Matter is a new journalism project that’s currently raising funds via Kickstarter. Within hours of launching it drew a particularly unpleasant response from Stephen Robert Morse, a Tow-Knight Entrepreneurial Journalism Fellow at the City University of New York. At this point I’ll mention I haven’t backed the project – it’s just not really my thing.
The point Stephen made (when he wasn’t going out of his way to insult or defame people) was that people should save their time, money and effort for projects with solid business models. Of course, that’s a perfectly valid opinion and I’d agree that it’s a worthwhile thing to pursue, although not to the exclusion of other experiments. It’s also his area of study, so you can see why it would be his major preoccupation.
However, he attacks two things that I think are very interesting, both of which are encapsulated in this little quote:
While the trailer has an obscenely high production value and the project may have some biggish-in-this-insular-world names on screen, they never make a point to say where the money that unsuspecting victims donate is actually going
Personally, I think those are the best things about this project.
As Stephen points out, they’ve worked the Kickstarter format well – the video has high production values and they’ve got some influential people to lend their support. Presumably those people have helped/will help to spread the word too. Basically, they haven’t just told people that they’re experienced communicators with good connections, they’ve demonstrated it in their pitch.
Whereas Stephen sees that as conning ‘unsuspecting victims’ (patronising sod), I interpret that as an encouraging sign that the people behind Matter:
- have the contacts to reach (and question) the right people for their stories; and
- will be able to connect with an audience once they’re up and running.
I already believed that though, which is why this point is minor compared to the next one.
Stephen complains that:
it is a scam in that the costs of completing an operation like this have not been articulated to the people who may be making donations to the project
‘Scam’? Steady. Bit much. Actually, you’d think that such vagueness would hamper a fundraising project like this. What’s interesting is that Jim and Bobbie didn’t need to explain themselves (although they have now, a bit).
They’re trading off the reputations they’ve built up over the years, with plenty of people trusting them enough to risk a few dollars on them. Bearing in mind the public’s current opinion of journalists, that’s no mean feat.
Stephen doesn’t have that level of trust in them. Fair enough, I expect many wouldn’t, but going so far as to call Jim and Bobbie ‘Snake Oil Salesmen’ their project ‘a scam’, their backers ‘unsuspecting victims’, their benefits ‘junk’ and insinuating that they’ll just take the money and run… well, it makes you wonder all sorts of uncharitable things.
How this relates to art
There’s an article doing the rounds at the moment in which one of the co-founders of Kickstarter is quoted as saying:
It is probable Kickstarter will distribute more money this year than the NEA
For non-US readers, the NEA is the National Endowment for the Arts. It’s essentially the US equivalent of Arts Council England. UPDATE: actually, see Helga’s comment about this below – the NEA isn’t all that big.
Now, I know that some have concerns around the whole idea of crowdfunding, with people questioning the range of artistic endeavours that would benefit from it. They say that only safe, populist work would be funded, that rich people would fund art for themselves and that some things - participatory work with certain communities, for instance – wouldn’t stand a chance. I think they have a point and (as the article says) there will always be a role for state funding.
However, I like the idea that organisations might be able to secure funding for unspecified projects, purely off the back of the reputations they’ve built up.
The thing that I especially like about this idea is that artists and arts organisations could take the effort they currently put into impressing/building relationships with funders and instead lavish that attention on their audiences and communities. What would they do if they didn’t have to spend time on funding applications, evaluations, meetings and other assorted hoop-jumping activities?
I wonder if an organisation’s ability to raise funds in this way might be a measure of the kind of relationship they have with their audiences. For instance, if every theatre company in the country were to say “We’re going to crowdfund our next production. We don’t know what it’ll be, but we’ll need at least £50,000. Trust us”, I wonder how many would hit the target.