This model is vital in sustaining real journalism: it fosters independence, invests readers in the work that is done, and keeps journalists accountable to individuals
Many news outlets around the world, in the age of the internet, have struggled to find an economically sustainable model for supporting real journalism. The results, including for some of the largest, have been mass lay-offs, bureau closures, an increasing reliance on daily spurts of short and trivial traffic-generating items, and worst of all, a severe reduction in their willingness and ability to support sustained investigative journalism. All sorts of smaller journalistic venues - from local newspapers to independent political blogs - now devote a substantial portion of their energies to staying afloat rather than producing journalism, and in many cases, have simply ceased to exist.
Virtually all aspects of real journalism have been negatively affected by these difficulties. Economic suffering, of course, plagues an endless number of realms beyond journalism. But there are special dangers when true journalism cannot find a means to fund itself.
As governments and private financial power centers become larger, more secretive, and less accountable, one of the few remaining mechanisms for checking, investigating and undermining them - adversarial journalism - has continued to weaken. Many of these large struggling media outlets don't actually do worthwhile adversarial journalism and aren't interested in doing it, but some of them do. For an entity as vast as the US government and the oligarchical factions that control it - with their potent propaganda platforms and limitless financial power - only robust, healthy and well-funded journalism can provide meaningful opposition.
For several years, I've been absolutely convinced that there is one uniquely potent solution to all of this: reader-supported journalism. That model produces numerous significant benefits. To begin with, it liberates good journalists from the constraints imposed by exclusive reliance on corporate advertisers and media corporations. It enables journalism that is truly in the public interest - and that actually engages, informs, and inspires its readers - to be primarily accountable to those readers.
Most importantly, this model elevates the act of journalism into a collective venture, where readers are invested in the adversarial pushback against powerful institutions that good journalism provides.
Reader-supported journalism also democratizes political discourse and injects otherwise excluded perspectives; it does so by enabling the funding of a platform for those who want to cover issues and advocate perspectives unwelcome in most large corporate conglomerates. It provides a crucial alternative to the easiest careerist path for journalists to make a living: working for and serving the most powerful and wealthiest corporate factions. Under this model, it is only the journalists who people perceive are providing a real public value who are supported.
And, probably most importantly, this model elevates the act of journalism into a collective venture, where readers are invested in the adversarial pushback against powerful institutions that good journalism provides. Readers become a part of it and the causes it advances, rather than just passive recipients of a one-way monologue. In sum, it's vital that journalism be funded not only by large corporate interests with homogenous agendas but by citizens banding together as well.
This model is not entirely new. The great independent journalist IF Stone was able to produce his path-breaking newsletter of the 1950s and 1960s only as a result of reader support. The emergence of political blogs at the beginning of the last decade, which really did produce several unique voices and had some genuine impact on the political discourse, was driven in part by some advertising but in many cases primarily by annual reader donations; in many cases, they still are. Various forms of public radio and television have long relied on voluntary donations, and political magazines from Mother Jones to National Review still do.
The New York Times has had great success in relying on voluntary reader donations. Its subscription "paywall" is, by design, very easily circumventable by anyone who expends minimal effort, because that model is really a means of asking its readers to voluntarily support its journalism with donations. Andrew Sullivan's efforts this year to rely exclusively on reader support produced such intense media attention precisely because everyone knows that reader-supported journalism is the one promising model for enabling different kinds of journalism to exist.
Ever since I began political writing, I've relied on annual reader donations to enable me to do the journalism I want to do: first when I wrote at my own Blogspot page and then at Salon. Far and away, that has been the primary factor enabling me to remain independent - to be unconstrained in what I can say and do - because it means I'm ultimately accountable to my readers, who don't have an agenda other than demanding that I write what I actually think, that the work I produce be unconstrained by institutional orthodoxies and without fear of negative reaction from anyone. It is also reader support that has directly funded much of the work I do, from being able to have research assistants and other needed resources to avoiding having to do the kind of inconsequential work that distracts from that which I think is most necessary and valuable.
For that reason, when I moved my blog from Salon to the Guardian, the Guardian and I agreed that I would continue to rely in part on reader support. Having this be part of the arrangement, rather than exclusively relying on the Guardian paying to publish the column, was vital to me. It's the model I really I believe in.
It is an indispensable factor in my independence. It enables me to work far more effectively by having the resources I need and to spend my time only on the work which I actually believe can have an impact. It keeps my readers invested in the work I do and keeps me accountable to them. And it's what enables me to know that I'll be able to continue focusing on the issues and advancing the perspectives which I think are vital regardless of who that might alienate. I've spent all of this week extensively traveling and working continuously on what will be a huge story: something made possible by being at the Guardian but also by my ability to devote all of my time and efforts to projects like this one.
Currently, this is not the conventional way journalism is funded in establishment circles, but I'm convinced it's the better way. For a deeply struggling field, and whether they want it or not, this is the way of the future: the short-term future at that, and I think that's a very positive development. I'm truly appreciative of all readers who spend their time coming here, and grateful for those who in the past have supported the work I do. Those who wish to do so this year can do that here.
© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited