11/21/2013 03:45 pm ET Updated Feb 01, 2014

It's Time to Democratize Patronage for Journalism. Here's Why.


In a free society "The press is our immune system" as Jon Stewart said at the Rally to Restore Sanity. Now consider that since 2000, over 30 percent of newsroom positions in the U.S. have disappeared. Losing 30 percent of journalists is like losing 30 percent of our democracy's key defenders against corruption and illness. Without a robust press to protect us, we as a society are exposed and vulnerable to a wide variety of threats, both foreign and domestic.

You may have noticed a growing change in the tone and depth of the news you do receive. Those journalists that are left are not as able to focus on their roles as defenders of the public interest. With fewer journalists and a punishing real-time news cycle, news is increasingly composed of information that is easy, fast and inexpensive to get -- like coverage of sensationalized trials, opinion, celebrity, and syndicated stories. Investigations that uncover new information are fewer and farther between. Official and corporate PR statements are often reprinted at face value with little time devoted to research claims and evaluate their truth.

How did this happen?

Many point at pressures on the business model for news. The number of places for advertising dollars to go outside of news publishers has exploded -- social, blogs and video are all expanding at rates that were unimaginable a decade ago. In this hyper-competitive environment, news publishers now have to create content that will reliably garner large numbers of clicks and impressions for advertisers, for the lowest possible cost.

The emerging result is intense pressure to create news that will quickly and cheaply garner attention from the public, not necessarily value for the public. We've all seen what that looks like -- Miley Cyrus getting billing over major domestic and international issues, and an overall steep decline in the balance of stories that uncover new information meant to help us, not just attract us.

This change is by and large not a conscious or willing choice, but a torturous series of small decisions punishingly enforced by the financial realities of advertising and news in the digital age.

Journalism meant to uncover new information in the public interest -- for example, digging out corruption, executing serious science journalism, and reporting from war zones -- is an expensive, time consuming, risky process. It's not that the other kinds of content are bad or shouldn't be done, or that advertising is inherently corrosive. The reality, however, is that the forms of content that work best in the current news ecosystem are crowding out the kinds of journalism that we must have to protect us from corruption, governmental overreach and a range of other submerged threats to the public interest.

If pressure on the existing advertising/subscription business model for news is the root of the problem, how can we restore the media's ability to protect us?

There have only ever really been three business models for journalism: advertising, subscription, and patronage. The patronage model has had a storied history in America. Wealthy industrialists run papers, sometimes at a loss, because they believe in the importance of the editorial vision and voices that they support -- and because they can use these papers to apply indirect pressure on the nature of the public dialogue.

Patronage is experiencing a Renaissance in the journalism world now, with Pierre Omidyar and Jeff Bezos as its latest heralds. They each recognize the scale and importance of the problem with news and are dedicating hundreds of millions of dollars to their efforts. These new ventures have the power to change the public dialogue, but Bezos and Omidyar can only serve as patrons for the papers they control. And it can't fall only to these few to heal the press.

We need a way to tweak the model for the industry as a whole, a new source of funding that can make reporting and investigative journalism in the public interest a consistently profitable, appealing, comparatively low-risk proposition for all players -- from major publications like the Post and the Times to nonprofits and freelancers.

The public needs a change as badly as the industry does. Today, if you or I want to see journalism produced on a topic that matters to us (say, for instance, the aftermath of the financial crisis) at best I can buy a subscription to a publication that has written about that topic in the past and hope it gets written about again in the future.

It is hard to imagine a more inefficient, unsatisfying way for people to support uncovering new stories in the public interest.

What if we could democratize patronage by making it possible for the public to become patrons of those topics, editors and journalists that matter to them -- whether they work at the Times, or at a nonprofit news organization like the Center for Public Integrity, or are freelancers, perhaps reporting from a war zone?

The produced work could run in the publications whose journalists proposed to work on it, but those backers that supported its creation would get the work they support for free. And the people who have supported the creation of that news would be invested in its output, proud and likely to share the produced stories with their social circles, greatly increasing its reach. A major paper or a nonprofit would use such a system to increase the funding, engagement and reach for the journalism they want to do in the public interest. A freelancer would use it to build a funding following with which to write about the topics that they are passionate about. And the organization would need to back up those who need it with editorial and fact checking support.

It is not hard to imagine a significant increase in the number of investigative journalists that could be supported by an engaged, funding public.

I believe in putting your money where your mouth is, and in fixing the problems you see in the world with the tools you have. As a technologist, I've spent the last eight months working with a small team of developers and team members on a working prototype that enables democratized patronage for news. Like any marketplace, in its infancy, it is hard to bring the players together in the same place at the same time in appropriate numbers to create momentum. But if we can come together as journalists, publications and patrons, I believe we can change the way the press works, and in so doing help journalists to protect the public.

Bill Buzenberg and the Center for Public Integrity, one of the country's largest and best respected nonprofit investigative news organizations, agree. They will be a launch partner when we go live with our beta platform early next year, and they have some very exciting investigations to do that I cannot wait to help support.

The platform is called Uncoverage. If you sign up at, we will be opening alpha access to early adopters soon.

If you are a publication, a patron, an editor or a journalist, and you want to help build this vision, please get in touch. My personal email is israel at uncoverage dot com.