The EBay Of Investigative Journalism
Posted on 02.13.12 by Danny Glover @ 11:55 pm

As often happens when conservatives gather at major events, the conversation at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference turned to the future of journalism and how to get the conservative perspective on the world into news coverage.

Michael Calderone, the senior media reporter at The Huffington Post, recapped the discussion in an essay today. Here’s the gist of it:

It’s not that conservatives don’t already have a number of right-leaning media outlets. Anyone strolling through the CPAC exhibition hall in recent days saw booths from several right-of-center magazines (American Spectator, Human Events, American Conservative, Weekly Standard), a couple newspapers (Washington Examiner, Washington Times) and conservative watchdog organizations (Media Research Center/NewsBusters, Accuracy in Media). …

But despite those long-running publications and organizations — along with National Review and newer online outlets, like the Tucker Carlson-led Daily Caller and Andrew Breitbart’s “Big” sites — conservatives still say there’s a long way to go in combating the influence of the establishment media, along with convincing young conservatives that there’s a viable career path in reporting.

I was part of the conservative media world for a couple of years and regularly shared my own thoughts on how to improve it. Calderone’s coverage of the CPAC conversation reminded me of another idea that has been germinating inside my head.

I call it the eBay of investigative journalism, and here’s how I envision it:

  • Bring donors and investigators together in an exclusive online network, creating a forum where they could pitch ideas to each other.
  • Donors in the network who want specific topics covered would propose stories and agree to fund the investigations. Journalists in the network would bid on the projects, outlining how much money they need. Multiple donors could contribute to each project.
  • Project pitches would work the opposite direction, too, with investigative journalists outlining their own ideas and donors “buying in” by providing the funds. Donors could contribute the full amount to fund projects they really like or fund parts of multiple projects. Journalists also could pitch ideas as teams or recruit teams within the network.
  • The network would have a team of editorial directors whose job would be to vet the donors, journalists and ideas. Only the best would make the cut, just like applying for media jobs.

This would be a double-blind network. Donors would contribute money toward good investigative ideas (their own or those of journalists). They would not know which journalists won the work until after publication, and they could not influence the direction of the stories they fund.

The benefits to donors: They would not have to commit to bankrolling entire newsrooms for years to get a return on investment, and they would have a more targeted voice in the editorial process.

Journalists would contribute intellectual capital to the enterprise. They would not know who is funding their work and thus would not feel beholden to special interests. “Citizen journalists” who have other jobs but occasional investigative ideas could participate on a project-by-project basis once accepted into the network.

The benefits to journalists: They would not have to join themselves to news organizations that have political, financial or other baggage, thus freeing them to do what they do best. The network also would offer health insurance and other benefits to journalists who need it.

The network’s editorial directors would facilitate the initial connections between donors and researchers/writers, and they would serve as editorial advisers during the investigative process.

This approach would insulate journalists from the natural pressures of the business side of media while also empowering the players on both sides of the wall that separates business from editorial. If conservatives built the network, the double-blind nature of it and the participation of a team of seasoned investigative advisers would lend credibility to the final stories, thus increasing the chances of quality conservative journalism moving beyond Fox News.

But there’s no reason that such a network would have to favor any particular worldview. Journalists of all leanings — yes, we all have viewpoints, whether we admit it or not — could apply our creative media minds toward connecting donors and investigators based solely on the merits of the news. What a novel concept!

Update, Feb. 14: Thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the Valentine’s Day link love. Welcome back, Instapundit readers. Please share your thoughts about this idea, pro or con.

Filed under: Business and Media and News & Politics


  1. [...] A NEW IDEA: The eBay of Investigative Journalism. [...]

    Pingback by Instapundit » Blog Archive » A NEW IDEA: The eBay of Investigative Journalism…. — February 14, 2012 @ 9:24 am

  2. The fly in the ointment is that if I was a Media Matters I would infiltrate the process and low ball the bid on the projects. Then write articles that were counter to the stated purpose.

    The integrity of the process would be compromised and the project would fall apart. We forget that many on the left are ethically challenged.

    Comment by Tom Royce — February 14, 2012 @ 10:13 am

  3. Ebay works because it sells commodities–one Ipod is pretty much the same as another. News reporting is not a commodity. The key to this might be the “editors”–they would have personality and continuing existence and mission. and as a reporter, I would not want to work on a story unless it had (1) certainty of payment and (2) a good change of wide publication. I would not work on a story for payment but not publication, I don’t think.

    Comment by John Maguire — February 14, 2012 @ 10:31 am

  4. Good “chance” of publication.

    Comment by John Maguire — February 14, 2012 @ 10:31 am

  5. Ebay works because it enhances the reputation of both seller and buyer (e.g. does this person sell damaged products, does this person not pay on time?. By making the ebay of investigative journalism double-blind, the capstone to ebay’s success is removed.

    That said, why couldn’t donors and journalists create usernames that are not tied to their professional names (just like ebay)? Each username ends up generating a reputation over repeated interactions. I’m not sure how the project is supplied to the donor anonymously through a username when the point of the whole idea is to publish it with the author’s name attached.

    Regardless, just wanted to mention that ebay’s success is based on reputation, so don’t leave that element out. Otherwise, I love the idea of a free market for ideas that bring donors and journalists together.

    Comment by Nate — February 14, 2012 @ 10:59 am

  6. This sort of market already exists for freelance programming jobs, project4hire and freelancer dotcoms, for example. I don’t think you could make things double-blind though, the participants would have to have public reputations.

    Comment by M. Rad. — February 14, 2012 @ 11:36 am

  7. Great idea. To start, can we get a foundation to donate for the most ripe area of investigation- how tax-advantaged foundations have eternal life because they only have to give away a pitiful 5% of their assets each year, how they have self-perpetuating boards of directors, how they have no customers who can boycott them and how the regulators turn a blind eye to how much they muck around in politics behind the scenes?

    Nope- nobody interested in this grand story line cuz foundations mostly tilt to the left.

    Never mind.

    Comment by theBuckWheat — February 14, 2012 @ 12:15 pm

  8. I think you are talking about this…

    Comment by Brian — February 14, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

  9. Brian, actually was part of the inspiration behind my idea, but it’s not quite the same. It’s for community-funded reporting, and I don’t think donors have the ability to play the role of “assignment editors.” There are other differences as well. It’s definitely a model I like.

    Comment by Danny Glover — February 14, 2012 @ 1:40 pm

  10. As M. Rad mentioned above, there are several project oriented and freelance jobs sites that work on a model similar to what you describe. To make a journalism oriented site work, you’re doing to have to address the following points:

    1. How trustworthy are the donors in respect to paying for reports?
    2. How objective/quality of reporting is the journalist?
    3. What guidelines will govern the “Editorial Board”?
    4. How will you fund the operations, pay the editors, etc.?
    5. Outlets, how will you connect the resulting work to a publisher?

    There are several ways you can address these points, and they should be in your business plan.

    Comment by J. Farmer — February 14, 2012 @ 1:57 pm

  11. Would Soros, Buffett and fellow billionaires who buy access with their money for favored regulations, earmarks and stimulus give money away to those who may criticize them? Is that a pig flying outside your window?

    Comment by elkh1 — February 14, 2012 @ 2:48 pm

  12. Might work if you got rid of the double-blind part. You want to allow reputation to work. Funders are more likely to fund a project by someone whose work they trust, just as buyers on eBay will bid more for a Sony. Reputation is key to free market operation. Don’t try to excise it!

    Comment by Alec Rawls — February 14, 2012 @ 3:04 pm

  13. Suppose I’m a potential donor; there’s something going on I suspect should be investigated and shared with the public. Knowing that all journalists have some bias, and some have a lot, that shows in their work - why would I hire an unknown journalist who might waste my money on a work heavily-biased in a direction that also offends me? I think the anonymity may be as much a minus as a plus for this concept.

    Comment by Alan — February 14, 2012 @ 4:09 pm

  14. I’m hearing some valid points about the journalistic side of the double-blind concept. But as I see it that’s where the network’s editorial directors bring trusted value. They would not be anonymous and would need to have solid track records — the kind that would make donors want to invest.

    So while the donors wouldn’t know which journalist would investigate, they would know the intermediary editors who would pick the best investigators for each donor-funded assignment. This is similar to donors funding entire media enterprises, both nonprofit (ThinkProgress) and commercial (The Daily Caller). They trust the leaders of the operation to hire/assign the right people.

    The difference is that when donors fund entire media outlets, they can, if they choose to do so, undermine the integrity of the newsroom based on their own interests. With a network that’s built upon individual stories from multiple donors, that influence would be greatly reduced. Donors could choose never again to fund a project because they felt like they were burnt, but other donors could fill the void.

    I’m not naive enough to think that any network can remove all politics from investigative journalism. But I do believe this concept alleviate such concerns.

    As for reputation, perhaps the answer is to attach a rating system to published articles. Give readers, donors and even members of the network the opportunity to grade the final product, and make it about the execution of the idea rather than the person who did the work.

    This would give the journalists in the network an incentive to do the best work possible so they don’t earn reputations as investigators who take the money but fail to deliver quality work. And if the grades are horrible all the time, journalists could be “voted off the island” (out of the network) based on performance, just as theoretically should happen in newsrooms.

    Comment by Danny Glover — February 14, 2012 @ 4:33 pm

  15. I really don’t see much difference from the current media setup. We are essentially anonymous media viewers, and we vote with Nielsen numbers and website views. We also give money by buying the newspaper/magazine and buying from the advertisers.

    But Calderone is hugely misleading (to put it politely) anyway by not mentioning ANY of the major media that the left has. Why take this guy seriously at all?

    Comment by Nate Whilk — February 14, 2012 @ 5:35 pm

  16. My suggestion would be that it not be a double-blind market. Reputation matters, and the lowest bidder isn’t always the best. If I wanted to hire James O’Keefe to do something, for example, I’d both expect and be willing to pay him more than someone else attempting the same job. So the need is for a marketplace rather than an auction house (though an auction house would be a good part or section of the total marketplace). Regardless, I think your idea is a good one and hope to see it developed.

    Comment by Beck — February 14, 2012 @ 9:27 pm

  17. I see the content. I don’t see the pipe. The internet seems to be akin to a coffee straw where dissemination of conservative viewership is concerned. Strange that.
    How’s about this? A paid cable/satellite TV station run like a farm coop. Each contributor gets air time based upon his financial input. the coop could screen entrants to prevent being co-opted, but once in, not content.
    You need a bigger pipe.

    Comment by Mike Mahoney — February 15, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

  18. Love the idea. I’ve been thinking about something along the lines since starting HotRants and reading Glen Reynolds’ “Army of Davids.” One major concern I would have with any such initiative would be lack of funding/donations. It is one thing to ask a bunch of people to donate to a worthy cause. It is another thing entirely to have them do so to, in effect, pay other people to do a job. While there might be interest and funding early on, I suspect the enthusiasm would die out rather quickly. If some sort of profit incentive could be derived to give investors’ incentive to fund particular stories, though, crowdfunding sites like Profounder already provide platforms which would be ideal for matching up buyers/investors with sellers (journalists per this idea). Definitely all good food for thought.

    Comment by HotRants — February 15, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

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