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Gawker, Crackstarter, and Crowdfunding Checkbook Journalism

05/27/2013 09:42 EDT | Updated 07/27/2013 05:12 EDT
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TORONTO, ON - MAY 27: Rob Ford addressed the media in front of his office Monday afternoon after his press secretaries quit. (Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

This post originally appeared on Ethan Zuckerman's blog ...My Heart's in Accra

Toronto mayor Rob Ford is a controversial character. Two thousand and three hundred words in his 7,600 word Wikipedia biography make up a section titled "other controversies." These controversies include being drunk and picking a fight at a Leafs game, insulting people with AIDS, people of Asian descent, and allegedly groping a female former mayoral candidate.

But all that colourful behaviour pales in comparison to the accusations he's now facing. The Toronto Star, a left-leaning newspaper that's repeatedly reported on mayor malfeasance, reports that they've watched a video that shows mayor Ford smoking crack cocaine with Somali drug dealers. Star reporters Robyn Doolittle and Kevin Donovan say they were approached by a community organizer from Toronto's Somali community, who was acting as a "broker" for the person who shot the video on a smartphone, a man who alleges that he has sold crack to the mayor previously.

For Americans, the Ford story calls up fond memories of Marion Barry, the Washington DC mayor who was videotaped freebasing cocaine by the FBI and the D.C. police. (Good news for Mayor Ford - after serving a prison term, Barry returned to D.C. politics under the campaign slogan "He May Not Be Perfect, But He's Perfect for D.C.", and retook the mayorship four years after his arrest.) But, if anything, the Rob Ford story is crazier and more complex than the Barry scandal, at least from a journalistic perspective.

While Doolittle and Donovan of the Star say they have seen the video, they also say when they were asked to pay a six figure sum for the recording, they refused. Their article states unambiguously: "The Star did not pay money and did not obtain a copy of the video."

That's not surprising. Paying sources for stories is a controversial practice. In the English-language press, it's often called "checkbook journalism", and it's frowned on in elite U.S. media (though it's certainly happened through history), though quite common in tabloid media. In the U.K., it's significantly more common, and underpins much of the scandal around the behaviour of Rupert Murdoch's newspapers there. U.S. journalist Jack Schafer argues that there are practical, as well as ethical, reasons to avoid paying sources - you'll cultivate sources who want to sell you bad information as well as good information.

Gawker's Crackstarter Campaign

Nick Denton and the freewheeling opportunists at Gawker Media don't spend much time worrying about these niceties. Gawker's tech site Gizmodo paid $5,000 for a prototype of a next-generation iPhone, which made some headlines as the site may have paid money for stolen goods. But the attention didn't damage Gawker, and they are now raising a set of new questions in offering to pay $200,000 for the Rob Ford video.

What's interesting this time is how Gawker plans to pay for it.

Gawker editor John Cook published an article on Friday titled "We Are Raising $200,000 to Buy and Publish the Rob Ford Crack Tape". Cook calls the campaign a "crackstarter", a pun on Kickstarter, but the project is raising money on Indiegogo, perhaps because Kickstarter reviews proposals and rejects many of them, while Indiegogo maintains a more open platform.

The text associated with Gawker's ask suggests that they might have, in passing, considered that there are some ethical issues involved with paying drug dealers $200,000 for a video recording. Gawker's sophisticated and nuanced ethical explanations include this thoughtful passage:

"Christ, That's a Lot of Money.

"Yes, it is. But they've got the video! And it's not all about greed, though of course most of it is. The owners of this video fear for their safety, and want enough money to pay for a chance to get out of Toronto and set up in a new town. Their fear is not entirely unwarranted. Rob Ford is a powerful if buffoonish man, and he was wrapped up in a drug scene that purportedly involved many other prominent Toronto figures."

Rather than respond to this analysis, I'll point you to Rosalind Robinson, who notes that the $200,000 Gawker proposes to pay drug dealers, is money that could go towards healing the city of Toronto, not harming it more. In a piece titled "Fuck You, Gawker", she observes:

"Gawker wants to write these criminals a cheque for more money than most of us can imagine having access to in our lifetime. And not a cheque of their money - of *yours*.

"All you who bitch about taxes, who need public health care, who are on a waitlist to see a doctor, who work day in and day out, who work hard in crap jobs that don't pay well - you, joe citizen, who have never broken a law in your life - they're asking YOU to give this huge amount of money to a group of people who are a violent plague on my city, who risk the lives of both addicts and innocent bystanders on a regular basis."

Thus far, Gawker's campaign has raised roughly a third of its goal, almost $67,000 at last check. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Since the writing of this post, Gawker's "Crackstarter" has succeeded in raising $200,000 to buy the alleged video of Rob Ford smoking crack.] Whether they publish the video, or get robbed at gunpoint by their business partners, they'll surely get a good story out of the experience.

Does raising money to purchase incriminating video represent a new milestone in crowdfunding? Is it a particularly ethically cloudy example of civic crowdfunding? Or just an attention grabbing stunt by Denton and crew?

Writing in Forbes, Maureen Henderson sees this as the latest example of the rich and powerful using crowdfunding to fund projects they could fund through other means. Much as Warner Bros. could have funded a new Veronica Mars movie without $5.7-million raised online, Gawker could probably negotiate a deal with their sources to purchase the video at a price they could cover from online ad revenue, as nothing sells like a political train wreck.

What does the Crackstarter mean for online journalism and crowdfunding? When I began working at the Berkman Center ten years ago, John Palfrey offered a helpful rule of thumb for understanding how law worked in cyberspace: "If it's illegal offline, it's illegal online." I'd suggest that the same applies in the realm of ethics: paying a source for a story is ethically suspect both offline and online.

But there's a dimension to crowdfunding payments to a source that complicates matters. Not only has Gawker's editorial board made the decision that it's ethically permissible to pay for the Rob Ford video - so have over 2,896 donors, who've given their own money to see the mayor inhale. It's a reasonable guess that few are Rob Ford supporters. This crowdfunding campaign lets Ford opponents vote with their pocketbooks to increase the chances Ford will be forced to resign.

I predict Ford will resign before Gawker purchases and runs the video. But the implications of the campaign are still worth considering. When asked about the ethics of paying drug dealers for the video, Gawker can point to thousands of supporters who didn't have ethical qualms about paying for the footage. And much as civic crowdfunding raises questions about whether only rich neighborhoods will fund new parks and civic infrastructure, crowdfunding to pay for videos is a trend that seems likely to favour high-visibility politicians with wealthy opponents over lower-attention scandals. Had the city of Bell, California needed to crowdfund evidence to indict city manager Robert Rizzo, it's unlikely the poor, majority-Spanish speaking community would have ousted corrupt leaders.

More than one online commenter has asked whether Gawker will share revenue from pageviews with their donors if they are able to purchase the alleged Ford video. I'm more curious whether the donors will share the credit and the blame if crowdfunding checkbook journalism becomes the next big thing.

Twitter On Crackstarter Hitting Goal