One Journalist Crowdfunds for the Furloughed as She Covers the Coronavirus

Inspired by friends’ kindness, this Seattle Times reporter set up a furlough fund

When the Seattle suburb of Kirkland became Ground Zero of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, the Seattle Times reporter Paige Cornwell found her beat transforming from covering city council elections to reporting on the most urgently unfolding story in the country.

Her friends, noticing the sudden shift in her role, started sending her small, unprompted $5 sums over popular money-sharing app Venmo, with messages of support urging her to treat herself to a latte in the midst of a chaotic reporting schedule. These small acts of kindness  inspired Cornwell to set up a GoFundMe page for journalists thrown into tight financial positions. As of mid-April, she’s raised $68,008 and distributed to nearly 200 of the roughly 270 needy journalists who have filled out request forms, typically in sums of $200 to $300 per person.

Want to apply for assistance? Click here. Want to donate to the fund? Click here.

Now entrusted with distributing a large pool of money, Cornwell takes seriously questions about whether she’s scamming everyone to keep the money for herself, knowing how key transparency is to any journalist.

“I’ve gotten a few questions to the effect of, how do I know you’re not scamming everyone? And I respond, would you really think I’d be trying to raise money for journalists if I wanted to scam people? That would be the worst thing to do! Could you imagine that headline?” she said.

Cornwell has spent her six-and-a-half year career as a journalist at the Seattle Times, starting as an intern covering breaking news before spending roughly three years on the education beat.

In this latest installment of Member Spotlight, Cornwell talks through how her time on the ed beat informs the work she does today, the origins of her GoFundMe page, and how she sees the role of a community journalist changing in the era of social distancing.

Can you talk me through how the journalist furlough fund came together? 

We were one of the first papers to start covering the outbreak because we were in Seattle. During that time, some of my friends started sending me Venmo payments of $5, saying, “go get a latte, you deserve it.” Those small gestures meant so much. I had that in the back of my mind when I started talking to my friends about the furloughs we’re seeing across the nation now. I was speaking to friends who had been laid off, and they were saying, “I think I’ll be okay, but I am worried for this bill that just came in or for my rent coming up.” It was clear people weren’t immediately worried about being put out on the streets, but for that extra $100, $200 that can make or break a rent payment.

Photo courtesy of Paige Cornwell

So I thought, what can we do to help them? It started out just me posting on my private Instagram for Washington journalists, and I started getting a ton of donations, even from people I didn’t know well. Then I put it on Twitter, and people asked if I had started a GoFundMe, and it took off from there.

How have you gone about distributing the money? Are there a lot of requests coming in?

There’s a form everyone fills out — we’re up to 270 requests [as of late April] — and we’ve been sending the funds out mostly through Venmo and Paypal.

What kind of roadblocks have you come into trying to work this out? Have there been competing requests, or have you had to turn anyone down?

We’ve raised enough money that it’s not that much of an issue. On the form, [we] ask how much desired funding you’re looking for, from $1-100, $100-200, $300 plus. Most people are asking for between $200 and $300 because they feel there’s someone in a worse situation than they are. It’s been pretty heartwarming – and sad — that a lot of people have put in a submission to the effect of “I would like this much money, but I also know there are others who need it more than me so don’t consider me a priority.”

Have you done any sort of analysis on where the bulk of these requests are coming from? Small local papers? Or are certain areas of the country being hit particularly hard?

It’s really all over the place at this point. A lot of Gannett newspapers, some Lee.

Is this something you’re going to continue as an ongoing fund to push out in waves or are you going to cap it once it hits a certain amount?

I thought I would cap it once we raised $20,000, but I’m glad I didn’t do that. We’ll see how it goes, this isn’t going to be ending anytime soon in terms of journalists being impacted so I’m still figuring out what this looks like in the future. I would love to have it be a rolling thing but it’s also work and we got such a good initial response that I don’t want to overstay our welcome.

The other thing is, I’m still working and I’m not using any of my work hours for this, just doing this on my personal time, which is an issue to take into account as well.

How do you feel your relationship with sources has been affected? With a neighborhood beat like yours, typically your job is going out and tuning into that community, so I can imagine it feels like a fairly stark disconnect being socially isolated. Has it affected your philosophy on the role a journalist plays in the community they cover?

People are getting so much misinformation and are relying more on journalists now than in the past because the news is changing so rapidly. Agencies ask me: What’s your deadline? And I have to say: Right now, because there’s no real waiting for anything anymore. Because people are hungry for accurate information.

When I’m speaking with sources, I think there’s a more human aspect. We ask each other how we’re doing, and they’re usually at home too. I interviewed a source the other day, and he was actually in his car down the street from where I live because his kids were being really loud and kept bothering him. It’s funny because even speaking to high ranking officials, you know you’re interviewing them at home and they might be in their pajamas.

Washington state was part of that first wave of U.S. coronavirus cases. What are some big lessons learned as you’ve seen how this affects the community you cover?

We did take our paywall down for all COVID-19 related stories and I think that was a really smart move made by the powers that be at our company, people responded really well to that. We’ve really seen that if there’s one positive case somewhere there’s no way it’s an isolated incident. Reporters should be treating every case like it’s something bigger. Initially, I figured if there was one person who tested positive in an area, it might mean there aren’t any more, and we’re just seeing that is not true.

Even though you’re not on the education beat, you still find yourself writing education stories. How would you say EWA has been helpful to you as a reporter even if you’re not always in an ed frame of mind?

I’m still on the EWA listservs, and the very broad network is really so helpful. Having so many knowledgeable journalists on call to help on a story, that’s really incredible to me and something I miss when I write non-education stories.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about journalism that you’d like to share?

I can’t remember for the life of me where I heard it, but the bruised apple example. The theory is every apple has some sort of bruise, and if it doesn’t, then you know it’s fake. It might be hidden, it might be small, but you always know it’s there. That’s what we do with our stories — you need to show the bruises on the apple so people know it’s real. Otherwise they’ll know it’s a “fake apple” and they won’t believe it.

I’m an adjunct professor at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I’ve told my students this before. They’ll say “Oh, I don’t want to show this problem because it might make people not like that person,” but I tell them that it shows the person is real, just like they are.