The idea of crowdfunding journalistic projects isn’t new, but it’s been in the spotlight recently.
Take, for example, the media itself zeroing in on a successful Kickstarter project by Bobbie Johnson, a former Guardian technology correspondent, and U.S.-based journalist Jim Giles, whose work has appeared in The Economist, The Atlantic and New Scientist.
Johnson and Giles wanted to publish high-quality in-depth investigative journalism on science and technology. They came up with a digital project called “Matter,” and estimated they would need $50,000 to get started. So they created a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds. Kickstarter is a crowdfunding website where people and brands can donate money to a project with the caveat that if the total goal isn’t reached, all monies will be returned.
Johnson and Giles surpassed their goal of $50,000 for ReadMatter.com, and by the end of their campaign, had raised $140,201. As Johnson wrote on his own blog, “We finally decided to test our theories with a Kickstarter appeal, and it really floored us (and everyone else, I think) by hitting its goal in less than two days.” In an interview at Journalism.co.uk, Johnson spoke of the lack of outlets able to commission in-depth pieces and explained their motivations further for creating “Matter.” “[W]e’d been talking to friends and colleagues who seemed to be sitting on stories of substance and importance and yet found the same dead end.”
Fundraising video for “Matter” by Bobbie Johnson and Jim Giles on Kickstarter.
Crowdfunding isn’t just on Kickstarter, however. New sites are popping up all the time to help crowdfund all kinds of projects. Here’s a rundown of the sites that offer opportunities for crowdfunding journalism and a look at some of the most interesting and high-profile projects on them.
One of the best known of the journalism-specific crowdfunding sites may be Spot.us, founded in 2008 by journalist David Cohn with a $340,000 grant from the Knight Foundation. Spot.us was acquired last year by American Public Media (APM) and its Public Insight Network, but still offers projects as diverse as an investigation into a near fatal hit-and-run incident involving a cyclist to tackling global issues like human trafficking.
While the audience on Spot.us is a specific niche interested in funding journalist projects, the advantage to Kickstarter may be its traffic. Boasting $100,000,000 in pledges, serious funding is out there — as was demonstrated by the “Matter” project. Kickstarter does list “Journalism” as a category, and some of the projects are as intriguing and mysterious as any narrative thriller one might consider funding.
For example, who wouldn’t want to know the answers the journalists will be seeking in these two projects? (Both were successfully funded):
First, “The Island of Widows“ is described as: “A deadly disease is killing thousands of the world’s poorest laborers — and no one knows what is causing it … during our recent visits to Central America, we encountered a deadly mystery. Each year thousands of agricultural laborers — almost all men, lacking the usual risk factors, and as young as their 20s — are dying of a new strain of chronic kidney disease that has baffled scientists for more than a decade. The disease has so decimated one community of sugarcane workers in Nicaragua called La Isla, or The Island, that it is now known to locals is La Isla de las Viudas — The Island of the Widows.”
Fundraising video for “The Island of the Widows” by Sasha Chavkin on Kickstarter.
Or there’s “Secret Cuts: The Cherry Orchard Mystery,” which ropes you in with, “No one saw anything and no one heard anything but when the sun rose over Legacy Orchards on that October morning, the trunks of more than 400 cherry trees had been sawed through, and every single one of the once healthy trees cruelly pushed over. Now, five months later, more orchards and vineyards in my hometown have been vandalized too, but police are no closer to learning who did this, or why.”
Fundraising video for “Secret Cuts: A Cherry Orchard Mystery” by Mardi Jo Link on Kickstarter.
IndieGoGo is another crowdfunding website. Unlike Kickstarter, it doesn’t require that a project meet its goal in order to receive contributions. It doesn’t have a Journalism category, and when searching the site, the journalist projects lean heavily toward documentary and photojournalistic work. As the above Kickstarter projects demonstrate, a well-written description and supportive visuals go a long way to attract funding interest and stand out from the crowd. On IndieGoGo, one small project, “The Rural Bridge,” from a student hoping to document her trip to El Salvador, demonstrated why it’s important to create thoughtful crowdfunding campaigns that appeal to potential funders in order to garner the most success. In this case, her choice to use an illustration rather than a video or examples of her photography work might have been the reason her project didn’t quite reach its goal.
The journalistic documentary projects on IndieGoGo range from topical to obscure. Interestingly, there were two on the website that focused on actual photojournalists: one a documentary on John G. Morris, a former picture editor of Life magazine and the New York Times and executive editor of Magnum Photos. His career in photojournalism spanned 70 years, and he published photographs depicting some of the global events of the 20th century. The project, “Get the Picture,” states, “He is probably the last living journalist involved in the coverage of World War 2’s D Day.”
“Bordering On Treason“ is another IndieGoGo project. It spotlights the dangerous work done by journalists working in the Middle East, such as Lorna Tychostup, a single mother and photojournalist from New Paltz, N.Y., who travels to Iraq to “put a human face on the past decade’s most conspicuous and tragic global crisis. Traveling unprotected, she visits military units and Iraqi families beyond the Green Zone, and evolves from naive civilian to seasoned journalist.”
Started last year and still in beta, Emphas.is, the crowdfunding website, dedicates itself solely to photojournalism projects and has a partnership with Reporters Without Borders. Again, as with the other websites, diversity rules with projects compiled from years of work, such as “Survivors,” which was shot over the last 10 years in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Pakistan and Bhutan. Emphas.is also features projects searching for funding for upcoming work, such as “Via PanAm,” which is about one photojournalist spending 10 months traveling from Puerto Toro, the southernmost settlement in Chile, to Deadhorse in northern Alaska to investigate the roots of migration.
Photojournalistic projects often offer tangible rewards such as books, postcards or photographs for donors. Written journalistic projects offer anthologies or early viewing of articles as rewards. “Matter” even offered a position on the editorial board. Rewards are important incentives to get people to pick campaigns to fund.
Funded by Me
Finally, if one is willing to hit the “translate” button, they’ll find many others including Funded by Me that includes journalism as one of their categories and focuses on projects from countries in Africa, Europe, Asia, and the United States.
Pay-Per-View As Crowdfunding
Pay-per-view models can be seen as a form of crowdfunding as well. Kindle Singles (what Wired claims could save long-form journalism) helps journalists earn an income for their long-form stories through individual sales. Readers can pay a dollar or two for a long-form feature story. Shane Snow, co-founder of the network Contently, recently wrote a piece on new business models saving journalism that summarized the pay-per-view model: “This is allowing good journalists to invest in the kind of reporting and thoughtful writing that makes for fantastic 20,000 word stories. When 10,000 people pay $1.99 for a story, essentially the ‘crowd’ has ‘funded’ the journalist at $1 a word.”
Not Just for Individual Journos
Across the board, most of the journalistic projects focused on funding before the reporting is done, though many focused on longer-term journalistic projects such as magazines, compiling photojournalism into books, or even completing documentaries.
And it’s not just individual journalists using crowdfunding. Newspapers are also joining up with journalists to crowdfund coverage — something that may be a sign of the future. For instance, The Nashua Telegraph admits it doesn’t have the funds to pay a journalist to spend the time an in-depth article would take to investigate and write, so the reporter herself turned to crowdfunding in partnership with the paper.
Amanda Lin Costa is a writer and producer in the film and television industry. She writes a series called “Truth in Documentary Filmmaking” and is currently producing the documentary, “The Art of Memories.”