Kickstarting journalism: Is crowdfunding the answer?
Outlets from National Public Radio to ProPublica have turned to crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter and Spot.us to help solve journalism's funding woes and make a bit of online buzz. But is this solution sustainable?
For Jeff Israely, journalism isn't just about reporting the story. It's about making sure someone pays for the reporting.Skip to next paragraph
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As the cofounder of Worldcrunch, a global news start-up that translates articles from foreign publications into English, he has experimented with everything from investors to subscriptions to fund the site. In 2013, however, his team wanted to do a more in-depth roundup of "impact" stories focused on critical world issues such as education innovation and the future of farming. To do this, they would need money. So they turned to another source for cash: crowdfunding via a website called Kickstarter.
“It was a different approach to journalism that might inspire people to take an active part in [our project] and support it,” says Mr. Israely. “This is not necessarily the type of journalism that is going to pay for itself.”
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Crowdfunding uses the Internet – ironically the very tool that caused an ad revenue vacuum that sent print journalism into a financial tailspin – to solicit fans to pay for projects that have been cut from newsroom budgets, plus generate coveted online buzz in the process. But asking readers to pay for project-style journalism isn’t without its pitfalls, leaving some journalists still searching for a more sustainable future.
Kickstarter and other crowdfunding websites ask creators to explain their project, offer rewards for different levels of donations, and set a deadline for raising money. There are also journalism-specific crowdfunding sites such as Vourno and Spot.us, which started as far back as 2008.
With the dramatic decline in traditional revenue over the last decade, journalism has had to be an early adopter of this innovative funding option. Justin Kazmark, a representative from Kickstarter, says the site has hosted more than 870 journalism projects since the site began in 2009, raising more than $3 million in funds (not counting $2.9 million for periodicals and $2.5 million for radio podcasts). And it looks as if journalists are using it to make up for the hardest-hit areas of media today.
Scanning the selection of Kickstarter journalism projects is like looking at a colorful array of media’s funding woes. Foreign reporting and investigative projects abound, as far off bureaus and labor-intensive investigations have been whittled away in newsroom budgets across the country. Freelancers and documentary filmmakers push their next reporting project as freelance pay has dramatically decreased. Public media outlets and nonprofits, long dependent on donations, hawk special projects that require extensive travel and labor.
But the funding is just one piece of the puzzle. Mr. Kazmark points out that putting a project online also allows it to be more social and shareable, which can engage a wider audience.
“The only way to support their work in the past has been to see the film or buy a magazine – that isn’t a way to be very close to the creator,” he says. “[Kickstarter] has brought the audience very close, to the front row of the process. They get to join the creator on this journey.”
Take, for example, two recently successful Kickstarter campaigns: NPR’s "Planet Money" and ProPublica. "Planet Money," an economics podcast and blog run jointly by National Public Radio and This American Life, raised more than $590,000 (nearly 12 times their original goal of $50,000) to send a team of reporters to follow the making of a T-shirt from the cotton fields in the American South to factories in Indonesia. The donations funded the manufacturing of the T-shirt, which was the reward for any donor backing their trip, and excess funds will go toward training for NPR reporters. Their reports are due to air on "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" in November, and they have been updating a Tumblr since August. Investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica raised $23,000, a thousand more than its goal, to hire an intern to travel the country investigating unpaid internships (yet another issue in the journalism world). The campaign succeeded, and now ProPublica’s intern is on the road, investigating, blogging, and reporting along the way.