May 20, 2013 · 4 minutes

Gawker is about $80,000 into a cheeky scheme to raise a couple hundred grand to pay some drug dealers for a video that allegedly shows Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack. The “Crackstarter” campaign has caught some flak on ethical grounds – some people are uncomfortable with the idea of a news organization paying drug dealers for anything – but put those concerns aside and you can see that Gawker’s experiment presents a pretty useful case study for the idea of crowdfunding journalism.

Publications such as Matter and Tomorrow, along with other individual endeavors, have partly funded themselves through Kickstarter campaigns, which has led to some hope that crowdfunding can step in for media companies where advertising and subscriptions are faltering.

At the same time, however, Andrew Sullivan has said his crowdfunded venture, the ad-free Dish blog, is likely to fall short of its $900,000 Year One target. It might also be significant, too, that Matter has been acquired by Medium, with neither party disclosing the terms – likely in part because it involved very little money, if any at all. And Tomorrow editor Ann Friedman told the Longform podcast that she doesn’t think Kickstarter is going to save media. The magazine raised $45,000 for its first issue through Kickstarter but won’t be repeating the process because it wasn’t enough to pay people in a sustainable way.

“Trying to Kickstart issue two of anything seems like just the hardest thing,” Frieman told the podcast. Later, she added that crowdfunding isn’t really all that new for media, anyway. “Kickstarter is the public radio model: false deadlines imposed on what is basically just an ongoing subscription.”

Gawker’s “Crackstarter,” on the other hand, is a little bit different. The publication is asking readers for money not to prop up its business model, but to pay for a piece of content that it wouldn’t otherwise have been able to buy and that might be of interest to the public. Yes, it’s a piece of tabloid journalism and more august organs would never entertain the possibility of buying content from a source in a similar way, but, whether you like it or not, it is a common practice in today’s media industry. If it turns out that the crowd-bought video proves a mayor of a major city was not only breaking the law but also lying about it to the public, it could turn out to be important.

The idea of turning to crowdfunding to support a single story is not novel. launched with that model back in 2008 and has since been bought by American Public Media, and just today video-news startup Vourno has launched with the exact same intent. But both and Vourno are attempting to make crowdfunding the major way to fund journalism on their platforms. What we haven’t seen as much of is the idea of an established media brand looking to the general public to help fund a particular story, or part of a story. The highest-profile version of that to date comes from NPR’s Planet Money, which has raised more than $590,000 on Kickstarter to pay for a story about the life cycle of a T-shirt. 

Gawker, on the other hand, has already published its story on Mayor Ford allegedly smoking crack, as have, now, all the major Canadian news organizations. It is instead effectively asking the public, “Are you interested enough to dig into your own pockets to see more?” That’s where Crackstarter becomes potentially significant. If it is a success, Crackstarter could inspire more media organizations to turn to crowdfunding as a way to augment their existing reporting, perhaps through the use of public-funded videos, follow-ups, profiles, interactive graphics, documentaries, and such like. 

What if, as my friend and freelance web producer Andrew James suggested to me earlier, Upworthy tried a similar approach for the content that its community deemed the most worthy? Perhaps in addition to the “Share on Facebook” and “Share on Twitter” buttons that accompany every piece of content embedded on Upworthy, the site could also offer the option of, “I’d like to pay for a follow-up.” What if the New York Times added a link at the bottom of selected news stories that offered readers the chance to throw some cash towards a follow-up longform feature on the subject?

There are inherent problems with these suggestions, as there is with Gawker’s Crackstarter. For one, it turns certain elements of reportage into a popularity contest. Sure, lots of people would be willing to pay a few bucks to see a video of the mayor getting high, but how many would be willing to fund a line-by-line dissection of a state delegate’s campaign finances? More concerningly, interest groups might take the opportunity to seed stories that damage their competitors. For instance, Gawker’s Crackstarter would seem like a golden opportunity for Mayor Ford’s opponents to end his political career for a bargain.

Those are not easy problems to solve, but perhaps they could be partially addressed by an evolution of our understanding of what crowdfunded content is. In effect, it is sponsored content, even if it is often distributed among more payers than the traditional sponsorship model. Perhaps news organizations should label crowdfunded content as such, and readers should treat it with all the skepticism they reserve (or should) for “native advertising.”

As crowdfunding becomes more widespread and media organizations continue to look for revenue sources beyond advertising, these questions will become only more pressing. And that’s why Gawker’s Crackstarter, while skeezy, is actually important.

[Picture by Fashion Graphics]