Nearly two years ago, I received a tip. 31 years previous, a local politician, Robert Bradford, was murdered. It happened in 1981, a bloody and tumultuous year in Northern Irish politics. It seemed inevitable that the IRA would eventually kill an MP.
For years, however, it’s been rumoured that, before he died, Bradford was asking questions about “something sensitive”.
Now, this wouldn’t have been unusual for him. He was always digging something up, asking awkward questions when others wanted him to shut up. Yet the story intrigued me: a man who is always asking questions, working on one final revelation which he doesn’t get to see through. So I started digging myself.
At the time, I was running a small investigative blog, The Muckraker, which focused on small-time corruption and incompetency in local government. I hoped to one day grow it beyond myself, into a fully-fledged newsroom. Within months, those plans were abandoned as the Bradford story took over and evolved into a book.
On Monday, I launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to continue my reporting.
For the uninitiated, crowdfunding is a (relatively) new way of funding projects. Say you need £10,000 to produce your own line of custom-made jewellery. You don’t know any fabulously wealthy investors and the bank won’t give you a loan. With a crowdfunding campaign, you would turn to the public for donations, offering rewards in exchange. For example, a £10 donation would buy one jewellery set. It’s a combination of charitable giving and pre-ordering a product before it’s made.
In my case, I’m offering prospective backers access to the book as it’s being written amongst other rewards ($5 per month being the minimum donation). The campaign is being run on journalism crowdfunding site Beacon.
On its first day, it smashed Beacon’s previous records, raising over $2,000 in one day. 5 days in, it has 68 backers with nearly $3,000 raised. Under crowdfunding rules, if I don’t hit my target goal – 200 backers in 21 days – I won’t get any funding so I’m frantically trying to spread the word and find 132 more backers by 31st March (which also just happens to be my 24th birthday).
Thankfully, the reception has been mostly positive. People have been wonderfully supportive. However, there has been some criticism, some of it coming from local media.
One established journalist was concerned that by launching the campaign and going direct to my readers, I was failing to “pay my dues”, skipping the induction process whereby young journalists learn the craft: starting on a weekly newspaper, covering the courts and working their way up the ladder.
It was an interesting point (though not quite accurate; I spent five years learning the trade through prolonged work experience placements and eventually freelance assignments). Still, it intrigued me because the ladder she speaks of is broken.
The belief that you’ll find a job by “paying your dues” is a myth which originated in a pre-Internet world – when it was true. It was a lie I and other young journalists were told as we trundled through months-long work placements without pay, racking up debts we couldn’t afford because we believed a job and stable pay awaited us at the end.
Journalism – or rather, the news organisations that produce it – is in turmoil. Reporters are being laid off every day, budgets are being cut and investigative journalism has all but been driven from the newsroom. The weekly newspapers today’s veteran journalists cut their teeth at are closing down and job opportunities have dried up.
A friend remarked recently how the local crop of adversarial, hungry young journalists are struggling to find work. Every time a job comes up, they’re competing with older, more experienced journalists who are also out of work, meaning they don’t stand a chance. And without budgets to fund investigations, newsrooms are loathe to hire them anyways. ‘Rocking the boat’ costs too much money.
For years, I felt lost. Finding journalism was like finding a soulmate; at just 15 years old, I knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I did everything that the veteran journalist said I should. I worked for my local paper and a bunch of other news outlets for free for nearly four years. Every night, from 10pm until the early hours, I researched and wrote stories, pitching them to editors. I pulled my grades up from C’s to A’s because a local editor told me I’d never get into a newspaper without a degree. I did as I was told, kept my head down and bided my time.
By the end of my first year at university, I realised it was all for nothing. The industry was drowning; the freelance work I’d just started charging for, after years of being the work experience kid, dried up. At a careers fair, I asked a a lady from a prominent local newspaper if they hired investigative reporters. She laughed and said no. Investigative journalism was very much an excess of the past.
I wanted it so badly. If becoming an investigative reporter meant sweeping floors and making journalists their tea for another five years before getting a shot at it, I’d have done it. But the ladder was broken and I had no idea how to keep climbing.
So I dropped out of university. I didn’t see how a degree was going to get me closer to my goal. I went off and for the next five years, I tried to figure out what was next. Would investigative journalism ever be ‘in vogue’ again? And if so, who would fund it?
Eventually, I started a blog, The Muckraker, where I did what I did during my college days: researching and writing stories by night. I posted stories about corrupt businessmen and idiot civil servants. Something amazing started to happen.
People started reading what I wrote. Every time I posted a story, Twitter would go crazy. I would receive thank you notes from people I’d never heard of, telling me they appreciated what I was doing and not to give up. Tips flooded in. Despite the lack of investigative journalism in the press, it was clear there was a demand for it.
Two years later, I’ve just been accepted to do a PhD on the future of investigative journalism. The book is going well and the funding to continue my reporting will hopefully be in place by March 31st.
The generosity of both my readers and complete strangers has completely floored me. I now have 68 backers who, between them, have donated $2600. The next hurdle is meeting my goal of reaching 200 backers within the next 2 weeks.
Yet even if it doesn’t work out for me, that 68 people pledged nearly $3000 to support local investigative journalism is cause for celebration. At a time when newsroom morale is plummeting along with newspaper sales, it shows that public interest journalism is still valued.
I can’t offer career advice to anyone because, right now, there is no ‘career path’ into journalism. But if you’re staring at the broken ladder right now, wondering how you’re going to climb it: have faith. You’ll figure it out.
Click on Lyra’s crowdfunding link here to find out more about her project. http://www.beaconreader.com/projects/the-last-story-of-robert-bradford