Money for media
 Global Times    Liang Chen    2014-01-04 10:40:00 (Beijing Time)

News crowdfunding

Ma Weiqiang, a publicity official of zhongchou.com, a Chinese crowdfunding website, is full of regret when he talks about the news crowdfunding channel that was launched by the website and shut down by local authorities two weeks later on December 15.

"News crowdfunding is a rising star. All the news crowdfunding projects are successful, and we're the first to raise money for news reporting," Ma told the Global Times.

Beijing authorities shut down the news crowdfunding channel on zhongchou.com, claiming "the website has no certificate to operate news-related projects."

The incident has made the idea of news crowdfunding an Internet sensation. Many media professionals predicted that in an era when the swift development of new media threatens traditional media, news crowdfunding could open the door to the latter's renaissance.

Niu Wenwen, the publisher and creator of The Founder magazine, a business monthly, also holds this view.

After acknowledging the boom of the crowdfunding industry in the US following a 10-day tour of Silicon Valley, Niu decided to put one of his TV programs, a popular career planning contest, live on the Internet and raise money via crowdfunding websites.

The idea of news crowdfunding originated from the US website spot.us. Crowdfunding allows people from all walks of life to go beyond their traditional circles and raise money for their projects via online portals.

You can raise money for any cause, project or event, from opening a café or running a restaurant to publishing a book.

News crowdfunding is a means for people to raise funds for news reporting.

Currently in China, news crowdfunding remains a niche market in which journalists will only initiate such projects if they lack funds. They will either publish their stories via the media companies they work for or through social media tools, such as Weibo.

However, in the face of low public recognition of this new method and a lack of public credibility, policy support and legal supervision, insiders worry that crowdfunding might encounter some tough hurdles in China.

Testing the waters

Hou Jiyong, a senior business reporter from 21st Century Business Herald, has long been concerned about the lives and living conditions of budding startup owners in second- and third-tier cities.

He had a dream of doing a series of reports on the struggle faced by young entrepreneurs and publishing an investigative story about them.

However, his boss believed that the topic would be too big and time-consuming, and turned down the proposal.

Hou was frustrated, until he was invited by the newly launched zhongchou.com website to set up his project and raise money for it.

Hou became the first journalist to start an investigative project via zhongchou.com. In a few days, he had raised 3,400 yuan from 96 Web users, with one donor contributing more than 1,980 yuan.

"Money would be used to cover my travel expenses and accommodation," Hou, a Beijing-based journalist who said he chooses topics based on his news sense, told the Global Times.

In return, Hou promised that donors would be given the chance to participate in book clubs and other activities held by him.

A total 15 journalists launched projects and successfully reached their funding targets. Their topics ranged from art and luxury to music and science.

Wu Ziqian, a Beijing News fashion reporter, launched her project in November, investigating how money and power influenced the fashion industry. She successfully raised 1,100 yuan from 17 donors.

Both the website and journalists agreed not to touch sensitive topics.

"We put safety as the top priority. We don't welcome topics regarding politics, ideology and other sensitive topics," Ma Weiqiang told the Global Times.

This was not the first time journalists had bypassed the traditional media model and reported on China via new outlets.

Investigative stories were known to be beneficial in rapidly bringing fame and credibility for journalists and the new media.

However, its characteristics of being time- and money-consuming have drowned out the traditional media, who face difficulties in business operations in general in recent years due to the worsening economic situation.

The closure of a Shanghai daily, Shanghai Evening Post, on the first day of the new year, due to bad economic effects, has cast a shadow over the survival of the traditional media.

Several news media have downsized their investigative reporting groups to maintain operations.

Independent reporters turned to new media, such as news crowdfunding to seek opportunities. They hoped to achieve their goals of pursuing their news ideals via new media, while the reality remains cruel. Many lack the ability to feed themselves via news crowdfunding.

Liu Jianfeng, an independent investigative journalist, was one of the pioneers of this method. In July, Liu posted a message on Weibo announcing his independence and calling on people to support his investigations through donations.

In the Weibo post, he wrote, "From now on, I will work as an independent writer and social observer … to report on some topics including society's systemic problems, major public incidents, controversial figures and incidents and some other major topics."

Liu soon opened an online shop at taobao.com, where anyone who donates 100 yuan or above can read his stories before they are published on public platforms such as Weibo. He also sold his speeches on how to improve interviews and writing skills while working on topics related to rural areas. The most expensive cost 5,000 yuan.

"I used to think about raising money through crowdfunding websites. It didn't work for me, because the project initiator has to first publicly announce the topic and then start to raise money. However, my topics are sensitive and cannot be made public, or they might be killed by the authorities," Liu, who had previously worked for several media companies, told the Global Times.

Liu said he is curious about people's motivations for donating money to him. According to the responses to Liu's declaration of independence, some Web users have an interest in his news topics, while others simply liked the stories Liu wrote when he worked in traditional media.

Niche market

However, even though several journalists have jumped into crowdfunding, it remains a niche market.

"People's willingness to donate is weaker here than in the United States. This is caused by the lack of a private lending social environment and policy support," said Yin Yusheng, an independent journalist who raises money to do reports via taobao.com.

Yin, who has worked for several media companies, quit last year to become an independent journalist and test the news crowdfunding waters.

In one year, he raised around 10,000 yuan via taobao.com and completed two stories: one about the struggle of Chen Baocheng, a journalist who was involved in a land dispute with the local government in Pingdu city, Shandong Province, and a story about police in Luoyang, Henan Province, who have been making accusations of corruption against a local justice department official for years.

The amount of money is far from enough to support him. The money was used to complete two stories, and he has also published stories on Weibo. For the sake of transparency, he posted the photos of his expense receipts on the Internet. Now, he relies on freelancing for his living.

Without the backing of media groups, the credibility of independent journalists who raise money through crowdfunding is hard to establish, Wang Sixin, media professor from Communication University of China, noted.

"Independent journalists who use crowdfunding to support their stories have to rely a great deal on their professionalism, accuracy and personal charisma to establish their credibility and draw in a large number of fans who are willing to pay for their stories," Wang told the Global Times.

Compared with his peers in the traditional media, Yin Yusheng said he has had to work more cautiously and discreetly after he became an independent investigative journalist.

"I have to verify every news fact with at least three or four different interviewees to make sure there are no factual errors in my story. This is the best way to enhance my credibility," Yin, who used to work as an investigative journalist for several media groups over the past 20 years, told the Global Times.

Considering the worsening situation in the traditional media, "New media, such as news crowdfunding, can be an option for traditional media workers, but it relies on the authorities' being lax in their supervision over media," Zhan Jiang, a professor of journalism and communication with the Beijing Foreign Studies University, told the Global Times.

The authorities should lift controls over the new media and issue interviewing certificates to them, in order to create an open policy supervision environment, Zhan noted.

So far, China has no regulations or laws to regulate the industry, and crowdfunding websites have no clear boundaries on taboo areas that they should avoid, Ma Weiqiang noted.

Also, there are no concrete regulations demanding that project initiators release and update information on the use of funds to donators. Several crowdfunding websites told the Global Times that they rely on donators to take the initiative in making the use of funds transparent.

"There are suspicions over whether journalists' incentives for writing a story will be influenced if they receive large amounts of money from one donator. Preventing paid news and ensuring its objectivity is important," Wang told the Global Times.

Yin said he has previously refused some of his friends who offered large amounts of money for his stories. Instead, he only accepts small contributions so there is no question of donators influencing his stories.

Fear of fraud

As crowdfunding is donation-based, insiders are worried that donators may find their rights infringed, as websites have not yet established any regulations to supervise the implementation of the projects.

"Donators donate money based on their own judgment and on their personal volition. It is not impossible for people to take the money and do nothing practical in pushing forward the project," Ma, from zhongchou.com, told the Global Times, indicating they have no effective measures or regulations to prevent the occurrence of such fraudulent activities.

The industry needs to be supervised and third party agencies need to be brought in to prevent paid news and ensure that funds have been used properly, Wang Sixin noted.

"Any website suspected of committing fraud should be shut down if it is discovered," Wang told the Global Times.

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