Freelance journalist Paige Williams comes up with a new variation on direct-to-reader journalism. She has done a piece of reporting on spec, incurred expenses of more than $2000, and is now publishing it on her site with an anchored widget explaining just how much the piece cost and asking for donations.
This is not essentially different from the standard Paypal honor system for bloggers, in which somebody takes a junket to Eritrea or some such place, blogs about it, keeps the donation basket open to all donors, then lies about how much money he's making. The distinctive feature here is Williams' providing a price tag and a donation goal for a particular piece, and also the nature of the article itself.
"Finding Dolly Freed" is a thoughtful, 6,000-word piece catching up with a one-time writer and simple living advocate who is said to have been a household name in the late seventies (though I have to confess I'd never heard of Dolly Freed before today). It's the kind of piece that long-form journalism advocates say is dying out every time another DoubleTake goes out of business, and the kind that experts are always saying you can't do online, where attention spans, we're told, are brief.
Can this experiment work? I'd say it's got a good chance in the specific case, as enough people will point to it, and at some point Williams will get 2,000 diehard Dolly Freed fans willing to cough up a buck. Whether it's scalable is another matter. My impression is that long, deep profiles like these have always been more reflective of what reporters want to do (spend a lot of time and travel on a subject that interests them) and what awards committees are looking for (class! class! nothing but class!), than they are of what readers want to read. But I'm a bad judge. It has literally been years since I've finished anything from the feature well of The New Yorker or the New York Times Magazine.
Lengthy, intelligent, stop-and-smell-the-roses stories like these have always been a sign of journalistic plenty, an affirmation that somebody was willing to pay the expenses for an army of printed-word Charles Kuralts. Williams' model acknowledges that those days are, if not entirely over, dying out fast. It's also one version of how the genre might continue when we are truly free of magazines. So go take a look, and maybe give Williams some money.
Courtesy of the Twitter feed of remorseless killing machine Jay Rosen.