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Oct. 27, 2008, 3:31 a.m.

Q&A with Ana Marie Cox: Asking the audience to pay for journalism

Photo by s4xton at FlickrWhen the magazine Radar announced it was shutting down last Friday, its Washington editor Ana Marie Cox was left with a seat on John McCain’s plane but no one to pay for it.

(If Cox’s name doesn’t ring an immediate bell, you probably know her as the original Wonkette, or at least as the young woman surrounded by those older gentlemen, on the cover of the Times Magazine four years ago. She has few peers at snarky, blog-sized political commentary, and she’s danced throughout her career between the “legit” journalism world and the blogosphere.)

Cox currently blogs for Time‘s Swampland, but that doesn’t pay her travel expenses roaming swing states on the McCain plane. So she decided to see if the Obama fundraising model could work for journalism: Could lots of small-money donors to do the work a few fat-cats used to? Or, as she put it on Twitter early Saturday afternoon:

Who out there would donate to a keep AMC on the campaign trail fund? Besides my mom. And, of course, Joe Klein.

Within 30 minutes, she had posted a plea for cash to her blog:

Hi. Welcome to my world. A world in which Radar Magazine does not exist. It will cost about $1500 to cover just the last day of the campaign, and over $1000 a day for each day leading up to it. While I still blog for TIME’s “Swampland” — and I will for as long as they let me! — I am without a source for travel funds. So, you know, anyone interested in sponsoring a foul-mouthed blogger, slightly used?

She even listed, NPR-style, what various levels of giving would earn you. Ten bucks earned a thank-you email, fifty a phone call. For $250 or more, she’d ask a senior McCain adviser the question of your choosing and send an MP3 of the response. One grand gets you dinner with Ana after the election.

Within a day, she had about $2,500 raised.

You guys rock. Am over 75% of the way to being at McCain HQ election night. And you know how fun that will be!

That still leaves her more than $3,000 short of her original plan to be on the trail the last five days of the campaign. So she’s trying new ideas — including selling naming rights to her seat on the plane.

While there’s a slight whiff of absurdity to her pledge drive, this sort of crowdfunded model for journalism is an option a lot of people are looking at seriously. The Knight Foundation has funded Spot.us; bloggers like Chris Allbritton have used targeted reader sponsorships to cover big stories.

I interviewed Ana over email last night while she was Tivoing the “Mad Men” season finale.

Josh Benton: When I saw your fundraising appeal, it reminded me of how Josh Marshall started out by asking Talking Points Memo readers for money so he could cover the New Hampshire primary in 2004.

Ana Marie Cox: I lack Josh’s charisma and dark, mysterious sex appeal, otherwise, this is EXACTLY like that.

JB: Has anything surprised you about the donations you’ve gotten so far? Are they coming from sources you didn’t expect? Are people giving you reasons for giving you didn’t expect?

AMC: I am surprised that people are making donations at all. I have no illusions about the place most blogging/blogs/bloggers have in securing the future of our republic: They are less a building block of freedom, like the New York Times, Jon Stewart or guns, than a kind of necessary evil, like children’s lemonade stands or scrunchies. Or perhaps they are a luxury, like a seventh house.

Suffice to say, people have better things to do with their money than send me out on the campaign trail. But just because my supporters don’t have the good sense of all the editors who have ever told me “no” doesn’t mean I won’t work very hard to give them whatever it is they think they’re paying for. As far as I can tell, it is a combination of comedy and depressing truth.

I won’t pretend to know WHY people are giving, by the way. I will say the donations that have meant the most to me have come from some of those hearty souls who make up Swampland‘s commenter community, with whom I have an — ahem — complicated relationship. That they want to see me keep doing what I do suggests I have vastly underestimated their capacity for love. And for irony.

JB: What’s the biggest donation you’ve gotten so far? Has anyone gotten up to, say, the ask-a-McCain-adviser level?

AMC: So far, most donations have been in the $10 range. I am like Barack Obama that way, though for enough money I would — unlike Obama — consider converting to Islam. One person has given $200, and I offered him the chance to ask a senior adviser a question, just to show my gratitude. Another person only gave $75 but submitted a really good question so I’ll probably comp him to the $250 level, too.

It is obviously a good thing this is not a permanent business model for me.

JB: You’re obviously not a typical campaign reporter; over the years you’ve developed a very distinctive voice and point of view that your readers recognize. Do you think your identifiable voice makes it easier to do this sort of fundraising appeal to your audience?

Or, to put it another way: If, hypothetically, it was an Adam Nagourney or a Dan Balz who was suddenly asking for donations — someone who isn’t allowed as much visible personality — do you think they’d do as well?

AMC: First of all, let’s not go around talking about how easy this has been or if it’s been going “well.” I’m very fortunate in that people have responded; I am less fortunate in that I’ve been put into position where asking people for money is my best option for seeing the story through. Dan and Adam may be lucky in their own ways (they are, for instance, both devastatingly handsome and terrific dancers) but they’re also both hugely talented men with the experience and expertise that makes it easy for large news organizations to justify whatever it is they’re spending to put them out on the road. (And whatever they’re paying them, which I’m sure isn’t enough!)

What’s more, I think as information outlets have increased and as media criticism has turned into a national pastime, serious readers have come to realize that reporters such as Dan and Adam — solid, no-BS, non-partisan shoe-leather guys who ALSO have amazing contacts — are indispensable, especially if you enjoy the kind of wavery, total-BS, very partisan, barfly stylings of folks like me. I could not exist without them, so, you know, I’d throw ‘em some coin if they asked and I’d hope the people that appreciate what I do would, too.

I think I speak for everyone when I say I hope it doesn’t come to that.

[Hello, readers from Romenesko, Mediabistro and elsewhere, and welcome to the newly launched Nieman Journalism Lab. We hope you'll come back every weekday for reporting, commentary, and conversation about the future of journalism. Here's our front page, here's more about us, and here's our RSS feed.]

POSTED     Oct. 27, 2008, 3:31 a.m.
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