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Pay-What-You-Want Media, Or The Anti-Freeconomics?

ReelPolitik By Anthony Kaufman | ReelPolitik July 21, 2009 at 6:27AM

Pay-What-You-Want Media, Or The Anti-Freeconomics?
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As old media collapses and new media tries to find its footing, the models for survival appear to be myriad and unproven. After my own recent missive about the struggles of surviving during this paradigm-shifting moment, Scott Macaulay published a very forward-thinking post on the Filmmaker Magazine blog about what the future of journalism and media consumption might look like. Macaulay's thoughts prompted some further discussion around the web, and between friends, which finally landed me here: Spot.Us.

The idea behind the nonprofit Spot.Us, which was covered in the New York Times last fall, is "community-funded reporting," where writers post pitches, a dollar amount needed to pursue the story, and readers interested in seeing those stories donate the cast upfront. For example, if freelance journalist Lindsay Hoshaw can raise $6,000, she will proceed to spend three weeks aboard a boat investigating the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch."

While Spot.Us appears specifically catered to local investigative writing, I have to wonder whether the model could apply to arts and cultural journalism, which arguably needs just as much help these days as hard-nose muckraking. The idea has also been applied to filmmaking: The Times story mentioned a company called Brave New Worlds, which apparently is financing its movies by soliciting people over the Internet to pay for them before they are made (though I can't find any further info about the entity).

One thing I find particularly interesting about this path is that goes against the new "free" paradigm, as theorized by Wired's Chris Anderson. If most people don't want to pay for anything anymore, will they put up some money for something that is extremely specific to their needs? Mike D'Angelo proved it was possible: Recently let go from a regular gig at Esquire, he managed to go to Cannes this year by posting a plea on the web for contributions (receiving $2,120 through fundable.com in a single week; that's $120 more than he asked for).

Not every writer might feel great about this new model (is this somehow akin to journalistic prostitution?). But it still sounds seductive. If a writer with a following or a great story -- in any field, arts, culture, or health and sports, for that matter -- wanted to pursue a story that enough people wanted, they might, in fact, be able to do it without the approval from an editor or publication. I, for one, have some ideas...