Crowdfunding investigative journalism -- in China

A Chinese journalist seeking public donations may be the first to try such a strategy, Steve Kelman suggests.

newspapers

I saw an amazing story in Global Times, the English-language edition of a Chinese paper and one of two nationwide English-language newspapers in China (China Daily is the other). Called "Journalist for Hire," it was about a Chinese journalist named Yin Yusheng, who was looking to raise money from the public to fund freelance research and writing for ideas he had for investigative journalism stories.

"I'm a senior reporter with extensive experience, and I'm not frightened by powerful people or violence," he wrote in his weibo (microblog) account and in an entry on an Ebay-like Chinese marketplace. "I will be an independent investigative reporter, not attached to any media agency."

He then described two specific ideas he had for stories he wanted to investigate – one of them about police officers who have been making corruption allegations against a local district attorney's office officials for several years – and invited the public to donate to support one or both of them. He said he would accept donations as low as 10 and as high as 1000 RMB (around $1.75 to $175) – he didn't want anything higher,  so that nobody could try to influence the content of his story – and would stop collecting donations for an article when they totaled 5000 RMB. As of the time the Global Times article was written, Yin had apparently reached that mark.

Yin became famous in China after he broke a story a few years ago about the son of a local senior police official, who ran over two college students in his fancy car and then, when the police came to investigate, told them they didn't dare arrest him, because "My father is Li Gang." After the report, Yin was fired.

I found this article really amazing for two reasons. First, it was published in a Chinese newspaper, at least in the English-language edition. While all newspapers in China are in some sense government-owned, and all receive censorship "guidance" from Communist Party officials, Global Times is actually published by the same company as publishes the Communist Party's own flagship paper, People's Daily. It has a reputation for being nationalistic and somewhat anti-Western. While English-language papers have somewhat more freedom than Chinese-language ones (and I'd bet this article did not appear in the Chinese-language edition), nonetheless I think it is truly extraordinary that a Communist Party newspaper has published a sort of paean to an independent journalist, not working for an established media outlet, and raising money from the public rather than official funds.

Second, as best as I can tell, Yin may actually be the first person to try this idea. I asked a longtime U.S. journalist, now at a foundation involved in journalism, whether he knew of anyone ever doing this in the U.S., and he said no. I checked out "crowdfunding investigative reporting" on Google, and found that there is a new platform, called Newsfreed, that intends to allow journalists to suggest stories. When I checked out the site, it appeared as if they had raised some money, but didn't have specific stories they had raised it for.

This is yet another sign of a lot of interesting stuff going on in that land of contradictions that is China.

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