Matter of Facts

Iain Hepburn is a journalist, podcaster and the former digital editor of the Daily Record and editor of STV Local. He is currently a multimedia producer, director of brand journalism with social media agency Contently Managed and a misanthropic commentator on the media.

Follow him on Twitter at @iainmhepburn

So here’s a thought for you all, filthy assistants. Would it be possible to launch, and run, a Scottish newspaper via Kickstarter?

Ok, maybe not an entire newspaper. But certainly a site bringing the sort of quality journalism that many critics have accused the mainstream media this side of Hadrian’s Wall to an audience that wants and appreciates it.

Imagine how more detailed, and how much earlier, something like the Rangers financial crisis could have been revealed and exposed in depth had a specialist Scots sports news site been funded by those with an interest in uncovering the truth.

Interestingly, something in that vein - albeit with a somewhat narrower focus - has already smashed through its Kickstarter target. And It’ll be interesting to see if its launch sparks a drive towards much-needed longform journalism finding a better home online.

US-based project Matter - created by well-known tech journalists Jim Giles and Bobbie Johnson - brought in $50,000 within a day and a half of being put up on the fundraising service, with money still steadily flowing into the project.

Their aim is to launch a new website dedicated to pursuing and publishing longform science and technology issues. One story a week, available online, able to go into the kind of depth that is rarely afforded online reporting these days. And, more importantly, able to fund the sort of investigative work such long-form journalism often needs.

While the Kickstarter cash will enable Matter to develop its website and get the ball rolling, the duo behind it plan to charge a 99c subscription for access to stories, with that money helping to fund future articles as the site goes along.

Johnson and Giles already boast an impressive portfolio of work, and claim to have lined up a suite of other writers and journalists to contribute to the site - with those donating to the project over a certain level being able to take part in the commissioning process.

“It’s an experiment to see if independent journalism, done right, can fill the gap left by mainstream media,” they note on the fundraising page.

And let’s hope their experiment is the roaring success it deserves to be.

The idea of web-fundraising to pay for investigative journalism has been kicked around for a while now. Crowdsourced and entrepreneurial journalist advocates have leaned in that direction for some time. Indeed, Caledonian Mercury editor Stewart Kirkpatrick - while apparently taking umbrage at something written in this very column - suggested something along those lines would be coming to his publication in the near future.

But while single investigation fields have an obvious appeal, could a larger news operation be funded via Kickstarter in Scotland? Prohibitively rising print costs would seem to make the publication of physical newspaper or magazine funded by the service unlikely. But a digital news operation, able to pay a decent rate to journalists for proper journalism? That’s potentially an entirely different matter.

Imagine, filthy assistants, a service built around a small number of core areas not covered in particularly successful depth by the Scottish media. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, technology, health, the judiciary and Gaelic affairs. Four subjects which don’t get the best of deals from the traditional media outlets.

Following a similar path to Matter, Kickstarter would be used to crowdsource the funding to launch the site, and commission writers in each of those particular fields, producing one or two substantial pieces a week for digital platforms.

Disenfranchised readers, currently left cold by the lack of coverage in the traditional media, would be able to choose, suggest and, where necessary, fund the development of those stories.

Each of those stories would be used to spark discussion, generate debate and interaction in the days between publication, keeping the site alive with engagement and, likely, sparking potential further topics for investigation down the line.

To run effectively, such a project would need to engage well in each of the fields it was launching proper, detailed journalism. And there would be a need to keep the articles in some way removed from the comment. As Johnson and Giles have acknowledged in their plan for Matter, keeping the focus on pure editorial rather than smart-arse editorialising and opinion-spouting is necessary to make their project stand out from the myriad of tech sites out there. As Joe Friday never said in Dragnet, "Just the facts, ma'am"

Effectively, it’d be the ultimate personalised news channel - taking the likes of customisable news readers to the nth degree, producing and serving stories that aren’t getting showings elsewhere. Built around digital distribution - via the web, App or Kindle - would allow it to be formatted to the specific desires of the reader, with a modest subscription helping secure investigations and reporting going forward.

The decline of funding in so-called mainstream media, and the homogenisation of editorial through the loss of specialist journalists, has opened up too many cracks in news reporting. And launching and staffing up a new editorial project is an expensive business - just look at the £900,000 loss STV revealed they’ve taken on rolling out their Local service over the last year. That’s the cost of investing heavily in editorial. And sadly, it's why many mainstream media outlets in Scotland can't afford to do this any more. Even a crowdsourced, crowdfunded project like this would need to be driven on a freelance basis.

But at the same time, independent hyperlocal and niche subject sites - such as the proposed Matter project - have shown that a community can and will fund good, valuable local journalism if it is relevant to them.

Good luck to Bobbie Johnson and Jim Giles in their drive to produce independent quality journalism in the science and technology sector. Hopefully, if Matter proves a triumph, it may lead the way in showing others just what can be done.

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