I’ve had a long-running joke among my journo-writer friends: All we need is to go back to the days of patronage.
Many of us agree: we love writing but we are exhausted by some of our profession’s hamster wheel tendencies. We’re aching to write more “important” pieces–the kinds of stuff we really want to write–but we can’t find an outlet for those pieces, or we can find an outlet, but it’s a passion project and it pays little or nothing. How can we fund the kind of work we really want to do?
I’d heard about Contributoria from a friend and colleague early in the year, and I’d even signed up for my own free account when the site was still in beta. I wasn’t drawn into the site, though; its purpose, function, and process weren’t really clear after a quick perusal, so I put exploring the platform on the bottom of my to-do list.
It wasn’t until Contributoria announced that its beta phase was ending that I decided to return and explore the site. Little had improved in terms of clarity, but I had enough time between projects to be able to spend some time trying to understand what, exactly, the site purported to be.
The founders of Contributoria describe the site as “an independent journalism community [and]… platform [that] enables journalists and writers to collaborate on all aspects of the writing process, including commissioning, editing and publication.” Each month, staff puts out a call for proposals and journalists submit ideas for which they then seek backing. Backing comes in the form of points that are allocated to a project by other Contributoria members; each member who has a free account^ is given 50 points per month to support the projects of her or his choice. Think crowdfunding but without dollars.
The dollars (or pounds; the site is based in the UK) come in once a writer’s project receives sufficient backing. Each writer determines the dollar amount he/she wants to earn for the assignment. No editor or staff member approves that amount; if you can get enough supporters to back your project and if you deliver the assignment on time, you get paid out at the rate you set.
Where does the money come from? The site has had several funding sources since its launch in January 2014, among them, the International Press Institute News Innovation Contest; currently, it is funded by Guardian Media Group. And their relationship with The Guardian is important in other ways, too. Once you publish your article on the Contributoria platform, editors consider it for inclusion in a monthly insert that is distributed in the physical newspaper.
Ok, but is it really legit?
The short answer: Yes.
My first project, a long-form piece about The New York Botanical Garden’s emphasis on programming about women, was published on the site, was picked up for inclusion in The Guardian, and was fully paid out at the rate I set, which was about $1,000 US. It took longer than I expected to get paid, but I expected this; two friends had mentioned that their first projects on the site took a while to be paid but that subsequent projects were paid quickly. This has also been my experience.
After the success of the first project, I proposed a second one, this time about a 19th-century father-son glassmaking duo whose astonishing body of work is well-represented by Harvard, which has a 4,000+ piece strong collection of the pair’s glass flowers and marine sea creatures. I set the price for that story at around $3,000 US, as it required travel, interviewing, and research that would involve significant costs for me. That article was published, paid quickly, and was then added to a collection on Medium.com as part of Contributoria’s new partnership with that platform.
For my third project, I decided to set an audacious goal. I’ve been wanting to report a project about c-section rates (especially among immigrant women) in Puerto Rico, which has one of the highest rates of this procedure in the world. I drew up a budget and set my fee at $6,000 US. I’d need over 200 backers for this project. It was not funded, though it drew a lot of interest from supporters who had not backed the previous two projects. I attribute this not to the topic or even the high fee, but to the fact that I took a rare hiatus from the computer for four days around Thanksgiving. You don’t want to schedule a digital detox when you’re trying to get this kind of project funded.
My current project is also set around $6,000, as it involves reporting in Detroit and Mexico. You can read more about it here. And, of course, I’d be thrilled and grateful if you would back it.
So what are the pros and cons?
The most obvious pro is that I’m getting funded for articles I haven’t been able to get supported in any other way. I’ve been able to determine my own worth and to do actual research that involves in-person reporting. Seeing the Blaschkas’ glasswork and spending a day at Harvard to interview museum staff members were entirely different than looking at the collection online and in books and watching videos with staff members.
Another pro is the level of support provided by the staff. I’ve experienced several technical problems with the site and I needed to postpone a deadline because of a subject’s unexpected change in schedule, and one of the site’s founders, who seems to handle much of the day-to-day administration of Contributoria, always responded quickly and effectively.
Then there’s the issue of rights. You get to keep them. Period. If you want to and can sell the article elsewhere, you can and you should and Contributoria won’t give you grief about it.
Cons? There’s the hustle of getting friends, loved ones, and strangers to back the projects, of course, but pitching these stories and funding them independently would be its own hustle. I also have concerns about whether the model is sustainable over the long haul; how many times can I lean on my network to ask for its support, even if it doesn’t involve people contributing their own money to my cause?
There are a few other areas of the site and process that could bear improvement. The user interface isn’t as intuitive as it could be, particularly when it comes to “publishing” both proposals and projects. The lack of clarity about the steps of those processes can lead to delays for the writer. Other recommendations I have for improvements:
-It would be extremely helpful if the site had a search function, particularly for members who want to support projects. There’s no way to search for projects by keyword (“art,” say, or “tech”).
-The ability to add more photos or even to propose multimedia projects would be very welcome and seems like an eventual inevitability for the evolution of the site.
-Make it possible for supporters to indicate whether they want to be visible as “backers.” Right now, writers have no way of knowing who has supported their project.
-The quality of the proposals and resulting articles is quite uneven, which may be a cause for concern for professional writers and journalists who don’t necessarily want their work published alongside that of amateurs or hobbyists. The citizen journalism ethos is admirable and poses lots of positive possibilities–among them, leveling the playing field for those of us who are neither “emerging” writers nor canonical ones–but a greater degree of initial vetting may draw more readers, more interest, and more funding to the site.
-Part of the model (and one which I haven’t addressed here at all yet)–the crowd-editing function–seems superfluous to me. Technically, members and backers are able to help edit your work and make suggestions. No one has done so for any of my projects (though one of the founders, Sarah Hartley, has made final edits on both of my pieces– mainly edits that changed my Americanized spelling to British conventions), and I’m kind of glad about it. As another friend who has used the platform says, what writer really wants the peanut gallery to add its two cents? But perhaps there are writers who want this kind of input and influence.
The platform hasn’t reached full maturity yet and I have concerns about whether the site will be around for the long-haul (especially as my own dependence upon it as a source of income increases). I also have concerns about whether it will become harder to get a project backed once more people, especially colleagues, begin to learn about Contributoria and use the platform. I’ve already seen, for example, that my own monthly allocation of 50 points has gone from being devoted to one writer to being spread out over several writers, making it tougher for each writer to reach his or her target quickly.
All this being said, though, Contributoria’s founders and staff are clearly committed to ongoing improvements and the platform has been an invaluable way for me to fund the work I really want to be doing and couldn’t do otherwise.
^There are two other levels of membership, both of which are fee-based, and each of those members receives additional points per month.