Trust/funding

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.

Storytelling

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.

Trust

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.

5 comments

  1. Pingback: How longform science magazine Matter will become a sustainable business « Slipr

  2. Pete Ashton   •  

    There’s something about context here too. The Matter kids aren’t necessarily talking to The Whole World, and no even the Kickstarter community. They’re just using the Kickstarter platform to talk to people who know and trust them.

    Years back there was a kerfuffle over Tim O’Reilly’s FOOcamp (which in turn gave birth to the BARcamp model) where O’Reilly was inviting a select group of people for what could be termed an “elitist” gathering (in a positive and negative sense) but, and this was the key thing, conducting the conversation about it in public on newsgroups, blogs and the like.

    This mix of the public and the private struck some people as odd. If you’re using a public medium them surely the stuff you’re talking about should be for the public. Open begets open, and all that.

    But it doesn’t have to, and in practice it never really works that way. Trust, reputation and all that stuff already create a niche of understanding which acts as a barrier to entry for those outside the conversation (the story, if you like) so even on a massive broadcast platform like Kickstarter you’re still limited to those who already have a connection with you.

    In other words, unless you’re already tapping into a popular narrative (say, iPhone accessories) you can only expect people who know you to contribute. I’ve be very surprised if Matter raised much if any money from people who didn’t already know them by reputation. And that’s to be expected.

    (This should have been a blog post really.)

  3. Helga   •  

    Thanks for that post Chris, lots to think about in a world where Kickstarter, Indigogo et al are heralded as some funding “saviour”.

    As ever, they will be and they won’t. Your point is well made though, that the organisations who have (or can build) popular support and amass LOTS of relatively small donations from legions of happy fans will do well on this format. But I suspect they will need the fans before they get on to a crowdfunding platform and not during a campaign (or evidently, after).

    That said, there are some interesting models and I don’t know if you are aware of RIOT Films completion of “The Cosmonaut” that attracted support from as little as 2 Euros…

    You can read about it here: http://yetanotherstrugglingwriter.blogspot.com/2010/01/cosmonaut-model-for-crowdfunding.html

    and there’s a lovely film of them explaining the concept (it was very new in Spain when they first launched) here:
    http://vimeo.com/12171653

    Hat tip to Peter Broderick (www.peterbroderick.com) for showing this as part of Seize The Future, which I just attended this week.

    And as for the claim that Crowdfunding will fund more than the NEA – that isn’t hard. No really. Of course Kickstarter will exceed the NEA’s budget. The NEA is a Federal body that gives out a few million a year for the WHOLE of the USA. The main arts funding (such as it is) takes place in the US at State and civic level. Arts Council England West Midlands makes more grants available through its regular funding programme than the NEA does for a whole country!!

    But the US model (of which Kickstarter et al are an increasingly important part) places much more emphasis on multiple streams of income and I think that means that work gets created with audiences and micro communities of support in mind at the outset if the work is going to get made.

    So all in all – the audience focussed organisations will be the one’s to watch in the coming shitstorm, you watch.

  4. Chris Unitt   •     Author

    Pete and Helga. Ta both – yes, agree with all of that (and ta to Helga for the NEA perspective).

    I’ve also thought a bit more about my final para when I said “an organisation’s ability to raise funds in this way might be a measure of the kind of relationship they have with their audiences”. Maybe you only have to look at a list of failed crowdfunding projects to spot the organisations that don’t know their audiences as well as they might like to think.

  5. Pingback: One year later… - Chris Unitt's blog

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