Introducing Press Start

We’re not just saying that to get your attention, although we hope it does. We’d like you to know about a new TOL initiative: Press Start, a genuinely novel way to support embattled, crusading journalists around the world – and one of the first projects to get seed money from the Google Digital News Initiative’s Innovation Fund.

We’re a crowdfunding platform that seeks small donations to help investigative reporters in developing countries do their jobs. They need us, and you, because they live in places that are too impoverished to support independent journalism, or even crowdfunding, and many don’t have the foreign-language skills to reach out much beyond their own borders.

About that “solving the world’s problems” bit: We believe that good journalism is at the heart of that process, and for our launch, we’re highlighting five outstanding reporters who are working on projects on:

  • fetid drinking water in Congo
  • gang rapes in Honduras
  • corruption and archaeological plunder in Lebanon
  • HIV/AIDS in Armenia
  • health care in Macedonia

Each will get one month to raise a truly modest sum – from $450 to $1,680 – and next month we’ll highlight another batch of reporters from other countries.

Seriously, you can contribute to a project in Africa for about the price of a multipack of paper towels in an American supermarket.

We’re doing this at a dark time for independent journalism. Only about 13 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where the press can report freely, according to Freedom House’s respected annual survey. Reporters are routinely threatened, beaten, harassed, and murdered. It’s a huge problem, and groups such as Reporters Without Borders or the Committee to Protect Journalists have their hands full. But probably even more widespread is the problem of press manipulation. Across the developing world, media outlets are owned by the government or politically connected business people who use them as mouthpieces. Or sometimes governments withdraw their advertising revenue to punish independent media, which can be a death knell in countries that have no developed business community to offer an alternative source of advertising funds.

Reporters who refuse to go along are fired or quit – which is what happened to this month’s journalist from Armenia – but even those who manage to keep their positions often have to get second jobs because, of course, being a reporter in a poor country pays even worse than being a reporter in a rich country. We know that an independent source of funding could help them do journalism worth doing.

We also know that crowdfunding for journalists is not new, but the way we do it – linking up lots of small donors with reporters they would likely never hear about otherwise – is.

Another important way we’re different: we choose who goes on the website, with help from respected journalism organizations around the world. These people are the real deal, with impressive investigative credits to their names, sometimes affecting the highest level of government in their countries.

One last point: donors might never see the fruits of their investment. Although we plan to translate and publish some of the resulting work on our website, and some will be collected in e-books, most will be published in local outlets in languages that donors might not read. But Press Start will keep donors informed of any fallout from a piece’s publication.

As we launch, it would help a lot if you would help spread the word about the project with a blog post, column, article, or social media post. For more information, please contact the Press Start team leader, Jaroslav Valuch, at . Thanks!

You can get more information and sign up for updates at www.pressstart.org, Please also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Founded in 1999, TOL has implemented dozens of journalism training and freedom of expression projects in Eastern Europe and Eurasia. The organization also operates a popular news site on the post-communist region, Transitions Online, which was a founding member of the Guardian’s New East Network.