The future of journalism is…Radiohead?

Ira BasenWhen magazine writer Paige Williams self-published a 6,000-word profile that “had no other home,” readers contributed online. In this case, Ira Basen writes, crowd funding worked, but what drives readers to donate?

In 1978, in the middle of a deep economic recession, an eighteen year old girl named Dolly Freed wrote a book about her life in a non-monetary economy called Possum Living: How to live well without a job and with almost no money.  The book described how Dolly and her father were able to live happily in rural Pennsylvania, spending less than $2000 a year.

The book became a surprise bestseller, and Dolly Freed (not her real name), became an overnight, if short-lived celebrity.  After her 15 minutes of fame ended, Dolly disappeared from view, and has not written or spoken publicly in over thirty years.

Now, in the middle of another economic downturn, a revised version of Possum Living has been released, and this prompted Paige Williams, an award wining American magazine writer, to set out to answer the question, whateve happened to Dolly Fried?

She spent months pitching the idea to The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and several other publications, but got no takers.  So Williams decided to write the story anyway.

The result is “Finding Dolly Freed,” a fascinating and revealing 6,000 word profile of a truly original American life that Williams posted on a website that she created specifically for this story.  “I’m self-publishing this story because it had no other home.” Williams wrote.  “I wanted it to live in the world, not die in my notebook”.

But this was not a cheap story to do.  It involved travel to Texas, where Dolly currently lives, and money to pay a photographer and fact checker.  All told, Williams, who was unemployed at the time, was out more than $2000 in expenses, and that doesn’t include weeks of reporting and writing time.

Enter Radiohead.  In 2007 the British band released an album on the web before it appeared on CD, and invited their fans to download it.  They could pay nothing for the download, or they could pay whatever amount they thought was appropriate.

So Paige Williams thought she would try a similar approach with “Finding Dolly Freed.” She put a Pay Pal link on the site and told readers they were welcome to read for free, or they could contribute whatever they wanted.  Within the first ten days of the story being posted, it had attracted around 6000 unique visitors, and they had donated nearly

There has been a lot of buzz about reader-supported content or “crowdfunding” over the past year.  The best known site is the San Francisco based where readers can donate money to story ideas pitched by freelance writers.

Most stories pitched on fall into the category of investigative news stories, the kind of solid local stories about municipal malfeasance that newspapers used to embrace before they started firing reporters.

But what about long-form narrative non-fiction features like “Finding Dolly Freed”? These stories typically take months to do, cost thousands of dollars, and they generally lack the “this story must be told” imperative that might drive readers to donate.

But the results can be spectacular.  In the 1960’s, how many readers would have given Gay Talese money to follow Frank Sinatra around for a few months as he tried, unsuccessfully, to interview the reclusive crooner? Esquire magazine did, and Talese’s profile, “Frank Sinatra has a Cold” is widely considered to be a model of narrative non-fiction.

For her part, Paige Williams recognizes that there are serious shortcomings to the approach she took in writing about Dolly Freed.  “I don’t know if this template can work for everyone,” she said in an interview. That wasn’t the question I set out to answer. I just wanted to see if it would work for this one story.”

And now that she has a day job, executive editor of Boston Magazine, she’s less concerned about whether she ever gets back all the money she spent to write her article.

“If we don’t follow what we love, what the hell are we doing? If I backtracked over the course of my 20-year career as a journalist and played every move safe, I wouldn’t have done half the things I’ve done. I had to
find out what the story was about.”

Ira Basen is a former senior producer at CBC’s Sunday Morning and Quirks and Quarks. He was involved in the creation of programs including The Inside Track (1985), This Morning (1997) and Workology (2001), as well as several special series, including Spin Cycles (2007) and News 2.0 (2009). His writing has appeared in Saturday Night, The Walrus, Maisonneuve and the Canadian Journal of Communication. He currently teaches at Ryerson University and the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University. He is a co-author of the Canadian edition of The Book of Lists.