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Is ‘Tip Jar’ Journalism the Future of Freelancing?

Keith Ng

Q&A: The Media in 2013 – Part One

In October last year Keith Ng walked into an office of the New Zealand Ministry of Social Development in Wellington, accessed a self-serve kiosk and fired up Microsoft Office. Ng, a humble blogger for a website called Public Address, was working on a tip-off that there was a basic flaw in the Ministry’s data security. Via an Office ‘Open File’ dialogue, Ng surfed across the government organisation’s servers, accessing – among other things – the addresses of fraud investigation and debt collection details, client medical prescriptions, children living in protected care, and invoices for services supplied by community groups (in one case, Ng captured the details of a client who had been provided support following a failed suicide attempt).

Ng blogged about his find, the story quickly going viral before landing in the major media. But Public Address doesn’t pay its contributors, so he left a note at the bottom of the post linking to GiveALittle.co.nz and asking for donations if readers found it to be of value. Within 24 hours he’d received over $4,000 from New Zealanders outraged by such a basic security flaw in one of their country’s major government services.

Suddenly Keith Ng was a minor celebrity, both in New Zealand and around the world. People were soon asking: in a time when news organisations are slashing budgets – particularly for freelance work – could crowd funding provide a future for serious journalism? Eight months on, Ideas at the House reached out to Ng via Skype, asking him to reflect on his experiences with the Ministry of Social Development story and how he perceives the future of crowd funded journalism, as well as the future of freelance journalism in general.

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So tell me a little bit about your background as a journalist, Keith? Did you study journalism at university?

I never studied journalism. I started out being a student journalist at a university magazine. Did two years there. It was a really great experience of being able to write what I wanted to write. That spoiled me for quite a while, but also my pay expectations were really, really low (laughs). That was a part-time job, so it was basically minimum wage halved. The interesting thing was that after I left university and started freelancing it never struck me as odd that I was making so little money. It took me a while to go, “Hey. Grown-ups actually don’t make this small an amount of money.”

But it wasn’t the money that was the problem. I was doing business journalism for magazines, and at some point I realised I wasn’t doing good work for shitty money – I was doing mediocre work for shitty money. I wasn’t feeling that excitement, and in order to make ends meet I actually had to churn out stuff on a really quick turnover and the stuff I was producing wasn’t interesting anymore. So I figured that rather than do mediocre work for shitty money, I’d do some work for good money and some work that I actually wanted to do.

I’d heard about crowd sourcing back in 2007, but it wasn’t possible back then. So I started my data visualisation business and that got going quite well about 2010 or 2011. And that side of the business gave me enough security that I could take a risk with something like crowd funding. I couldn’t really do that if I was just freelancing, gambling away three weeks to work on a story that might not make any money. So the business gave me that buffer so I could afford to work like that.

The Ministry of Social Development story was the second I crowd funded. The first one was on the Association of Community Retailers, which was a front group set up by Big Tobacco in New Zealand to pretend to be small dairy [convenience store] owners. That earned about $1,500. Then I did a third one recently on the New Zealand budget, and that earned me $600.

Right now I’m pessimistic about that model – not because of the raw numbers, but because it was a very small number of people giving me quite a lot of money. So there were a lot of $20 and $50 donations. Which is really nice and flattering, but unsustainable week in, week out. The really missing piece of the puzzle is a good micropayment system. The economics of it are really simple: as a freelancer you’re getting 50 cents, give or take, per word each story. So you’re maybe getting a grand, depending on how much you churn out. So in order to get a grand, it’s really straightforward: if you have 10,000 readers and 10 percent of them give you $1 or $2 each, that’s one or two grand right there. So that’s the basic set of numbers I started out with. But right now, because of the payment thresholds, I’m not getting that. I’m still getting the 8,000 to 10,000 reader numbers, and a couple of hundred people were giving me money – and giving me a lot – but I really want to expand that payment base and turn it into those 1,000 people giving me $1 or $2 in order to make that sustainable.

 

I’ve written stories that have received upwards of 80,000 readers. You think: if every one of those readers paid on average just ten cents, that would be $8,000. Have you seen movement in the online payment systems to facilitate that sort of thing?

The thing is, I’ve been waiting for it since 2007. In 2007 I thought about building my reputation to a point where people would want to pay for my stuff, and the missing piece was a micropayment system. In 2007 I thought that it was two or three years away. Now we’re six years down the road and still no closer. And it’s difficult to understand why a lot of these micropayment systems have come and gone and no one’s really thought about how to make it work yet. So as much as I’d like to say that it’s just around the corner, it’s difficult to say.

 

Well, banks like to play with money that’s being transferred about the place and maybe take their cut here and there – micropayments don’t suit that system.

There are a couple of models. In New Zealand we have a site called TradeMe – which is like eBay – and everyone has an account. So basically everyone who is likely to read something on the internet has one of these accounts. Get a direct connection into that ecosystem, then it becomes a much more viable option. It is the sort of system that’s all internal, and because there’s no financial transactions crossing banks you can make it work within the one or two percent margin they actually operate on.

 

The Ministry of Social Development story. Was it your first instinct to take it to the ‘tip jar’, so to speak?

Yeah. The first thing was that there was no way I could’ve gotten $6,000 from the media. I figured it was going to be one or two grand, at most, for that story if I took it to a paper. But I figured I could get as much [on my own], so I was aiming for $1,500 or $2,000 for crowd funding that particular story. But I also thought about what I had to do to make that story work in the newspaper, and I really didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to call up the minister and say, “So, this is a really bad thing. Are you going to resign?” I know what all the answers will be. I’ll have to call up the opposition and say, “Do you think the government hates beneficiaries?” and ask all these really dumb questions for answers I already know. And I didn’t want to do that. I knew what I had and I just wanted to tell my story without any of those structures. So that was one really big motivation behind why I crowd funded it.

 

Was there any point during the initial stages where you wished you’d taken it to an editor? Because it must have been a big shock to discover the size of the leak. 

Yeah, but at no point did I think, “Jeez. I need an editor for this.” If I needed sage advice, there were people around me who could give me that advice – reporters who had done a lot of time or people who had been in the industry for a long time – and I guess I trusted them more than editors. But that’s probably just a personal bias and there are probably very good editors out there who I haven’t met yet (laughs).

 

For a couple of weeks there seemed to be the threat of legal action against you. Was that concerning? Did you ever take those threats seriously?

We had planned everything before we started. So I talked to a lawyer and got legal advice and figured out what we were doing and how that was within the law, and we were really confident that we were. And I think one of the big lessons in terms of media management in that story was that a) get your legal position straight, and b) make sure you do everything you can to allay public concerns. So, things like privacy: we made sure that before we called up the MSD we had called the office of the Privacy Commissioner and said, “We’ve got a bunch of stuff. We can’t tell you exactly what it is, but we will come into your office at 12pm tomorrow and hand it all over.” And we had all of that stuff in place before we started, so we played it really squeaky clean. And I think that, more than our actual legal position, made us really safe from all that stuff.

 

Do you think there were would have been the same sort of threats if you had published the story through a news organisation – through stuff.co.nz or the New Zealand Herald? Because I found just the talk of potential prosecution disconcerting. Did they think of you as an easy target?

Well, no. The government at no point made threats against me. It was just that a lot of journalists asked them, “Are you gonna arrest him? Is he going to be charged?” And all they could say was, “We can’t tell you at this stage. We’re still thinking it through.” So they never actually came out and said, “We’re thinking about prosecuting him.” It was mostly one or two commentators who said to the media, “There’s a possibility that he could be charged for this.” So a lot of journalists asked the question whether I was going to be charged. It never really got anywhere at all.

 

Is it really important as a freelancer – particularly when you’re not going through Fairfax or News or what have you – to cross your ‘t’s and dot your ‘i’s legally?

There is the legal side of it. But there is also the aspect of making sure everyone is on your side. And making sure that before you jump out, as many media organisations know about it as possible so you’re not stomped upon or that there’s no point in stomping on you by the time you’ve come out. And also, you’ve done all the things you can possibly do to do the right thing – to make sure you’re not, I guess, being a dick about it and that you’re not splaying people’s personal information all over the place and that you’re not actually defaming anyone. So sure, there is the legal side of asking if you can be prosecuted, but there’s also the public opinion side of asking if they want to prosecute you. Do they gain anything out of prosecuting you? So being complete in your release in the first step before you make any noise about it – to make sure you upload everything – that’s really important.

 

I understand you earned $4000 in 24 hours. What did you ultimately earn from the MSD story?

I think it was $5,600 or maybe $5,800, give or take. So a little bit less than $6,000.

 

Do you think there’s a lack of investigative journalism in the digital age?

I’ve got friends who are investigative reporters. And they are able to do their jobs. They do investigations and they love it. But there are a handful of them in the New Zealand. So our entire media can maybe afford half a dozen people who can actually do investigations. And I don’t think their jobs are at risk at the moment; it’s more at that bottom level. At the bottom level, that’s the most straightforward: people are just copying and pasting press releases. That was the first crowd funding story that I did – on the Association of Community Retailers – this group that all of a sudden came out and said, “Small dairy owners think these new tobacco laws are a really bad thing for our business.” This guy, Murray, from Murray’s Barber Shop in Timaru, is apparently really concerned about this, and writes a 300-word press release with perfectly formatted paragraphs using Oxford commas. And nobody twigs. Nobody has alarm bells ringing in their heads. So at this level, you have all these people who are copying and pasting press releases and those stories go out onto the wires and these wires go into all the papers – these papers run with it – and that’s a huge impact.

So it turns out that that group – no surprises – was being funded by Big Tobacco. And Big Tobacco had hired the PR guy for Japanese whaling. So there’s this guy in New Zealand who does the public relations for the Japanese whaling industry, and he was hired to pretend to write press releases for these guys. So at that level, that is a huge problem.

At the middle level, just being under-resourced and not having enough time to do a lot of fact checking and a lot of resources means we tend to see specific types of stories: from one side getting a quote, from the other side getting a quote, and bang you have a story. There’s almost the concept that there are no objective facts – there are just quotes, opinions and telling the story. And telling a story is about telling two opinions well. And it’s not about saying, “OK, one is actually a lie and the other is actually true.” That concept that something can be true or not true is something that doesn’t quite fit into journalism anymore. And I know that sounds really weird and metaphysical, but recently we had issues with how stats are used – this was regarding national education standards – and you had statisticians saying, “Hey, these things are not comparable. Because these numbers are not moderated, you can’t compare them.” And they couldn’t quite parse that piece of information: “Well that’s just an opinion that these things are not comparable. You can compare them, as long as we’re careful, right?” And there’s just this inability to acknowledge that ten out of ten statisticians are going to tell you, “No, you cannot compare these things. That is a fact.” It’s that concept of absolute proof that is difficult now.

 

I think that taps right into something like the vaccination debate, where there’s that issue of false balance: “We’ve talked to all these scientists who all agree vaccination is essential. Let’s talk to this average Joe who doesn’t believe them.”

That is really damaging. Part of it is being under resourced, but part of it is also how journalists are trained. Journalism-training schools: their job is to provide somebody who will readily fit into a newsroom. And their vision of that is people who can churn out stories as required by editors. Because editors expect to see a certain format and most of them are under certain time pressures, they write that particular type of story that doesn’t require deep research and only requires getting quotes from people.

 

Do you think there are a lot of stories out there just waiting to be funded? That are slipping by unnoticed because no one has the resources to fund them?

Stories such as “Big Tobacco hires whaling lobbyist” – I don’t think that comes along every day (laughs). But I think there are a lot of cases where various interests align through the media and the media is completely defenceless against it. You get some guy who’s two months out of journalism school who has to churn out 600 words’ worth of copy that day, and all they have time for is copying and pasting that press release and making sure they get at least one other comment from somebody. It’s impossible for them to pay attention to that sort of thing and to a large extent the media is complicit in that – complicit in propagating what these guys are trying to push in their press releases.

 

I know a lot of journalists – and a lot of freelancers, in particular – sat up and took notice of the tobacco and MSD stories. Do you think there’s a future there for freelancers in the crowd funding approach if the payment system is there to support it?

Absolutely. I think especially when the pay walls start going up, that is the beginning of a revolution. Once people are forced to think, “Hey, do I actually want to read that paper? Is it actually worth my 28 cents a day?” they’re going to start thinking a lot more about the content. Once they get into that phase of, “OK, I have a fixed media budget. Do I want to give it to the place that’s giving me celebrity news and giant boobs on the cover? Or do I want to give it to something that’s a well-researched 2,000 word article on something that is novel and you can’t get off the wires?” Once the pay walls go up, people will think very differently and the market will shift and there will be a lot of opportunities opening up for people like us.

 

That taps into a quote of yours that I read: “It turns out that the best stories are the ones most suited to crowd funding.” That flips on its head the idea that practical utility doesn’t sell on the internet – that only high-valence, controversial, tabloid style stories gather the clicks.

Well I think that’s the fundamental difference between an advertising-based model and a crowd funding-base model. It’s not about the clicks and it’s not about how many people you get – it’s about how deeply you reach people. Say 100,000 people come to your page but only because you have a great headline, and they click on it and go, “Oh, man that’s actually a really boring story,” and leave. Under an advertising [funded] story, you get rewarded for that. You get rewarded for link baits in the sense that you’ve got 100,000 hits. In a crowd funded model that doesn’t get rewarded. If you’ve got 100,000 people and they all think, “Oh my god. This is a really important story,” then the crowd funding model does reward that. So hopefully that change in the system should encourage change in the kinds of copy we produce.

 

And in terms of freelancing in general: what’s going on here in the digital age? Tell me some of the ways in which the onset of digital publishing has changed freelancing. It is a changed world.

I haven’t sold my stories to online publishers for many years now. But I do hear a lot of stories about people doing stuff on the internet for very little money. It’s a depressing thought – that because of the low per-click advertising rates you get on the internet you actually get a tier of low quality writing on the internet. But the key problem is that the metric is how many reads you can get on a story and that you don’t get more money for writing a better story; you get more money for writing more stories. So once those economics change we’ll see a different set of content.

 

Is it important to have that support network these days? To have other writers in your constellation of contacts?

So, it’s really difficult to find good mentors these days. Traditionally, journalism has been an apprenticeship system, where you go into a newsroom and older and wiser people take you under their wing and teach you their craft. That’s particularly problematic for freelancers because there is no newsroom to turn to. So being able to have that system is really good. But even in newsrooms they’re expecting a lot of things: you’ve been to journalism school and you come out with a certain set of knowledge, therefore you don’t need additional training and you just need to start working. Which isn’t true: there are a lot of things that are gained from learning from more experienced people, which isn’t done that much in news rooms anymore. Part of that is the high turnover in staff and a lot of older, more experienced people have been snapped up by public relations for vastly more money. And even senior journalists just don’t have the time to meet with the kids doing their pretty straightforward stories. All of those factors combined means we have to actively go out and find people who have more experience to learn from.

 

You support yourself via a data visualisation business, yet you obviously love journalism. Would you do it fulltime if you could?

I don’t know, actually. Mostly because I’m deeply pessimistic about the future of journalism. If you took that away, I don’t even know what it would like. If you said that I could make a decent amount of money from journalism, I’d tell you that you’re a crazy man and that doesn’t sound like any reality to which I belong.

 

Do you know any or many pure freelancers?

I do. But they all basically have a gig on the side. The best ones have gigs that complement and don’t conflict with the journalism. I think often they take things that they learn as journalists and on-sell that as a value-added product. It is alarming that you can charge 1,000 people $200 tickets to sit in a room to listen to you talk, and yet you can barely charge $1,000 for 100,000 to read that same speech in print form. So those sorts of things – once you’ve built a personal brand – you can sell that, and I think that it’s a great way to make money. But I think it’s difficult in those cases to make sure that everything is well separated and one thing doesn’t impinge on another. That’s really something that people have to think about from the outset. Specialist journalists are especially good in that sense – they have specialist knowledge that’s worth selling. In my particular case it’s pretty weird, because data visualisation is a pretty technical skill and not directly related to the journalism. There’s crossover but not nearly as much as most other people.

 

Is there any other big takeaway from your crowd funding experiences of the last six or seven months?

What this was an experiment for was trying to figure out if people had an appetite to pay for things that they think are important. It’s not so much paying because they want to read it, it’s not so much paying because they enjoyed it or were entertained it – it’s more a case of patronage because they thought, “Hey, this stuff is worth doing.” It’s like people paying for the arts beyond what they get out of it personally. And once you frame it in that way, that kind of good journalism does have a future, but it really does require a fundamental departure from advertising journalism.

 

Crowd funding is also big in music, film and other creative projects. Are we seeing a renaissance in patronage in general?

Absolutely. A part of it is because you can get much closer to artists and so on, and part of it is that people want to be engaged in that stuff now. So social scientists talk about the decline of community and the decline of civic institutions since the 80s and 90s, and I think people do want to be connected to what’s happening in the community around them. And we are one of these institutions that sits in that mid-level that allows people to be connected to one another and connected to big events in society.

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Matt Shea (@mrmatches)

(Top image by NS Newsflash)