From his temporary home on a friend's sofa, Yin Yusheng hopes to craft a new kind of journalism in China, where the industry is widely seen as state-controlled and corrupt. He wants to make his readers the boss -- and that includes paying his salary.
Once users pledge 5,000 yuan ($800) -- half his monthly pay when he worked for a business daily -- he takes a story up. He has completed one piece since beginning his experiment in crowdfunding in September, appealing to those who are "tired of the praises sung by the state-run media."
Journalism in China is held in low esteem by many members of the public, not just because virtually all media is state-controlled and toes the government line, but also because of dirty practices dating back to the 1990s. Journalists regularly demand money from companies or individuals not to report a negative story about them, and expect a "red envelope" with cash to report a positive development or to turn up at a press conference.
Yin, who lost a reporting job at a magazine earlier this year when it changed from a weekly to a monthly, wants to be beholden only to the news-reading public, and is testing whether crowdfunding from online donations can give him a stable income.
In an online mission statement, he says crowdfunding can make a product successful, save a company and bring donations to the weak and vulnerable. "In the same way, it can give us the truth," he writes.
There already are several self-styled citizen journalists in China publishing online reports on their own websites. Yin said he wants to bring a professional standard to this kind of reporting and thinks colleagues in the industry may follow his lead because such reporting "enjoys a little more sliver of freedom" than working in the state-controlled industry.
Yin, 43, has advertised his story ideas on China's two largest microblogging sites and the online marketplace Taobao.
The crowdfunded investigative piece he has completed was about Chen Baocheng, a Beijing reporter detained during a protest over a land demolition in his hometown. Yin's pitch attracted the required funding within 24 hours. A week and a half later, he uploaded the finished piece onto two Twitter-like microblogging sites, Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo.
State media stories on the case tended to focus on police and lawyers' reactions, but Yin's vivid report was based on more than 20 interviews with police, lawyers, witnesses, local officials and some of those who had been detained. Some reports alleged that Chen doused an excavator operator in gasoline, but Yin's report found that he had arrived only after others had already poured the fuel.
Yin also tweets from the scene. "I am on the scene, meaning you are on the scene as well," his promise to readers goes.
His plan came from discussions with friends who, like him, entered print journalism from backgrounds in computer science or online media, and who began to see the Internet's power to usurp traditional media.
"We began to ask ourselves the question: Why do we have to confine ourselves to one specific media outlet? Many of us had already become quite influential, so publishing an article online might have more public impact," he said in an interview at a Beijing cafe.
In the U.S. and Europe, journalists and activists have used crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter to find money for one-off creative projects, like a first book or a documentary. A number of sites also have experimented with such financing for journalists in the past few years, especially in the United States, said George Brock, a journalism professor at City University London.
"I don't think it's going to be the central plank or pillar of a new business model for journalism, but the experiments that have been done in it have shown that projects that catch people's imagination, whether they be Web or print or film, really can raise money," Brock said.
Yin set his limit at 5,000 yuan, which is also slated to cover his expenses, in hopes of discouraging the notion that a big spender could control his agenda. He uploaded details on the 1,955 yuan he spent covering his first report, including photos of bus and train tickets and other receipts.
He is saving money by staying in a friend's apartment, which he says might also make it more difficult for officials to track him down.
He risks becoming a target in the government's intensified crackdown on online expression. In recent months, China's leaders have clamped down on what they call online rumors and efforts to erode the rule of the Communist Party through lies and negative news. Their targets have included celebrity bloggers that call attention to social injustices.
Even if the government does not detain Yin, it could scrub his reports from the Internet.
"The key point here is the distribution question" and whether Yin's reports will be censored, said David Bandurski, a researcher with the China Media Project at Hong Kong University. "All Internet is China is in a recent period of extreme intensification of control and he's dealing -- presumably if he's doing investigations -- with sensitive issues."
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