Web & Blogs

Can You Pay Yourself a Kill Fee?


Dolly Freed, bestselling author.

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.

Will appreciate obscure corners of Americana for food.

"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.

NEXT: Who Burst Our Beautiful Bubble?

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  1. It’s also one version of how the genre might continue when we are truly free of magazines.

    For a Reason which is a magazine, that’s a strange wish.

  2. 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.

    Ok, ok, I won’t read it, then!


  3. Not that he’s a Libertarian fave, but Upton Sinclair, after the success of The Jungle, got a lot of money for other muckraking endeavors.

    You’ll find a number of other writers from that period (‘0s-20s), thanking subscribers at the end of their books.

    But the playoffs are about to start, so if you want to me to find them, buzz off.

  4. That sounds like the most boring and insignificant goddamn shit on the planet and “journalism” like that is why modern papers deserve to fail. If the simple-living advocate really wants to get her story out she can start a goddamn blog.

    Why the hell did the author go on what was obviously a personal quest and not something marketable?

    1. I mean why is she expecting people to pick up the tab for her personal quest??

  5. Worked for me!

  6. Courtesy of the Twitter feed…

    How ironic.

  7. It has literally been years since I’ve finished anything from the feature well of The New Yorker or the New York Times Magazine.
    I used to finish reading those all the time before the ubiquity of broadband internet.

  8. Think of it as Radiohead journalism

    You ask me to think of it as pseudointellectual and overrated?

    1. PS You know who’s not overrated?

      “The one

      The only

      Mr. Steely Dan!

      or whateva”

  9. Geez, Tim, you’re the only one blogging over here. I hear if you get five posts up in a row you get to supply the Dorian Fruits to Chad and Tony for their…uh, personal amusement.

  10. She spent $2,000 out of pocket without getting an in-writing agreement to cover expenses? Pfft. Probably has a subprime second mortgage, too.

  11. Global warming?

    Not directly about global warming. A mad Scot tearing into a British weather bureaucrat. This guy backpedals as well as Gibbs.

    1. That was awesome, thanks! I think all bureaucrats who get “performance bonuses” should have to face this guy.

      1. Hell hath no fury like a Scot jipped out of a dime.

        1. ten pence.

          1. More like 6 pence.

  12. We do this kind of stuff on Spot.Us all the time.

    Well – the writers don’t get started until they think they’ve raised enough. So we don’t do reverse funding – we try and raise money to get reporters started.

    On Monday, for example, we will launch a fundraising campaign to investigate the Regents of the University of California. And if we are able to raise enough – the reporter will start digging into files.

    Is it scalable. We aren’t sure: But we do want to find out.

  13. This is sort of how Spot.US works, but there you solicit donations for a pitch first and start reporting when the donations reach your target. It’s been working well for over a year: http://spot.us

    Similar models for Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Biracy. (All .com domains — the comment filter here forbids comments with more than 2 links.)

  14. I have friends who are professional musicians, and the breakdown of the recorded-music business model is a popular topic with them. At least musicians can get paid to perform live.

  15. Oh wow dude, this is actually making pretty good sense to be now dude I like it.


    1. Good to see you here again, Beano. At least you’re somewhat familiar, unlike the other spammer assholes.

  16. Thanks, all, for weighing in. It’s been interesting to watch the discussion unfold. As for the genesis of the project, it was in no way a “personal quest” but rather simply an interesting story that I wanted to tell. The story subject didn’t seek to “get her story out there” at all. It’s been a happy and rather unexpected development that readers have found value in the work and the attempt, and in the conversation that’s emerged from it.

  17. What you selling there Sim Beano. Russian proxy servers, drive cleaners, back door orifices.

  18. There was a guy claiming he was making something like $500 a week standing on one of the street corners in these here parts. People felt sorry for him and they gave him money. That’s a good analogy for Radiohead; they don’t really make very good music and people give them money because they feel sorry for them. What’s unfortunate is that they continue to make “music”. Just kidding, Radiohead is pretty good sometimes.

    Whatever. I thought the Dolly Freed story of resourcefulness was pretty good so I sent a couple bucks her way. I had never heard of her before. Catching, raising or foraging for food and making your own clothes or whatever can be enriching and rewarding, IMHO. Sorta like the peaceful forest ape of the Northwest.

    These new publishing experiments are curious.

  19. I can see why editors passed on it. Williams doesn’t ask Dolly about her Dad’s throwing bricks through windows, her lack of health care (did she ever need dental work?), and her isolation. It’s all happy-happy.

    I also think Dolly’s dad is pretty high on the autism spectrum. If you ever a chance, see Nancy Schreiber’s film. Explains quite a bit about the family dynamics.

  20. Bart, you’re right — I could’ve gone into that a bit more. A few reasons why I didn’t. Maybe I’ll add that at some point, now that it’s live. I was racing the clock to get it launched. Schreiber’s film is fascinating, for sure. Interesting theory on the autism — intrigued to know why you think so…

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