Ken Doctor of The Nieman Journalism Lab explores whether one can raise more money for the news by harnessing the power of social sharing — and making the impact of journalism a little more clear.

Hello there! It’s me, your friendly neighborhood Tweet Button. What if you could tap me and unlock a brand new source of funding for startup news sources of all kinds? What if, even better, you the reader could tap that money loose with a single click?

That’s the delightfully simple conceit behind a little widget, Impaq.me, you may have seen popping up as you traverse the news web. It’s social. It’s viral. It uses OPM (Other People’s Money) — and maybe a little bit of your own. It makes a new case to funders and maybe commercial sponsors. And it spits out metrics around the clock. It aims to be a convergence widget, acting on that now-aging idea that our attention is as important as our wallet. Consider it a new digital Swiss Army knife for the attention economy.

It’s impossible to tell how much of an impact Impaq.me may have. It’s still in its second round of testing at six of the U.S.’s most successful independent nonprofit startups — MinnPost, Center for Investigative Reporting, The Texas Tribune, Voice of San Diego, ProPublica, and the Center for Public Integrity — but as in all things digital, timing is everything. And that timing seems right.

First, let’s consider that spate of new news sites that have sprouted with the winter rains — Bill Keller’s and Neil Barsky’s Marshall Project being only the latest. It’s been quite a run — from Ezra Klein’s Project X to Pierre Omidyar’s First Look (and just launched The Intercept) to the reimagining of FiveThirtyEight. While they encompass a broad range of business models and goals (“The newsonomics of why everyone seems to be starting a news site”), they all need two things: money and engagement. Or, maybe better ordered, engagement and money. The dance between the two is still in the early stages of Internet choreography. Get the sequences right and you win.

Second, and related, is the big question of “social” and how our sharing of news is changing the old publishing dynamic of editors deciding what we’re going to read. Just this week, two pieces here at the Lab — one on Upworthy’s influence and one on the social/search tango — highlighted the still-being-understood role of social in our news-reading lives.

Third, funders of news sites, especially Knight and other lead foundations, are looking for harder evidence of the value generated by their early grants. Millions have been poured into creating new news sites. Now they’re asking: What has our funding really done? Within that big question, Impaq.me is only one of several new attempts to demonstrably measure real impact in new ways.

We’ll take a brief look at those impact initiatives below. Impaq.me started in September 2012, when Kevin Davis had a dream and got up at 2 a.m. to write it down. The next morning, he looked at his notes and realized the idea was worth pursuing. As luck would have it, Davis is CEO of the Investigative News Network; his day job is figuring out how to grow and sustain 92 independent news startups around the United States, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that his dreams were similarly occupied.

Since then, Davis has gotten funding to develop the idea, built out the first prototype, raised additional money — and signed over the pending patent to INN itself. In total, the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation has supported the effort with $200,000 in funding. “I’m trying to do frictionless support,” says Davis. “Social sharing of stories is meaningful.”

He notes that social sharing is much more popular for those under 35, who also have weaker news brand allegiance. That makes this strategy an audience strategy as well as a fundraising one. In Davis’ dream and in early reality, the Impaq.me widget and program seeks to connect up these three points: generating new revenue for news sites; multiplying and measuring engagement; and harnessing social in new ways to directly make the funding/sharing link.

It’s using social to directly generate money — a trick that even Upworthy, with its massive audience, hasn’t yet mastered. (Upworthy is now working on its own content marketing-oriented business model.) Take a look at the Impaq.me widget, as deployed on the Center for Investigative Reporting site this week:

The Nieman Journalism Lab, which is part of Harvard University, is an attempt to help journalism figure out its future in an Internet age.

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