Can we combine a community-supported business model with the declining commercial model for news?
I’ve been mulling the idea of crowdfunded beats for a while, probably since the idea occurred to me while David Cohn was speaking by Skype to my class at American University in 2011. Dave’s business at the time, Spot.Us, was helping crowfund stories by journalists: A freelance writer would propose a story idea and a budget, and when people pledged the budget, the journalist would do the story.
I asked Dave whether he had tried the idea for a particular beat — maybe as a way to fund reporting of a topic that was important to the community, that some people might care greatly about but that wouldn’t generate enough traffic to survive the next round of budget cuts at a news organization.
He liked the idea, but didn’t know about anyone doing that. Laura and Chris Amico did something like that when they crowdfunded an internship to continue Homicide Watch while they went to Boston for Laura’s Nieman Fellowship. Only that was their whole business focused on a single beat, not a slice of a larger news operation.
I never fleshed the idea out enough to pitch it as something we should try at Digital First Media, where our newsrooms cut many jobs in my tenure. But when John Robinson recently blogged about his concerns about a community arts group funding arts coverage in the Greensboro News & Record, I shared it on Facebook, saying, “I’d be more comfortable with a community-based crowdfunding, where ArtsGreensboro would be one of many funders, with a ceiling on how much any one source could contribute.”
John wrote about my suggestion, then Columbia Journalism Review’s Corey Hutchins wrote about it. Now Muck Rack has asked me to discuss the idea in a #MuckedUp Twitter chat this coming Tuesday (8 p.m. Eastern time/5 Pacific).
So maybe it’s time I fleshed out this idea.
I see this as an evolution of two attempts to generate revenue from the community to support news coverage:
- Newspapers’ paywall attempts.
- Steve Outing‘s suggestion that news organizations experiment with membership models.
I’m not going to repeat here my opposition to paywalls. But here are three facts about newspapers with paywalls that will help with crowdfunding experiments:
- Whether they say their paywall is working or not, most newspapers continue cutting their news staffs, giving subscribers less for their money and giving non-subscribers less reason to pay up.
- Some people (we don’t know how many) would pay more to support local news coverage than the cost of a subscription.
- A subscription creates at best a shallow relationship between the news organization and a subscriber.
I believe crowdfunding helps the news organization in all three areas:
- Whether you have a paywall or not, crowdfunding will allow you to slow the shrinking of your newsroom or even restore coverage in some areas you have cut. If you have a paywall, the crowdfunded beat would give people more value for their money and help protect that revenue source. With or without a paywall, the crowdfunded beat will produce more traffic and more advertising revenue if you have ads on the pages with crowdfunded content.
- People wanting to support news coverage would be able to contribute as much as they wanted to and could afford to, with incentives, or at least recognition, for larger donations.
- The people paying the freight would not just be customers, but supporters, a deeper relationship with special recognition and privileges.
So here are some ideas for launching crowdfunded beats (recognizing that, even if I nail an idea here, it’s going to need to evolve through a course of experimentation):
Beat choice is important
I’m doubtful you could fund every beat at a newspaper with donations from people in the community who value that kind of reporting. I suspect some of your meat-and-potatoes beats such as city council, cops and courts might not draw enough support (though I certainly could be wrong and encourage experimentation). Statehouse coverage may get funding primarily from special interests, which could create some issues regarding disclosure and boundaries (which I’ll discuss shortly).
The Greensboro beat which started this discussion was arts coverage, and I’d suspect that’s a prime candidate for crowdfunding. It probably doesn’t get a lot of traffic and is probably always in danger of being cut. I don’t have the figures, but I suspect arts coverage has been hit significantly as newsrooms have cut staffs.
I used to cover religion for the Des Moines Register and agriculture for the Kansas City Star and did fill-in stints on the agriculture and environment beats for the Omaha World-Herald. I hear that all three beats are endangered beats in newsrooms around the country (some of the ones I worked are long empty now or are combined with other beats). But I know well that all three have passionate followings.
I am sure that in all of those cases, some people and organizations in the community would contribute to fund coverage of that topic in their community. Perhaps for education, too. Maybe higher education or business. I would like to see some newspapers (or TV stations or community news websites) try to raise money for such a beat.
I welcome other suggestions about how to raise money from the community. People with more experience than I have in finance and fund-raising will have better ideas than mine, but I’ll toss a few out:
Budget. Set a budget that includes pay, withholding taxes and benefits for the reporter as well as equipment, other expenses and a reasonable overhead figure (since someone is going to have to edit, supervise, pay, etc.). You might have two figures in mind, a minimum figure that you need to reach to add (or save) this beat and get started, and a desired figure to fund the first year.
The pitch. While I’d like to save journalists’ jobs, I suspect that crowdfunding will work best to add jobs you have already cut or never had than to prevent job cuts. If you’re trying to save a current staff member’s job, the public spectacle of telling the community to donate or Steve loses his job will be unseemly and will compound Steve’s woe if you don’t raise enough money by the deadline. Maybe someone will devise a good way to crowdfund to prevent cuts, but I see it as most effective in restoring jobs or expanding. You might pitch ad-free coverage of the topic, so it would be completely community-supported.
The campaign. You’ll need to promote the fund drive in your newspaper, website or broadcast station as well as on your social media accounts. I encourage promoting it to interested community groups as well. See if you can make your pitch at meetings of service organizations such as Rotary, Optimists and Jaycees. And if your community has some organizations in the area of coverage that you want to save or add — an arts council, ministerial alliance or environmental organization — try to make your pitch at meetings of those groups. See if the organizations will include your pitch in their newsletters or on their websites.
Foundations. Would a foundation contribute to the drive or match donations? Perhaps a foundation interested in the area of coverage or a general community foundation would contribute. Maybe a family foundation created by former owners of your newspaper would support the cause.
Logistics. I presume you could use Kickstarter, which has more than 1,000 journalism projects already. You might be able to create a non-profit arm that would include the community-supported jobs (and accept tax-deductible contributions).
Transparency. I think you’re going to have your most success by being completely transparent about how much you need. Publish the whole budget as part of the fund-raising pitch. The reporter might not be comfortable with the pay figure being public, but we make a lot of public employees uncomfortable in the same way, and transparency will be essential for successful fund-raising. You also should be transparent about your funding, disclosing all contributors, or perhaps all those above a certain threshold.
Membership. You may want to give donors more than just news coverage for their contributions. Giving away swag such as mugs or t-shirts to donors adds to the amount of money you need to raise, but it might bring more donations (and they help spread the word as people wear the t-shirts or use the mugs). But maybe you want to develop some more meaningful membership arrangement. Maybe those who contribute get invited to annual or quarterly briefings with the reporter, where they can ask questions and get previews of upcoming stories. Maybe they get some opportunity to suggest story ideas (though that deepens the issues we address in the next section). Maybe they receive email or text alerts when the reporter posts a story.
Continuing fund-raising. Every story the crowdfunded reporter does should include a brief explanation that the work is crowdfunded, with a “donate now” button. If people comment on the reporter’s stories, you might include a funding solicitation (though many comments are negative, so maybe not). Maybe you track who shares the story on social media and experiment with ways to pitch them: Maybe a thank-you when they share, with a gentle comment noting that the position is crowdfunded, with a link. Then add them to a database of people to contact when you’re campaigning for more funds. If continuing donations don’t cover costs for the next year (or whatever period you fund initially), you should start more active fund-raising for the next year a couple months before your funding runs out. Email all the original funders as well as campaigning on your various platforms.
As John noted in his original piece about ArtsGreensboro funding the News & Record’s arts coverage, accepting funding from the community raises issues of integrity, presenting actual or perceived conflicts of interests. You don’t want your agriculture coverage all funded by a local meatpacker or your energy or environmental coverage funded by an oil company.
I don’t think the potential conflicts of interests are reasons not to pursue community funding, but you need to make protection of your integrity part of your planning, your pitch and your experimentation. Perhaps you set a ceiling on contributions from a single source to limit any organization’s potential influence. You certainly want to explain to all potential contributors how important independent journalism on this topic is to the community and what steps you will take to insulate the reporter from undue influence (and then be sure to take those steps).
Perhaps you give members a story-suggestion channel, but the suggestions come to the reporter without sources, as tips from unidentified supporters. Or maybe you decide on some other membership benefits and make clear that contributors are barred from suggesting stories. Or maybe you allow story suggestions, but you will disclose who suggested any story ideas that came from contributors. You certainly should disclose when you quote supporters in your stories.
The meetings with the community — either fund-raising meetings or briefings with supporters — create potential conflicts, but they also create potential opportunities to explain the importance of integrity and independence and to make sure your supporters know they are paying for independent journalism about a topic they care about, and not paying for influence.
Funding sources always present a potential threat to the integrity of a news organization. Ad-supported news organizations face real or perceived conflicts from their relationships with advertisers. Nonprofit news organizations face real or perceived conflicts from their relationships with philanthropists. A news organization seeking community funding will be no different. Make sure the people who support you understand the importance of integrity and they will respect and value that.
You need to consider and try measures of transparency and insulation to protect the integrity of your journalism. And you need to make clear in your discussions about funding and in the quality of your work that you are not selling influence.
MinnPost follows a funding strategy similar to public broadcasting, with large gifts from foundations and philanthropists and small gifts from other donors, more than 4,200 supporters in all.
A small community operation such as Homicide Watch might be able to get some or all of its funding from a crowdsourcing appeal.
When Tracy Simmons‘ Spokane Faith and Values site lost its funding from the Religion News Service, she decided to continue based solely on crowdfunding. Her “support us” link includes not just a pitch for money but for volunteers to blog, help with fund-raising and be “social media ambassadors.”
Are you crowdfunding?
I’d love to hear from some people who have been successful crowdfunding journalism ventures, either a standalone venture or a piece of a commercial media company. I’d like to share some lessons from your success. Or if you’ve tried and failed, I’d like to share those lessons, too.
Please join today’s #MuckedUp chat on the topic.
Update: I forgot about Beacon Reader, a startup which is crowdfunding writers covering specific topics. Will probably blog about this soon, but right now I’ll add this tweet to the post:
— Alexis Ohanian (@alexisohanian) July 25, 2014