Is Byline Media the last hope for crowdfunded journalism?

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Peter Jukes

Known to foreign correspondents as a setting for life-saving hostile environment training, Pippingford Park is being seen by some as key to the survival of journalism itself.

The East Sussex woodland estate will next June host a festival quite unlike any other, combining stand-up comedy and satire with serious debates on the practice, ethics and funding of investigative reporting and other essential news-gathering techniques.

Well-known reporters including John Sweeney, Alex Thomson and David Hencke will be there, as will star names from Lenny Henry and John Cleese to Frances Barber, for what is being billed as the “Sundance of Journalism”, in reference to the famous film festival. The Byline Festival offers glamping, a spa and a pop up boutique hotel. Who’d have thought the news business could be like this?

Tickets for this forest fun are on sale for £95 and the take-up will be an acid test of the public’s appetite for crowdfunded journalism. Only a few years ago, this approach was being celebrated as a democratic path to the future of news, which could break the agendas of the media barons by giving control to the people, who would support public interest reporting by pledging funds online.

That was how the argument went.

Crowdfunded journalism's last stand?

Crowdfunded journalism is now on its knees. Contributoria, a division of Guardian Media Group dedicated to “people-supported journalism”, launched in 2014 but closed in September 2015, despite raising £260,000 for the authors of the 787 articles it published. The US-based Beacon Reader closed in September after three years, during which time it underwrote significant projects, contributing $10,000 for a Texas Tribune investigation into police shootings and $57,000 for the Nation to monitor coverage of immigrant communities in the 2016 presidential election campaign.

The UK-based Byline Media, which is staging the festival in June, is now a last hope for the crowdfunded model.

Initially founded in the spring of 2015 by Korean entrepreneur Seung-yoon Lee and Economist journalist Daniel Tudor, it has attracted attention for crowdfunded pieces on diverse subjects including the last Gaza conflict, the economic meltdown in Greece and the media’s reporting of the love life of former culture secretary John Whittingdale.

But this summer the doubts of the founders over Byline’s capacity to scale led to the site being handed over to the blogger and playwright Peter Jukes, who has been one of the pioneers of crowdfunded journalism in the UK with his successful project in covering the Old Bailey phone-hacking trial live on Twitter. With Byline co-director Stephen Colegrave, Jukes (who was previously an adviser to the platform) is recalibrating its model in the hope of giving its writers a better chance of earning a viable return on their stories.

Jukes built a 22,000 Twitter following from his hacking trial coverage and was able to use that constituency to fund other projects, including the podcast Untold, which examines the unsolved murder of private detective Daniel Morgan. But other journalists haven’t found it so easy to find a paying audience. Crowdfunding investors appreciate rewards, such as a signed copy of a book that they have partly-financed, and that’s not possible with every story. “What I realised was that Byline isn’t getting writers paid - and that’s its job,” Jukes admits.

His solution is double-pronged. Firstly, Byline is developing a new digital toolkit for journalists, called Myline, which will enable them to build an audience of potential investors in their work. Myline can scour social media and help writers identify those interested in their subject areas. It can pinpoint the best methods and times of the day for generating payments. “It looks for tags in your writing so you can see what people are talking about in your subject and make sure you are addressing the zeitgeist,” says Jukes. He compares Myline’s techniques to the wider online marketing of products. “Google is doing it all the time.”

This is not, I think, the kind of activity that comes easily to many reporters. But Jukes says that journalists “are going to have to learn” such techniques to survive. From his own experience with covering phone-hacking, finding and having a direct relationship with a supportive community can be invaluable. “The real compensations are that you are not just crowd funding you are interacting – they are giving you back information and sources and they are copy editing.”

Overcoming payment problems

He concedes that the issue of payment is “tricky” and that the public recoils from using credit cards to crowd-fund news, so he is exploring the development of a micro-currency payment system for Byline.

The other prong in Byline’s new strategy is live events. Ahead of next year’s festival, it has hosted a succession of soirees under the heading Byline Insiders Club, each designed to offer “insight about what goes on behind the news”. Former Guardian journalist Nick Davies talked about his career. Meirion Jones, whose investigation into Jimmy Savile was rejected by Newsnight, was among contributors to a discussion on media coverage of child sex abuse since the Cleveland scandal of 1987. And hacktivist Lauri Love talked about the threat of being extradited to the US.

These sessions, held at L’Escargot restaurant in London, are designed to encourage more Byline readers to become investors in the site’s journalism, by offering them more engagement.

Some of the money they contribute at the live events goes towards funding a Byline Investigations team, which has recently been revealing links between the jailed News of the World journalist Mazher Mahmoud and Southern Investigations, the detective agency at the centre of the Morgan murder and a police corruption scandal.

Ironically, considering Jukes’s relationship to the phone-hacking trial, Byline’s investigative unit includes reformed former News of the World phone-hackers Graham Johnson and Dan Evans. “It’s weird,” Jukes admits. “But they admitted what they did and they are still bloody good journalists.”

No doubt there are many in the press who would be happy to see Byline go the way of the other crowdfunding sites. Jukes’s coverage of the hacking trial means that he is seen as an enemy of the tabloids. Stars of the Byline Festival include Labour MP Tom Watson, who campaigned tirelessly on the hacking scandal, and supporters of the Hacked Off press reform group, such as Cleese and Steve Coogan. Byline is signed up to Impress, the press regulator which has been approved by a Government-created panel but rejected by the big newspaper publishers.

Byline vs Fleet Street

Jukes maintains that the site has “no political agenda” and that its festival is a “celebration of free speech and independent journalism”.

Byline felt Fleet Street’s hostility when its allegations of a press cover up over Whittingdale’s trip to an MTV Awards ceremony in Amsterdam with a woman who worked as a dominatrix escort were condemned as intrusive by several newspapers. Jukes also watched the small independent journalism site Exaro News being criticised by newspapers and the BBC and then closed.

“Mainstream wants to knock down these unruly upstarts,” he says. “But there has got to be another route for journalists because they are not going to get employed in Fleet Street [which is] losing advertising revenues. Byline isn’t stealing their revenues…it’s Google and Facebook. Someway or another we have got to work together and make one of these [funding] models work.”

If this lone crowdfunding site does focus a lot of firepower on the established media it is “completely justified”, he claims, when Britain has the least-trusted press in Europe, according to the European Broadcasting Union.

The Byline Festival will be staging the Bad Press Awards (partly inspired by Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction awards), presented by Cleese and likely to feature such categories as “most mendacious column” and “most misleading headline”. Prize money will be given to whistleblowers and outstanding student journalists.

The Daily Mail’s editor-in-chief Paul Dacre is not likely to be pitching his tent in Pippingford Park but the Byline Festival hopes to establish itself – and the idea of crowdfunded journalism – by challenging the idea that the media is a private club and encouraging the public to play a more active role in the news industry. “This is about the more the merrier,” says Jukes. “We are not gate keepers we are the gate openers.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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