In one day, Snopes received more than $500,000 worth of donations from nearly 20,000 people on GoFundMe in order to keep its doors open.
"Stunned and humbled by this. The money is incredibly helpful. The support is priceless," Managing Editor Brooke Binkowski wrote in a tweet Tuesday. "We won't forget. Thank you."
The fundraising move was part of the debunking site's effort to stay afloat amid an ongoing legal battle between its parent company, Bardav, Inc., and Proper Media, one of Snopes' former contractors that was paid to help operate its back-end advertising and development platforms. The situation, which Poynter first reported in early July, got renewed focus Monday when Snopes published a letter imploring its readers for financial support.
"Our legal team is fighting hard for us, but, having been cut off from all revenue, we are facing the prospect of having no financial means to continue operating the site and paying our staff (not to mention covering our legal fees) in the meanwhile," the letter reads.
So now that it's temporarily out of the red, what exactly is Snopes using half $1 million for?
"The money we raised will be used to meet our basic operating expenses, the overwhelming bulk of which is the salaries of our staff," Snopes founder David Mikkelson told Poynter in an email Tuesday.
He said Snopes has a full-time staff of 16 people, all of whom receive competitive pay and benefits. Assuming that each employee costs a company like Bardav about $72,000 per year, then paying Snopes' full staff for a month comes close to $100,000, according to Mikkelson's calculations — in addition to other expenses such as travel, public relations and routine legal procedures.
If that estimate is accurate, then Snopes would be able to pay its operating costs for at least a few more months using its GoFundMe donations alone.
According to Snopes, Proper Media effectively took the debunking site and its advertising capabilities hostage after Mikkelson gave the company a 60-day contract cancellation notice in early March (read Proper Media's complaint here and Snopes' cross-complaint here). As a result, Snopes hasn't made any money for months, he said.
"We haven't received payment for any advertising revenues earned since February of 2017, so we've been operating for the last several months on zero income, off of our previous surplus," Mikkelson said. "... everyone knows the costs of litigation are quite hefty and can build up quickly."
Proper Media's attorney Karl Kronenberger did not address those specific allegations in a statement emailed to Poynter on Monday. However, he contested Snopes' classification of the company as simply an "outside vendor," saying that Proper Media is a 50 percent co-owner of Bardav. He also said Mikkelson "has engaged in gross financial, technical, and corporate mismanagement." Bardav disputes both those claims in its cross-complaint (The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal has some good background on the two companies' relationship here).
Mikkelson said Tuesday that while Snopes has reached its fundraising goal, it probably won't shut down the GoFundMe page — which has been trending on the platform — anytime soon.
"We haven't had a chance to fully work out our plans since we didn't expect to reach our goal nearly so quickly, but likely we won't shut down the GoFundMe page if people want to continue contributing beyond the stated goal," he said. "But we'll probably stop promoting it."
However, Mikkelson said he doesn't foresee Snopes using a crowdfunding strategy again in the future.
"We are proud that we have always been an independent, self-supporting entity that provides a free service to the world, so we prefer not ever having to ask the public for funds," he said.
"We only did so, reluctantly, in this case due to the dire crisis caused by a vendor's wrongfully withholding months and months of advertising revenue from us."