Journalist Paige Williams wrote a profile of Dolly Freed, a reclusive author who'd been briefly famous in the 1970s after writing a book about her years spent living off the grid. When Williams couldn't find anyone willing to publish Freed's story, she decided to publish it herself and ask readers for donations.
BOB GARFIELD: So, as we've just heard, Pelton believes that news organizations need to reorganize and rebrand if they're ever to see profits again. But some journalists are taking the initiative themselves. During the 2008 election season, journalist Anna Marie Cox solicited donations from readers to help pay her expenses after the magazine she was reporting for folded. She collected more than 7,000 dollars, enough to keep reporting for some while after her redundancy. And then there’s Paige Williams. She’s a journalist who last year found herself laid off and in possession of what she thought was a great magazine feature. The story she wanted to write was about Dolly Freed, a woman who'd been famous in the seventies after writing a book, Possum Living, about her teenage years spent living off the grid. Williams decided that Freed’s story of jobless self-sufficiency in hard times was relevant to today’s dismal economic climate but, while she was able to find the reclusive Freed, she couldn't find a magazine willing to publish her story.
PAIGE WILLIAMS: I had infinite faith that Dolly was worth something, but no one agreed with me. So -[LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: You didn't wait around to find a magazine that was willing to publish your piece. You just went out and wrote it essentially on spec, and that is not cheap. It cost you 2,000 bucks?
PAIGE WILLIAMS: Well over 2,000. That’s - the 2,000 is just what I've documented so far.
BOB GARFIELD: But some people thought it was worth cash money because you went out and asked for donations to help you cover your reporting expenses.
PAIGE WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BOB GARFIELD: And some people have ponied up. How much money have you raised to date?
PAIGE WILLIAMS: Well, I checked yesterday, and I think we were up to 823 dollars, and that was 71 donors. It’s interesting. They're coming in everywhere from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Australia and Brazil.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about the range of donations.
PAIGE WILLIAMS: Well [LAUGHS], it’s been so far from 75 cents to 100 dollars. The 75 cents is my absolute favorite, because I just wonder what sort of mental calculations went into that decision. [LAUGHS]
[BOB LAUGHS] It’s my absolute favorite.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, do you think that’s like leaving a nine-cent tip at a restaurant?
PAIGE WILLIAMS: I don't know. Maybe this guy was thinking about the story in terms of the architecture of a magazine and how much he would be willing to pay for each piece.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, everybody’s interest in Dolly from the get-go is that she has lived off the fat of the land, and I'm curious whether she sent you any cash or, you know, I don't know, sewing?
PAIGE WILLIAMS: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Tree bark?
PAIGE WILLIAMS: [LAUGHS] No, I mean, she clicked on PayPal and she sent 50 dollars. She was dismayed to find out that I would have to give the money back, because I explained to her that I can't take money from the people that I write about. She did give the photographer some dewberry jelly, which I'm really jealous of.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Okay, now the reason we're talking to you is not just because of the novelty of it. In fact, it’s not entirely novel. Radiohead has done this with tracks.
PAIGE WILLIAMS: Yep.
BOB GARFIELD: And other journalists have done similar things. But I wonder if you think that this is in any way a scalable model, that henceforth writers who do write on spec needn’t really worry about selling the magazine pitch but just doing it their own selves?
PAIGE WILLIAMS: I'm a little reluctant to say that it can work just across the board. I mean, I did this not as an attempt to set up a model, [LAUGHS] I did it just to try to get a story out there about an interesting person, and a book that I found fascinating.
BOB GARFIELD: Furthermore, and I hope you won't think I'm being cruel here, strictly speaking, it hasn't even worked [LAUGHS] for you. You’re still, you know, at least [LAUGHS] 1200 dollars in the hole.
PAIGE WILLIAMS: [LAUGHS] No, that’s not cruel. That’s accurate. It’s not worked, so far. If it does work, it'll take some time. The 2,000 that I laid out in expenses, you know, I'm a long way off from that. And, that’s okay. I just wanted to see what would happen.
BOB GARFIELD: I suspect that the publicity you’re getting for this will help your PayPal account. But I'd kind of like to put this into perspective. For a writer of your stature, a story like this, had it been picked up by a magazine, at least in the good old days, would have been worth – it’s 6,000 words – it would have been worth a minimum of 6,000 dollars and probably up to 20-some-thousand dollars, depending on the venue.
PAIGE WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BOB GARFIELD: Can you still make that money out there as a freelance journalist, or has just everything dried up?
PAIGE WILLIAMS: Maybe if you’re a certain kind of a freelance journalist, if your name is so out there that people can't sleep without getting you into their pages.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, so let me – instead of talking optimistically about this new opportunity to raise money directly from readers for substantial pieces of journalism, if it doesn't work out, with magazines in extremis and the freelance business itself under a great deal of pressure, what does this say for the future of long form journalism?
PAIGE WILLIAMS: I, I don't know. I think what we're seeing is just a fracturing of the whole machine and [SIGHS] it’s going to blow around for a while and then come back in some different form. And for long form storytellers, I, I just don't know that the real estate is going to be there anymore. I - the better part of me hopes that it will, of course, but I'm not sure that more than a few people will have the opportunity to do that kind of work.
BOB GARFIELD: Paige, thank you very much. I wish you all the best in recouping your investment, even if it’s at 75 cents a pop.
PAIGE WILLIAMS: [LAUGHS] Well, thank you. It’s my pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Paige Williams is a journalist and now executive editor of Boston Magazine. You can read her story about Dolly Freed at her website, www.paige-williams.com.