Desmond Cole on crowdfunding to get to Ferguson

by Rachel Sanders

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Desmond Cole is a Toronto freelancer and political commentator who writes about policing, race and social justice for a variety of media outlets. When the grand jury decision came down in Ferguson, Missouri last Monday, he felt compelled to go there in search of the stories that weren’t being told. As a freelancer, however, his precarious financial situation made such a trip impossible without support. So he decided to crowdfund it. Although The Walrus soon came through with an offer of a plane ticket and a hotel room, Cole still needed cash for transportation, food, supplies and emergencies. Within a few hours of putting out his call for support, he had raised enough money to take care of himself during his four-day trip last week. Cole took the time to speak with Story Board this week about his crowdfunding experience, and about the importance of continuing to seek out untold stories even in the face of the media industry’s financial distress.


What made you decide to go to Ferguson?

I’ve been following, as much as I could, the events since Michael Brown’s shooting. I was always very interested in the story and as we were nearing the decision from the grand jury I really wanted to be close to what was happening. I had been watching a lot of livestreams on the internet and reading a lot of news articles and I was getting a sense that there was a larger story behind most of the reporting. Which was: the National Guard being called in, looting, fires, anger. I felt that there had to be more going on than that and I really wanted to go firsthand and meet people and talk to them. And I write about policing issues here in Toronto, too.

So this story is related to your beat.

Very much.

Why did you decide to crowdfund the trip?

I was at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards the Thursday before that grand jury decision came down. I was trying to speak with different editors and newspeople who were at the awards show to see if any of them had folks down in Ferguson and, if not, to see if they were interested in sending someone. And the response that I got was lukewarm at best. They needed a Canadian angle in order to even consider creating stories about Fergsuon. And I wasn’t really interested in going down there and finding some Canadian who found themselves in the mix. That’s hardly the story I wanted to write. I wanted to talk to locals.

So that didn’t feel very encouraging. It was a helpful way for me to understand what content producers are looking for. But it didn’t help for the stories that I wanted to write. And so around that time I started thinking “maybe I’m not going to get anyone who’s willing to support me going down to Ferguson on the terms and on the angle that I’d like to go down there on. So maybe I should just go.” And it was at that point that I decided to draw upon the strength of my network on social media, on Facebook, and on Twitter to say “listen folks, I have this idea, I’d really like to go down and do some coverage of this very historic event. And I can’t afford to. So will you help me?”

And what response did you get?

It was overwhelming. Within, I’d say, three hours I had to put out a message saying “please stop sending me money because I’m fine now.” So it didn’t take very long and for that I’m very fortunate. Over the four years — coming on five years now — that I’ve been writing here and there I’ve built up a small but loyal following of people and they really all came through for me when I made this request. Some of the people who donated, a couple of them actually donated anonymously and said that they were journalists. And they said “we want you to go and I’m not telling you who I am or who I work for, but you need to go and cover this story. Someone needs to and you should do it.”

So you got support from readers and from other journalists.

Yes, absolutely.

Was it difficult to ask for help that way?

Yeah, it was my last resort. I didn’t want to. And I was also scared about going down to Ferguson without an assignment and having to generate everything myself. And then thinking, now I’m going to be in a situation where I’m down there and I’m pitching things to people who may or may not want them and I might take assignments on a whim just because I’m afraid that I won’t be able to make any money. I was really scared.

And then at a certain point The Walrus stepped in, is that right?

Around the same time that I put out my request for support, I began talking more seriously with Matthew McKinnon, who’s the online editor at The Walrus. He and I had actually connected the week before at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards. And he sounded really interested from the moment we started talking. But he wasn’t sure how much he’d be able to provide in terms of material support. So that got me thinking “I have to crowdfund this thing or else I’m not going to go.” And so I tried my best to do what I could. But then he came through with more resources than he had originally expected he could get and he helped me get down there. The Walrus helped me get down there on a plane very quickly, the next day, Tuesday. And they helped me get a room.

And what was your part of the bargain? 

I wrote four pieces for them and we’re in conversation now that I’m back around a summary or a reflection piece about my experience down there and what I took away for the print magazine. So that would be a separate thing.

And you agreed to the four pieces before you went? 

We hadn’t worked out a number. I just said I was going to go down there and I was going to produce as much quality content as I could find.

So how much were you able to crowdfund?

I actually don’t know the final tally but it’s in the ballpark of about $2000.

And how many people stepped in to donate?

At least 50 or 60. Like I said, I haven’t counted, but people were like “here’s 25 bucks. Here’s 30 bucks” and that’s how it started. Some people gave me ten bucks. I got a couple donations of a hundred bucks. So all-in-all, I’ll have to count it but it’s a couple thousand.

I didn’t drive while I was down there, so I used people’s money for transportation, because I was staying at an airport hotel. I obviously needed to eat. I needed supplies like batteries and different things while I was down there. So if it hadn’t been for the crowdfunding effort, I would have gone down there knowing I had a hotel and a plane ticket back home and I probably literally wouldn’t have eaten for four days. I just would have gone down there with a broke bank account.

And I was also scared because media had been arrested for doing their jobs down in Ferguson and when you get arrested sometimes you have to post bail. And people have been talking a lot in Ferguson about how the protest movement has been hampered by having their funds drained by having to bail people out of jail. And when I heard about that and thought about the possibility of getting arrested and maybe having to turn some money over in order to get myself out, I didn’t want to go down there empty handed because I didn’t want to sit in a jail cell if the worst happened.

So it was good to have that buffer. 

Oh yeah, it was big peace of mind.

Did you need it all? You said you were going to return what wasn’t used, so how’s that going to work? 

Now I have to do a tally of all of my expenses. I’m a freelance journalist so I’ve pretty much learned how to live on ramen noodles and I didn’t spend all the money that I was given.

Some people sent me messages saying “I don’t care if you end up needing this or not, have it anyway.” But what I would like to do is tally my expenses and then let people know “here’s what I spent, and I didn’t spend the money that you gave me, so you can have it back.”

I want to recommend, actually, that the excess go towards worthy causes for people who are doing work down in Ferguson. And that’s up to people to decide. I want people to research it themselves and I want them to find groups of just ordinary people in that town who are doing what they think is right to get this story out and to promote civil rights. So that’s the option that I’ll be giving people. You can take back the money but maybe you should think about helping some other people out who I met and who could really use the help.

Do you think this crowdfunding technique is a viable option for freelancers to fund their journalism? Are there any particular circumstances that you think it works well in?

If I had to do this over again, I would have done the same thing, because I wanted to go to Ferguson. But this is a highly unusual circumstance for me. I would never want to ask people who support my work to have to fund my work. I actually think that what I was doing down there was extremely newsworthy and I think that from a Canadian perspective, I was probably the only person in that country doing what I was doing for this country.

If you want my real opinion, I think it’s despicable. I think it’s despicable that the major media’s attitude is “let’s wait and see.” They don’t want to actually invest. I wrote four really quality stories, about life on the ground, about organizing, about the business community. I knew those stories were there. So how come the major media didn’t? Why did they wait until Ferguson was on fire to send people down there, hang out for a few days and then leave again? I left on Sunday and by the time I had left all the major media had left before me.

They should have had resources invested to go and get the stories behind the grand jury, behind the anger from local residents. And instead I think they had a very reactive stance and for that I think they, as the main media with the biggest resources, I think that they missed a lot of opportunities. But you know, everybody got their satellite truck time where they could stand somewhere and talk for four or five minutes about fires and about the threat of violence. I’d go home at night and I’d turn on the news and I was seeing coverage that I didn’t find to be that engaging.

I won’t dismiss it all, I won’t pretend that I was the only one out there working. Vice magazine have been out there on the ground for three or four months doing incredible reporting. They invested. They kept people there, they said “go find stories, we know you will, we know those stories are there.” That’s brilliant. CBC I saw doing some very good work when they came down and they were here as well. That’s really cool. I didn’t see enough of that.

Maybe it was just the wrong kind of story for the media. Maybe unless people were burning things down in Ferguson they were never going to send anyone. So maybe I just had an interest in something that wasn’t necessarily top of mind for content producers out there. If I were to find that I felt again like I was equally compelled to write a story, I might try this again. I don’t want to, though, because I want to believe that the work that I ultimately produced here has great value to a lot of people and that I’ll be able to maybe get a little bit of support in advance next time. Because I’ve proven that there are stories, and that I can find them.

The hopeful angle of this is that people are willing to pay directly to writers they trust for stories they want to hear. 

And again, that’s a tribute to me being on the grind here for a couple years. My whole career up to now has been characterized by this struggle. This desire to want to write about things like race and identity. Like some of the uglier racial tensions in our policing in Toronto. About homelessness and homeless shelters. These are not sexy things that everyone wants to write about on an ongoing and in-depth basis.

But that small loyal following that I’ve built up, they appreciate those stories. And so I think that, yes, you’re absolutely right that they wanted to see me write those stories from this perspective. They saved the day and stepped up here. I was giving up on this thing and this was my last ditch effort. And they made it possible. So they’re the heroes of this story.

Do you know of other people who’ve found creative ways to fund their work like this?

Well I’ve learned about some tools that are out there. I didn’t have an active PayPal account before this all went down, which was a big mistake on my part because that’s how people wanted to send me money. And there’s this site called Patreon. So I’ve heard now of people in similar situations using Patreon as a way to allow them to do the journalism or activism work that they want to do.

So these are things that I’m going to have to investigate for the future if I ever get put in this situation again but I still want to believe that there is a market for the kind of work that I did and that I can make that case in advance rather than having this kind of desperate scramble like I had for funding and support. I’ve been getting great feedback for the work I did for The Walrus and time will tell if, next time I’m in a situation like this, I’ll be able to find some support before the fact and know that I have that security going into it.

What do you think it says about freelance journalism and journalism in general that this is now a thing that people have to do in order to tell important stories?

I said that I feel like it’s despicable, and that is because of my perception of value. It’s not about people providing me with charity — I really think there is a value in the stories I provided and I’m looking at a whole lot of folks thinking “y’all are missing out. You’re missing out on the opportunity to have people provide great content for you with a little bit of investment on your part.”

But at the same time, what can I really do? I can’t change that climate, I’ve got to find a way to operate within it. So if there are opportunities for sustainability, I, as a journalist, am going to look at those. If there are ways that I can combine my freelance work with notions of patronage, I’m going to do it.

I certainly reject the notion that everyone who wants to get into this business now can viably do what I’ve done. I’m a known entity in the Toronto media landscape and it took me years to get there. So when I asked for help, people were there to help me. It’s not so easy for the next person. I think that we always have to bear that in mind.

Someone has to pay for quality content, whether it’s readers directly or whether it’s someone larger like The Walrus. But the landscape is definitely changed from when I was just reading the newspaper growing up. And, ultimately, I don’t condemn it. I want to find ways to work within it. Because whatever the good old days were, they are gone. And they’re not coming back. So shed a couple tears, pour a little liquor out, and try to move on and find some creative ways to keep going. Because we’ve got to keep telling these stories.

• You can read Desmond Cole’s stories from Ferguson here. And you can follow him on Twitter at @DesmondCole.

(This interview transcript has been edited and condensed.)


Posted on December 4, 2014 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , ,

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