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Aug. 14, 2017, 10:16 a.m.
Business Models

“OK, I need to do something about this”: The Uncharted Journalism Fund is funding stories that wouldn’t be told otherwise

“If people would like to replicate it elsewhere, we would be happy to support them in exploring that idea.”

What if you got so fed up with the problems of funding journalism that you just got a bunch of people together and decided to fund it yourself?

That’s what Phillip Smith, a senior fellow at Mozilla focusing on misinformation, did with other journalism benefactors in British Columbia. He and a group of eleven other people with ties to the journalism industry recently launched the Uncharted Journalism Fund. A group of trustees commits to each chipping in CAD $100 (USD $78.62) a month for a handpicked project proposed by a local journalist that otherwise wouldn’t be published; chosen projects receive up to $3,000.

The projects that get funded may be tricky in terms of logistics, finances, or content: the first grant went to a project sharing the narratives of transgender people traveling from Canada to Alaska, and the second to an effort to visually capture the treacherous conditions oil tankers face during the region’s stormy season. The latter had never been covered before, Smith said, because no one with experience in high seas filmmaking had enough resources to do it. Both projects are clear examples, he added, of the “uncharted” territory the fund is trying to reach. (Heads up: The next deadline is September 11.)

“If I would encourage anybody else to do this, it isn’t because you’d become famous for funding the next drone investigative journalism story or something zany like that,” Smith said, “but because people would have an opportunity to come together and discuss important journalism and storytelling. What stories are underrepresented in a community? What ways of telling them could be new and novel?”

Emily McCarty, who is working on the documentary about transgender people in Canada’s sparsely populated North, said there isn’t anything else like this for journalists like her. “My project’s heart was in the people living in rural communities in the Yukon, where not many people are telling stories,” she said. “Unfortunately, it takes money and time to fund great stories, and many don’t get told because freelancers and students can’t undertake them without support.”

Smith, who frequency consults in the journalism industry on digital products and and helped to launch MisInfoCon earlier this year, noticed some lamentations in a Facebook group of journalism professionals. “There was a thread that talked about how little financial support would be needed to get ideas off the ground,” he said. “British Columbia is being acutely hit by the downsizing of media. There were lots of people interested in telling the stories in new and innovative ways.” He said it was a matter of “hearing one too many gripes and saying ‘Okay, I need to do something about this.'”

Smith relied on the model of the Awesome Foundation and Awesome Journalism, initiatives that similarly sprung up with trustees pitching in some amount of money each month toward a project selected by the group. For the Uncharted Journalism Fund, however, he wanted to retool the grants so that they are larger, awarded less frequently, and “chosen with an eye for the uncharted waters of tomorrow’s journalism,” he wrote in the post announcing the Fund’s launch last October. Applicants can be journalists, students, academics, or just ordinary citizens who want to creatively tell a story through a project like this.

“Small grants like Uncharted really help out burgeoning journalists, because we don’t have enough experience for the large grants, but can’t complete any larger projects without funding,” said McCarty, who was finishing her master’s degree in journalism when she heard of the fund. “It’s a catch-22 that Uncharted helps to find a way through.”

The decision-makers for the fund are the dozen or so trustees — individuals familiar with the journalism market specifically in the British Columbia area. Among them are journalism professors, a documentary filmmaker, a digital product manager, and a leader of a media startup. Becoming a trustee means committing to contributing CAD $100 a month for one year, for a total pot of around CAD $12,000 to be split among the chosen projects. “I thought, how will I convince other journalists, who are typically underpaid anyway, to invest their own money?” Smith said. But it wasn’t difficult to find enthusiastic volunteers: the fund secured six trustees in its first two or three months of existence.

Trustees are donating not just their money, but also their time. They review the applications and debate about the selections. “Being in the room with senior editors and people who have worked on big successful documentary funds and people coming from a wide variety of backgrounds, sitting in a room to deliberate over an idea and its merits and its risks was eye-opening,” Smith said.

Geography also matters in this situation. Smith devised the Uncharted Journalism Fund specifically for the British Columbia area so that the trustees and applicants would share an understanding of the existing local media landscape and of the context behind the proposed projects. (The fund doesn’t lay any claim to the projects once they are completed; the reporters are encouraged to find media partners to publish them with.) Plus, the trustees can actually meet face-to-face with the recipients, host them at an annual event announcing the grant winners, and get to know them and their stories.

If you want to want to start up your own Uncharted Journalism Fund in your area, Smith is all for it. “It’s really just a logo, a model, and a website. If people would like to replicate it elsewhere, we would be happy to support people in exploring that idea,” Smith was quick to note. That would be another extension of the Awesome Foundation, which now has city-specific chapters in 17 countries.

The current application cycle’s deadline is September 11. Smith and the trustees plan to spend a month reviewing the submissions. Three grants will be awarded each year.

If this sounds like a lot of legwork, Smith says it’s a labor of love.

“The idea that we’ve been able to catalyze these projects that really might not have happened otherwise generates a really good feeling in the heart and the soul,” he said.

Image of a boat in British Columbia waters by Karen Mallone used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 14, 2017, 10:16 a.m.
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