobs, that might help ensure long form, investigative journalism survives. I am trying to fund my story through SpotUs, and I’d like you to make a tax deductible donation to this effort.

What if people financially supported the stories they wanted to read in advance, rather than waiting to see if the editors caught on to subjects that matter to them? That’s the idea behind the website Spot.Us, a venture funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a foundation dedicated to advancing journalism in the digital age. Spot.Us is a space where journalists describe the story they are working on and ask the community to help them fund it.

If you go to the Spot.Us website, you’ll see a collection of different kinds of stories: the homeless, nuclear power, school safety, wine making,  the labor protests in Wisconsin and my GutterPunks story in the center of the front page. People who want to fund a story click on the description of it  to register and pledge their contributions, which are tax deductible. When the project is fully funded, the supporters’ credit or debit cards are charged and the journalist gets the money.

It’s a way of doing journalism that turns the old model of reporting up-side-down.  As I raise money for the GutterPunks story, I’m also experimenting with something I call reporting in public.

In the pellet-dropping publishing paradigm, the reporter gets the assignment and works busily behind the curtain under direction of the editors, who get the privilege of unveiling the completed product for the profit of the magazine and its greater glory. In reporting in public, the audience of supporters I develop through Spot.Us and the people who follow my website will be witnesses to the whole process and help shape the story.

$7,000 is the goal

Instead of hiding behind the veil, I will post little pieces on my website as I work. The idea is to pay back my investors by giving them inside information on what I am uncovering along the way. If I meet someone interesting, I might post a small profile. When I go to New Orleans to investigate the fire, I expect I’ll post something about my talk with the cops and the coroner. I did a little bit of this  last week when I posted a comparison between economic conditions that caused kids to hop trains in the Depression and the ones who hop trains now (very similar). At the end of my reporting, my piece will by published by Boston Review, which has contributed the first $500 to my campaign.

This is an experiment in the kinds of connections and community that is possible on the web, the kind of association that ties us together in a spirit of curiosity, inquiry and innovation.I’m making a plea to you to support my story and this innovative way of doing journalism. My goal is to raise $7000 to cover my travel and time, which the founder and director of the site David Cohn says is difficult to do.  Any amount of support is greatly appreciated, from pocket change to the big bucks. Please go to Spot.Us right now and toss in a some wholly tax deductible cash that will make you  part of the community that pioneers a new kind of journalism in the digital age.