First it was Spot.Us, then Contributoria, and now Beacon. All three crowdfunding platforms specialized in helping news organizations and independent journalists raise money to support their work — but all three have shut down since the start of 2015, joining Emphas.is, Vourno, and Indie Voices as unsuccessful experiments in journalism-specific crowdfunding.
Beacon’s recent announcement that it would cease operations at the end of October came as something of a surprise, especially considering how popular the platform had become within the news industry. Since Beacon’s launch in 2013, the Texas Tribune, the Huffington Post, NJ Spotlight, PolitiFact, InvestigateWest, and dozens of other news organizations had all run successful crowdfunding campaigns on Beacon, and in 2015 alone, the platform helped journalists crowdfund more than $1.5 million.
“If Beacon were still around, I would go back to it,” said Center for Cooperative Media associate director Joe Amditis, who used Beacon to help NJ Spotlight raise $31,000 for an immigration reporting project. “It was really easy to use… the layout, the posting process. I didn’t have to think about it.”
‘A community of journalism-minded folk’
When Beacon closes, the news industry will lose the only major crowdfunding platform that catered specifically to journalists — and that could prove to be a painful loss. In addition to providing tools for posting and sharing content, Beacon periodically offered matching funds for reporting projects on a particular subject (NJ Spotlight’s immigration project received $15,000 in matching funds, for example), and the platform helped connect news organizations with prospective funders outside their core audience.
“It was a community of journalism-minded folk,” Amditis said. “It felt like a place where you could really dive into the crux of what made a project important, and where you could promote it to a larger audience.”
The future for crowdfunding journalism
Despite the blow delivered by Beacon’s closing, journalists will still have a number of general crowdfunding platform options, including Kickstarter, which raised $1.7 million for journalism projects in the first nine months of 2015, Indiegogo, GoFundMe and Press Start, a new platform for journalists in countries without a free press. Khari Johnson, founder and editor of Through the Cracks, recently told Nieman he expects crowdfunded journalism to remain viable even if another journalism-specific platform doesn’t emerge to replace Beacon.
“Maybe it’s evidence that a [crowdfunding] platform that’s focused solely on journalism can’t survive, but I don’t believe this is evidence that crowdfunding in journalism is going anywhere,” he said. “The platform is not the sun; it’s a planet if it’s anything. The crowd is the sun.”
Nieman’s report on crowdfunding in journalism, published last month, features three in-depth case studies exploring what’s working in crowdfunded journalism and why. The full report is worth a read, but if you’re strapped for time, here are some highlights.
On thinking beyond the paycheck:
Like most start-up businesses, most journalism crowdfunding campaigns (more than 75 percent on Kickstarter) fail to be fully funded. Those that succeed, whether they’re in Texas, St. Louis, or the Netherlands, come from journalists who want something besides a paycheck, and who are willing to use their support and supporters to produce reporting that’s innovative, engaging, and about much more than money.
On crowdfunding for audience development:
In all, the Tribune’s five Beacon projects have attracted hundreds of donors—more than a third of them new to the Tribune—who have given a total of over $130,000. “It kills two birds with one stone,” Ramshaw says. “We’re always in audience development mode. We want to bring in as many new readers as possible. What’s phenomenal is we end up making money for a project and also drawing in new readers at the same time.”
On crowdfunding for public-facing journalism:
“The audience needs to be at the center of what you’re doing because you’re not pitching an idea to an editor, you’re pitching a concept to an audience,” says Ethan Mollick, an assistant professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who has studied crowdfunding in all industries in an independent analysis using Kickstarter’s data and network. “I don’t think [crowdfunding] drowns out other forms of journalism, but hopefully it leaves an opening for public-facing new work.”
Ben DeJarnette is the associate editor at MediaShift. He is also a freelance contributor for Pacific Standard, InvestigateWest, Men’s Journal, Runner’s World, Oregon Quarterly and others. He’s on Twitter @BenDJduck.