Is Gawker's Rob Ford 'Crackstarter' Crowdfunding's Jump-The-Shark Moment?

posted May 29, 2013, 12:15 PM by   [ updated Jun 7, 2013, 10:43 AM ]

Mayor Rob Ford on January 1, 2011, wearing the...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Never an outlet to shy away from controversy or a juicy political scandal, Gawker may have finally outdone itself. The devious minds at Nick Denton’s flagship site have started a crowdfunding campaign to purchase a cellphone video of what they claim is the mayor of Toronto, Canada smoking crack cocaine. You thought Zach Braff’s Kickstarterwas a reason to take umbrage? Well, you haven’t seen theCrackstarter.

The story started on Thursday night, when Gawker posted a piece by John Cook detailing how the site came to be offered a video of what was claimed to be Toronto mayor Rob Ford smoking crack. Cook journeyed to TO, met with some shady characters and saw the video footage with his own eyes. The video’s owners – Somali drug dealers - had already shopped it to Canadian media outlets, but had deemed one’s offer of $40K to be too low. No, they wanted six figures for what could be the nail in the coffin of Ford’s strange and embattled political career. So, what does any enterprising news outlet do in the year 2013? They start a crowdfunding campaign to ask site readers to donate the $200K it would take to pay the ransom on the video and vow to post it on their site once they presumably hand over a bag of unmarked loonies and toonies to the men who claim to supply the most powerful mayor in Canada with drugs (Update: the campaign was fully funded as of May 27, 2013).

The Crackstarter makes smart business sense for Gawker. They outsource the risk to their readers in the event that perhaps would-be drug kingpins are not the type to keep their word and they reap the rewards of traffic and page views should the deal go through. And they show up mainstream news outlets by delivering a master class in the new model of iterative journalism – publish now, flesh out or course correct later. The Boston Marathon bombings coverage showed us the flaws in this approach, but the public demand for up-to-the-millisecond information means it isn’t going away anytime soon.

But what’s perhaps most interesting about Gawker’s campaign is how it gleefully takes the idea of crowdfunding to its perverse end. I’ve speculated in the past about the untenability of this model as organizations and entities with already deep pockets hit up the internet proletariat for big bucks and squeeze out the little guy starving artists  – and that was even before Rob Thomas went panhandling on behalf of Warner Bros. and raised over $5.7M for a Veronica Mars movie. People will pledge their cash for a lot of silly stuff, but a major digital media outlet creating a crowdfunding campaign that aims to raise money to purchase a cellphone video of a Canadian mayor smoking crack and to pay that money to members of Toronto’s drug trade so that they can skip town and start new lives elsewhere might truly be a jump-the-shark moment. Expect Lindsay Lohan to start a campaign to cover her latest rehab costs any day now.

As for Rob Ford? Well, he’s employing a tight-lipped Shaggy defense and it’s going to cost us all at least $200K and a whole lot of squeamishness to possibly refute his protestations of innocence.

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