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Public-funded investigative journalism: 10 good questions with Israel Mirsky of Uncoverage

Uncoverage is a new platform that will make it possible for people to get issues that matter to them investigated and analyzed by serious journalists. For journalists and nonprofit news organizations, Uncoverage will allow them to seek crowdsourced funding for both articles and issues such as financial corruption or the business of prisons.

Journalists will pitch stories for the site and to the topic editors and people can choose to back whichever topic or reporter interests them. Reporters will then work on their stories with support from topic editor. Editors may be freelance or belong to a nonprofit, or a publication. If a pitch gets funded, the stories will be available freely and Uncoverage will try to help it get placement in national publications.

Unlike other crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo (which is where Uncoverage’s campaign is hosted) Uncoverage will accommodate funding for more than just one-time pitches. People can also subscribe to fund topics or individual reporters on an ongoing basis. Money for general topics will be split up among projects by the editors for those topics.

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Israel Mirsky

Israel Mirsky, the founder of the platform, works in digital advertising. When I asked him why he was interested in this, and why now, he said, “I’m a news enthusiast who believes in the role of news as the public immune system. I got involved because I saw the decline of so many news brands and journalists going out of work, an incredibly disturbing trend. I am building this because digital is what I know, and helping to offer public interest journalism a potential new business model through technology is the best way I know how to help.”

With a little over a week to go, Uncoverage has raised more than $15,700 of its $55,000 goal. Mirsky said that it will continue regardless whether the goal is met or not, but are already “close enough to launching a functional product to get there.” Meanwhile, they are also in progress on other avenues for funding, including grants and investment.

1. What problem is Uncoverage solving for readers and citizens?

Investigation in the public interest traditionally has the lowest advertising ROI, and needs supplementary funding dedicated to it.

ISRAEL MIRSKY: For citizens, we are solving our frustrating inability to affect issues of greed, crime, corruption, and secrecy, by enabling them to sponsor journalists to root these problems out.

For journalists, whether freelancers, nonprofit or for profit, Uncoverage is solving the problem of finding funding for journalism that matters, and providing a virtual lean newsroom with editorial, legal and other critical support for those who need it. Investigation in the public interest traditionally has the lowest advertising ROI, and needs supplementary funding dedicated to it.

2. There have been a lot of other crowdfunding efforts, including Spot.us, which is now owned by American Public Radio, and newly launched Beacon Reader and Contributoria. How is Uncoverage different?

MIRSKY: Spot.us was a really important first effort in this space — it was way ahead of its time, before crowdfunding was something the public understood.

It was also focused on pitches, so serious investigative content was hard to get done because all ideas had to be in the open ahead of time (this is what we’re solving with funding on the pitch and topic levels). Finally, it was hyperlocally focused, which meant that the pool of people to crowdfund from was really very small for any individual pitch.

As for Beacon Reader, I think those guys are smart, this is just a different model. They are more like a subscription service — Netflix — pay an amount and give them everything. And I think it’s an interesting model and I think they are smart.

Contributoria is another platform I am watching. They are another interesting take on subscription, with a points system where members contribute pre purchased points to stories they are interested in. They are more about facilitating open collaboration around stories than we are, where we are more focused on investigative work around issues and about the brands of the journalists doing important work.

I think the biggest difference is that we are trying to help the whole ecosystem — freelancers, nonprofits and for-profits.

3. How do you describe your business model?

MIRSKY: At the simplest level, it’s a percentage of each donation, same as other funding platforms. We cost slightly more because we offer more services, especially to freelancers — a kind of “lean newsroom” experience where they have access to editors, fact checking, legal and story placement support.

4. How will you predict how much funding or time any given story will need?

MIRSKY: Each writer submits a budget and timeline for each story/pitch. If a story runs over, they can request additional funds be released from the editor of the topic in which their story is being funded.

5. Can you walk me through the process from pitching and submitting a story to distribution?

MIRSKY: First, the journalist has likely been crowdfunding using Uncoverage widgets through their profile on their blog and social destinations. Say they have a thousand dollars in their Uncoverage account. Now they’ve got a lead on a project to write about. They submit a pitch, budget and timeline to a relevant topic and flag whether it’s a “public” or “private” pitch — more on that in a bit.

Each topic has an editor — can be a freelance editor, or an editor from a nonprofit or a publication. The editor helps refine and approves the pitch, and may contribute funds collected at a topical level. They also can approve the release of funds to a story from the journalist’s account.

So if it’s a $3,000 pitch, the journalist may ask to contribute $1,000, the editor may contribute $1,000, leaving $1,000 left to be funded. If it’s a public pitch, the pitch goes on the Uncoverage site for crowd-funding; if it’s a private pitch, the $3,000 needs to come from funds gathered at the journalist or topic levels (we anticipate this happening quite a bit).

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The editor approves the pitch. The journalist takes 50 percent upfront for expenses, then investigates and writes the story, while staying in contact with the editor. The editor manages most fact checking, and will be able to bring in additional fact checking resources from Uncoverage. The editor and the journalist start with a baseline percentage and from there, agree to a fee for the editor, dependent on the editor’s level of effort, and when both are satisfied the editor releases the rest of the funds. Journalist fulfills any rewards they have promised.

At this point, if Uncoverage sees an opportunity to help the journalist place the piece with larger papers, we’ll do so — and have a good position from which to do it. We don’t own the piece, the journalist does, so this is a commission arrangement if desired. Editors may also help with this process. If an editor was with a publication, it is more likely that the piece will be published in that paper, as it is already likely up to that organization’s standards.

As the pieces produced travel across the Web, they carry the Uncoverage funding buttons for their authors and sometimes topics with them, gathering funds from those who care about those stories.

6. The majority of news consumers don’t pay for digital news. How will you get people to donate for news, and for a particular type of it?

MIRSKY: People have demonstrated that they aren’t willing to pay for news that has already been produced.  Our bet is that in exchange for the responsibility, the release from the sense of frustration and powerlessness, and the rewards of crowdfunding, people want to pay for investigation and news to be produced on the topics that matter to them.

7. Brown Moses, the Syrian weapons blogger who’s launching a new platform and resource for open, investigative journalism, will be working with Uncoverage. The nonprofit investigative group the Center for Public Integrity has also signed on as a partner. How will these partnerships work?

MIRSKY: They will edit topics and their journalists will have profiles that they use to crowdfund across the Web. The partner editors act like the other editors and can approve and edit topics. The topic channels they edit aren’t exclusive and multiple people and topics can overlap.

8. Uncoverage isn’t for citizen journalism or hyperlocal news. Why did you decide to go this route?

MIRSKY: Likelihood of success. Neither has proven itself effective in the past.

9. What are you most worried and most excited about in launching this?

Investigative journalism is the balancer of a free society, its immune system, and an empowered investigative journalism corps has the power to help create a much more just, equitable society.

MIRSKY: I am most excited because if this works, and it’s a huge gamble for me, it has the power to change so much. Investigative journalism is the balancer of a free society, its immune system, and an empowered investigative journalism corps has the power to help create a much more just, equitable society. People behave better when they feel they are being watched, that there are consequences to their actions. We need that sense back as a culture.

I fear that people will make the mistake of thinking that this has been tried before. It’s not Spot.us again, and people really need to understand that. Avaaz, Change.org, Indiegogo, Kickstarter — they’ve proved that people will fund a vision if you make it compelling enough, and make them responsible for its success. If I fail, it will be because I didn’t explain what this is and what it can be well enough.

10. What kind of investigative reporting do you wish to see in say, 5 or 10 years? Who will do it, how will it be different?

MIRSKY: In five years, I think the personal brand of the investigative journalist will be much more prominent; it will be a huge part of how we find and choose our news, and it will be executed by a larger mix of empowered freelance, nonprofit and for-profit talent.

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