Earlier this month, The San Diego Union-Tribune launched an unusual experiment: asking readers to become small-scale philanthropists. Partnering with crowdfunding platform GoFundMe, the paper began adding a small widget to its online articles, providing a link to start a fundraising campaign. “Want to make a difference?” the note asks. “A great way to help people affected by Union-Tribune stories is to start a GoFundMe.” It’s the latest sign of crowdfunding’s massive cultural influence — but does it belong in the fourth estate?
The Union-Tribune apparently approached GoFundMe about the program, which has been running since July 12th. Publisher and editor Jeff Light said that it’s supposed to be an alternative for readers who email reporters to ask how they can help someone in a Union-Tribune story. The two organizations split the 5 percent fee that GoFundMe charges, with the Union-Tribune donating its share to unspecified charitable programs. In theory, it’s a symbiotic relationship. GoFundMe gets a new lead generation system, the paper provides a service readers have asked for, and subjects of its stories — like an unemployed man who returned a lost money order — get financial help. Or at least, that’s the idea.
In practice, it’s a well-intentioned program with hidden risks that don’t seem fully examined. The Union-Tribune is relying on GoFundMe to police fraud and improper use, but scams can still get through, and even good-faith projects can turn out badly. Beneficiaries who are on Supplemental Security Income, for example, can lose benefits if they get too much money through crowdfunding. Journalist Melissa Gira Grant, who called the experiment “deeply misguided,” noted that strangers could miss important details about a subject’s life or situation — which might not be mentioned in the story.
Any fundraising effort could run into these issues, but on GoFundme, it’s especially easy to promote a cause without considering its ramifications. It takes only a few minutes to build a campaign, and GoFundMe’s tips focus almost exclusively on boosting a campaign’s visibility rather than judging its merits, though some guidelines are posted on the site. If newspapers are supposed to ensure accuracy and avoid harm in their stories, does that responsibility extend to the crowdfunding campaigns they’re encouraging?
Andrew Seaman, ethics committee chair for the Society of Professional Journalists, says the whole project makes him “a bit uneasy.” What happens, he asks, if readers end up creating a bunch of competing campaigns for the same goal? What if new reporting casts an old article’s subject in a different light, or changes their story? “My suggestion would be for the paper to instead come up with a policy that addresses when it's appropriate to include links to fundraising campaigns,” he tells The Verge. “I see this arrangement leading to headaches down the proverbial road.”
Light agrees there are potential downsides, but he thinks the idea of duplicate campaigns is fine, because it might put the same cause in front of more people. He also tells The Verge that simply having campaigns associated with the Union-Tribune could help people hold them to higher standards. “When something in our report doesn’t smell right, GoFundMe or no, we hear about it pretty quickly. And we have the wherewithal to follow up,” he says.
Light says the Union-Tribune’s GoFundMe integration isn’t complete, so they’re not totally sure how many campaigns have been made through the widget. The Union-Tribune has a page featuring GoFundMe campaigns related to its stories, but most of them predate the announcement. The most successful project so far has raised $30,000 (of a $50,000 goal) for Iesha Booker, a bus driver who stepped in to help an injured police officer. Others are considerably smaller: an LGBTQ student filmmaker contest has gotten $300, and donors have given around $1,800 to the family of recently deceased motorcyclist Leslie Elliot. “It looks like a very quiet start to the whole initiative — way less activity that I would expect to see,” Light admits. “But I’m confident we will see stronger take-up going forward.”
To some extent, the paper seems to be figuring out its strategy on the fly. Some campaigns — like the one for Booker — get manually embedded in the articles that inspired them, but Light says he’s going to see about adding a feature where people can automatically link campaigns with news reports. “There are a lot of stories being written every day, and a lot of campaigns being started, so I don’t think our staff would be able to keep up with linking them together,” he says.
This seems like it would raise its own issues. A link could make more readers likely to find the campaign and donate, but should a paper implicitly endorse projects it hasn’t vetted? Given how often people use GoFundMe for morally dubious causes, would crowdfunding campaigns become the new internet comment, minimally moderated and sometimes noxious? On the other hand, the Union-Tribune also has a unique opportunity to make people better crowdfunders, offering readers the ethical and practical guidelines that GoFundMe tends to gloss over. When I raised this possibility with Light, he liked the idea and mulled adding tips to the Union-Tribune’s simple GoFundMe FAQ — emphasizing how nascent the whole project really is.
Crowdfunding platforms have stepped in to fill a patchy social safety net, but they’re still private businesses with their own goals, not simply a conduit for charity. That makes some of the Union-Tribune’s descriptions sound as much like advertising as philanthropy. “I think [the widget] helps our users to understand the utility of the GoFundMe idea if they are not familiar with it, and it connects readers to another dimension of the story,” says Light. If the end result is money getting to worthy causes, that’s great. But if journalism and crowdfunding keep intertwining, things will almost certainly get more complicated than that.