A growing appetite for crowd sourcing solutions to societal challenges online – reflected in the success of news sites such as Positive News, The New Internationalist and Mental Health Today – offers hope for the futures of both civil society and journalism.
I co-edit Mental Health Today and we regularly see our “crowd” of 70,000 readers solve problems that confound government, the NHS, charities and private providers alike. The crowd illustrate their routes to success on our community website. Reading the mainstream press can leave the impression that issues like the lack of mental health beds for teenagers living with anorexia or suicidal thoughts cannot be overcome. Our readers have proven this doesn’t need to be inevitable across all of England (could anything be sadder, if it were?) and have shared their methodologies so others can emulate them.
The most popular articles have been penned by junior, regional mental health workers, or people living with mental health conditions themselves. The ideas originate in Bradford, Solihull or Sussex… but can and do spread. The strategies are then applied elsewhere, providing hope and direction to people with pressing mental health needs. We’ve also had counter-intuitive insights get heavy backing; readers challenging the engrained view that coming off anti-depressants, for example, ‘needs’ to be the ultimate recovery goal. Support doesn’t need to be medical, but it doesn’t need to be paternal either.
Constructive news pieces, articles written by those with lived experience, underpin the ethos at Positivity News too. On this site, sex workers have been commissioned to write about how they’re stopping HIV, and former extremists have authored support pieces on how to leave fascism. It has long been argued that good news ‘doesn’t sell’ in England, but Positive News bucked that trend. Revenues passed £200,000 in two years. It makes their public interest ‘product’ sustainable. Donations are voluntary but encouraged. “Tired of divisive, scaremongering journalism?” its editors ask. “Support constructive journalism instead.”
New Internationalist, who favour voices from the global south in their support of justice and human rights, observed what Positive News achieved. The Oxford-based co-op then embarked on a crowdfunding campaign of their own, to futureproof their journalism. The community share offer raised £700,000 in little over a month. It was described as “the most exciting moment in our history, allowing us to survive and thrive.”
New Internationalist gives a voice to thinkers that might otherwise be overlooked in the landscape where the media meets civil society. Recently they have interviewed Mahatma Ghandi’s grandson, the smallest political party in Catalonia, and an “anti-Trump activist choir”. The fact that the title’s future is now secure should be celebrated. It could not have been achieved without the support of some 3,000 readers who shared their values and got behind the cause.
When The Independent folded as a print title last year it left many of us grieving. The future of The Guardian remains in doubt. This trend depresses many, but not John Lloyd, founder of the Reuters Institute of Journalism. “The long slow death of newspapers is matched with the explosion of material on the Net. It has enormously increased the availability and scope of journalism and, so far, has not diminished any part of it, except its income.” Writing in his latest book, The Power And The Story, Lloyd concludes that the audience must be “co-opted into the act of journalism” for journalism to become commercially viable again. He reflects that even where readers are involved, special interest sites, supported by ad-hoc networks, have greater prospects than general-interest sites, because they are about and for a community.
Inspired by Positive News and New Internationalist, Mental Health Today is embarking on its own crowdfunding campaign. In terms of our sustainability, the alternative would be to erect a paywall. We don’t want to do this because we believe in sharing, not hording, constructive ideas that are so evidently in the public interest. Our subject matter ranges from suicide prevention to racial profiling in diagnosis and detainment. We want society at large to have access to insights from the crowd, the experts, that will address these most serious of concerns.
The growth of crowd sourcing solutions online is real and positive for all of us. The innovation can be traced back to book publishers Unbound, who were the first and remain, to date, the most successful crowdfunded publishing platform. Unbound’s Dan Kieran says sites like theirs are “not about saying here is this thing someone has selected for you to buy, but rather, if you want in, you need to step forward and say so, contribute money, tell your network about it. It becomes a movement. That’s how this community feels.”
It feels good.