When a journalist in love with a story gets turned down by magazine after magazine then sells a piece only to see it killed, what’s the next step? If you’re Paige Williams, you take a page from the guerrilla journalism handbook and publish it yourself.

Williams, whose “Finding Dolly Freed” debuted last week, installed a donation box on her Web site next to her 6,000-word self-published piece. The story recounts the fleeting teenage stardom of Dolly Freed, who wrote a back-to-basics guide called Possum Living 32 years ago. Williams dives into Freed’s past and checks in on her current life in Texas.

Courtesy Audra Melton

Courtesy Audra Melton

How’s it doing? As of yesterday, Williams had 5,885 unique visitors to her site, and had raised $878.75 in support from readers. The avalanche of publicity for her renegade approach has been even more substantial—Reason, the Columbia Journalism Review, and Mother Jones have all weighed in, along with Real Simple.

While Spot.Us has been fostering crowdfunded journalism for more than a year, and Kickstarter projects include nonfiction writing, Williams’ move was less a desire to leap into cutting-edge journalism than a bid to save a story she loved:

“If we don’t follow what we love, what the hell are we doing? If I backtracked over the course of my 20-year career as a journalist and played every move safe, I wouldn’t have done half the things I’ve done… For me the outcome has nothing to do with the money… I wrapped the money into it… because I got curious about what would happen.”

With less than half of her own expenses paid, never mind the free help she got from top-notch journalist friends, what Williams calls “Radiohead journalism” isn’t likely to provide a living for her in the immediate future  (unless she’s willing to resort to some of the roadkill, creamed catfish, and dandelion wine espoused by her subject). Luckily, she also has her day job as executive editor* of Boston Magazine.

Still, this kind of enterprise may well make a difference for journalism in the long run, suggests Tanja Aitamurto, a Finnish journalism researcher who has studied Spot.Us and other approaches to crowdfunding. Talking about “Finding Dolly Freed,” Aitamurto describes the shift in the interaction between journalists and the public:

“I’m very excited about this project. It shows that people are willing to pay for in-depth journalism, not just blog posts or news stories. Some of these stories take a long time to produce; they’re complicated and involve deep relationships with sources. You see this with ‘Dolly Freed.’ When the reader decides to donate, is there any better reward for a journalist than that—to actually have your readers pay to support you?”

What does “Dolly Freed” mean for storytelling? Right now, it’s hard to tell. While Williams’ piece has extensive footnotes, which might have been ditched by some magazines (“I have a footnote fetish,” she confides), it is otherwise a straight-ahead, well-done narrative piece. The chronological structure was chosen for expediency: with the re-issue of Freed’s Possum Living looming, Williams worried about losing her news hook. She wrote and revised the story across three weeks. The result is a moving, if eccentric, portrait about growing up differently, in ways good and bad, and learning the value (or non-value) of things.

But is it possible that crowdfunded journalism could change how long-form narratives look and work? What about pay-as-you-go installments on sets of connected stories? What about a Kickstarter model of tiered access to different layers of the story? Aitamurto says she’d love to see more people take advantage of the possibilities:

“ [T]he crowdfunding revenue model encourages reporters to experiment with story topics and how to produce a piece, to experiment with sources and information. It’s encouraging journalists to be more innovative. I think that’s a great idea.”

Williams has written narrative pieces for O Magazine, Atlanta magazine, and several other publications, garnering herself a National Magazine Award for feature writing in 2008. Asked if she can imagine a different kind of Radiohead journalism, Williams says:

“If you practiced this… model and thought about stories as fluid documents, maybe there would be some possibilities… It’s an interesting thought. Maybe next time.”

As for crowdfunding saving long-form journalism, Reason’s Tim Cavanaugh is skeptical about the scalability of any financial rewards Williams is able to extract from this story. Aitamurto, however, thinks that long-form reporting will eventually find a home online. She notes that crowdfunded approaches are in their infancy and may become more viable as journalists find ways to pitch stories more effectively to the public. In the long run, she says,

It’s a kind of power shift to the reader. I’m a journalist, too. Sometimes we have the idea that we know what other people need, but oftentimes people know better than we do.  That’s the whole point of crowdfunding and collective intelligence. As far as ‘Dolly Freed,’ I’d love to see more like this. These kinds of efforts are the only way for us to find out what kind of revenue models are possible.”

We’ll continue to track how “Finding Dolly Freed” pans (or panhandles) out. But regardless of how much money it brings Williams, the piece stands as a tribute to one journalist’s commitment to delivering a story. And it poses some interesting questions about the future of narratives in the digital era. For more on the story, check out our Q&As with Williams and Aitamurto.

*[Correction: the original version of this post incorrectly listed Williams as editor of Boston Magazine.]

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