Putting a price on journalism | May 9, 2008 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 9, 2008

Putting a price on journalism

Founder says Web site will democratize the media

by Arden Pennell

A new Web site aimed at empowering people to fund the news they want to watch launched last week. ReelChanges.org, the brainchild of Palo Alto resident Hal Plotkin, features excerpts of documentaries-in-progress and allows Web users to donate $10 or more to help journalists complete their projects.

It's not just micro-financing for filmmakers — it's a journalism revolution, according to Plotkin.

Currently, only 0.0001 percent of Americans control the news that influences the lives of everybody else, he said. By allowing viewers to choose — and fund — exactly the stories they find important, Reelchanges.org hands power back to ordinary citizens and journalists who provide the news, he said.

"How could we not ask the 99.99 percent of our fellow citizens to make decisions about what the media covers?" he asked rhetorically.

The nonprofit Web site may also be a saving grace for a field deeply threatened by falling revenues in recent years, he said.

Newspapers nationwide have shrunk operations as traditional revenue sources such as classifieds and other advertising move online, where rates are cheaper or free.

ReelChanges.org will provide an alternate financing model by asking the public to choose stories worth paying for, Plotkin said. Everyone can think of a topic they would spend $10 to learn more about, he said.

ReelChanges.org is now in so-called pre-beta mode, meaning the site isn't fully finished yet. But Plotkin said he hopes it will be fully functional by July.

Meanwhile, visitors can watch a short film by Yoav Potash, a documentary filmmaker asking for funding.

"Life on the Inside" is Potash's roughly six-minute video about women's lives at the largest women's prison in the United States, the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla.

Female prisoners discuss uplifting programs such as firefighter training -- and the difficulty of finding work after getting out of jail.

Potash, a friend of Plotkin's who is also directing the start-up's outreach to filmmakers, is asking for $100,000 to help fund a full-length documentary.

If successful, the direct appeal to viewers could allow filmmakers to spend less time writing grant proposals to foundations — and more time making movies, Potash said. Donors in turn can also see exactly where their money goes, he said.

Jonathan Gruber is a filmmaker planning to use the site to solicit funds for a documentary about former German pharmaceutical firm IG Farben's war crimes. He said video is ideal for pitching ideas to possible funders.

"The video is really how you can convey your vision and how you tell the story. [Donors] can watch the trailer while you're still talking. It's much easier to close the deal" than trying to describe a project on the phone or mail a DVD, he said.

Donors also get a mention in film credits, a copy of the film and a tax write-off for their donation, Plotkin said.

While the site is starting with documentaries, it is open to any journalist who can pitch his or her idea in a video format and make a short movie about the eventual product, even if it's a lengthy article for print publication, he said.

News companies can use the site, too, he said — even media mogul Rupert Murdoch could pitch ideas to the public on the site, provided his intentions were honorable, Plotkin said.

The goal is simply to democratize news by allowing journalists to respond directly to what people are hungry to learn about, he said.

Yet not all aspects of the experiment are hammered out. One feature allows donors to buy a 15-minute phone call with a filmmaker, a function that could be seen as buying influence over a project's content.

Plotkin acknowledged the potential for dishonest dealings.

"It gets into a lot of really grey areas," he said.

Currently, he heads off such conflicts by only dealing with ethical journalists, mainly from his and his wife's circle of friends at this early stage, he said.

He is also getting help from colleagues in the journalism world such as Linda Jue, president of the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, a nonprofit dedicated to encouraging free and ethical news. Jue is on ReelChanges' board.

The project has also garnered an endorsement from historian and prolific filmmaker Ken Burns.

Andy Hertzfeld, a developer of early Apple computers, is working on the site's video-viewing and sharing software and is on the board of directors.

Plotkin has funded the project by creating a for-profit company that owns the software, ReelChanges LLC, and selling a controlling two-thirds interest to Indian software firm Texity, he said.

Texity agreed to allow the nonprofit ReelChanges.org to use the software free-of-charge forever, Plotkin said.

For Plotkin, a veteran journalist who has worked at media outlets from CNBC to Inc. Magazine, the site also represents a deeply personal quest to save journalism.

"We will have taken a profession, which is now dominated by bean counters and corporate bigwigs, and brought it back to its roots, which is a profession of dedicated journalists ... working to create an informed citizenry," he said.

Such a change in the structure of news is long overdue, he said.

"Imagine if you went into a restaurant and you sat down and the waiter came over and told you what you're eating. That's the way the [current] news media works," he said.

Staff Writer Arden Pennell can be e-mailed at apennell@paweekly.com.

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