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Crowdfunding for For-Profits

crowdfundingLittle Rock  I was lucky to be in Little Rock last night so that I could stop by the second annual “truth teller” award ceremony and fundraiser for the Arkansas Community Organizations, formerly Arkansas ACORN.  It was fun to see old friends from many decades ago who were so important to ACORN’s work in Arkansas again. It was nice to hear Bobbie Roberts, the award winner, thank ACO and ACORN for their support in helping build the award winning central Arkansas library system over his many years of leadership, even if Mary Mayeaux did bust me for leading the applause then and later when the fact that Roberts paid a living wage was mentioned. 

            It was interesting to hear Max Brantley, Senior Editor of the Arkansas Times weekly, and Jim Lynch, the head of the Arkansas Community Institute, the c3 arm of ACO, jab Roberts about an editorial in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.  It was more interesting to hear Roberts at the end of his own remarks pull out a tattered copy of the editorial in question, claiming, to laughs from the crowd, that he had rescued it from the garbage, and offer a hearty response in a lengthy digression.  It was a reminder of life in a smaller city, where a certain crowd will still read editorials and actually care about them in no small part because they are still personal and not anonymously penned opinions.  To this crowd it was Paul Greenberg trying for a takedown of Roberts, as the library “czar,” on the issue of diversity from what I could tell, and a good reminder that in a smaller city it is easier to look through the window at the small circles of power, influence, and opinion that are either obscure or irrelevant in bigger cities these days.

            As the economic model based more on advertising than readership continues to clobber newspapers, making them thinner and narrower every day with smaller and smaller “news holes,” this phenomena may become nostalgic. These are desperate institutions committed to a certain business model and resistant to change.

            In fact some of the desperate lunges are almost bizarre.   Picking up the Arkansas Times before the reception I was surprised to see a one-page advertisement of sorts in the middle of the paper for readers to go to a crowdfunding site to help them raise a bit over $25,000 to join their very committed for-profit weekly paper with the award winning nonprofit InsideClimateNews so they could try to do a better job covering the oil spill in Mayflower, Arkansas hardly a half-hour up the road.  Thus far they seemed to have raised about $10,000 of the $26000 they are hoping for.

            The Wall Street Journal recently ran a long article with some pointed criticism of Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites as having been perverted and sidetracked to being funding sources for folks differently than intended. Big names and others are increasingly setting funding records while the little startups are dwarfed.

            Here in Arkansas our noncommercial radio station has devoted huge time blocks to covering the Mayflower story because of love, not money, just because it was important and happening in our broadcast area.  In this smaller town of Little Rock the Arkansas Times longtime owner and publisher, Alan Leveritt, is well known for his unbending commitment to his paper’s bottom line.  When KABF asked the Arkansas Times to make a contribution for a regular spot we were running for them for 5 or 10 minutes per day, every day, we were rebuked for the request with a personally delivered message directly attributed to Leveritt.

            But, that’s business, so no sweat, but why isn’t it the business of the Arkansas Times to cover Mayflower, just as KABF did, regardless of the cost, because it’s the right thing to do and will be rewarded by readers?  Should donors get a tax exemption for making a contribution for this coverage to the nonprofit climate outfit and the for-profit Arkansas Times?  Are we all going to have to pay for the news we want to read, not just once, but every time we want to know the news?  Are nonprofits like KABF just the suckers who have to build capacity with volunteers and sustainable appeals and underwriting, while others get to pick and choose?  Is this what crowdfunding is about or not?

            As for the unfair editorial in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, who knows what it really said.  The paper was a couple of days old so not available and only subscribers can access the website, and though I pay for a lot of papers, I’m not sure why I would ever want to pay for an editorial that I pretty much know already wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.   This may be a lot for everyone to chew on, but it all seems very important these days to all of us.