Journalists Raise Thousands to Fund Projects on Kickstarter

As journalists face pay cuts and are asked to do more with fewer resources, it has become increasingly difficult for them to find the time and money to pursue large-scale enterprise stories or personal projects.

But some journalists are finding a way to make it work. In recent months, they have raised thousands of dollars on Kickstarter to fund book projects, documentaries and international reporting. The site is similar to Spot.Us, the crowd-funding journalism site, but it isn’t limited to journalists.

Launching projects on the site, journalists say, has given them the opportunity to pursue passions, think entrepreneurially about their work and find new ways of interacting with audiences — not only after completing a project, but while they’re working on it.

“The truth is, you can get better results if you tap the collective brain power of a big group of people” on the front end, said Robin Sloan, who has raised about $7,000 more than the $3,500 he set out to raise since launching his book project on the site at the end of August.

Sloan, former vice president of strategy at Current TV (and a former Naughton fellow at Poynter), quit his job last month to work full-time on his new book, which he plans to have written and illustrated by Oct. 31. All of the extra money he’s raised, he said, will be spent on improving the book’s presentation and packaging for those who helped support it.

To motivate people to donate money, project creators are asked to craft varying levels of incentives. Sloan has said he will give a PDF copy of his book and behind-the-scenes updates to anyone who donates $3 or more. Those who donate $39 or more will get additional perks — including four copies of the book and a mention in the acknowledgments. Earlier this week he offered to write a 2,500-word short story while on a plane from San Francisco to New York City if people donated the few hundred dollars he needed to reach $10,000. It worked.

To further tap into his audience and potential donors, Sloan created a Kickstarter blog, a feature that’s available to anyone who launches a project on the site. The blog includes a video of him reading an excerpt from the book, updates that are available only to backers and a blog post about Google AdWords, a tool he used to test the popularity of one of his character’s names. 

He described these blog posts, a video he created about the book and related Facebook and Twitter updates as gold coins — little rewards to help keep people interested in his project.

“It just makes such a difference to know that people are interested in what you’re doing. Especially on the Web where it’s so easy to post anything, the question is always, ‘Does this matter to anyone but me?’ ” Sloan said. “To have this question answered so definitely on the front end really gave me a lot of confidence.”

Yancey Strickler, one of three founders of Kickstarter and a former journalist, said that about 800 people have launched projects — with 150 successfully funded — since the site launched in April. Anyone can create a project on the site and set a fundraising goal. If the goal isn’t met by a self-imposed deadline, all pledges are canceled. Kickstarter applies a 5 percent charge to the funds raised for projects that reach their fundraising goals. 

Strickler said he knows of only a few media professionals who are using Kickstarter but hopes that will change.

“Journalists are a really good fit for what we’re doing,” he said. “For people who have audiences but maybe aren’t recognized by corporate interest, or for someone who wants to write a story that no one else is covering, Kickstarter is a really interesting way for them to fund their own journalism.”

That’s what freelance journalist Maura O’Connor has done. After being rejected for grants from the International Center for Journalists and the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, O’Connor decided to try other approaches to raise money for a project that involves flying to Tanzania and researching endangered Kihansi spray toads. The toads were transported to the Bronx Zoo and the Toledo Zoo eight years ago to protect them from extinction, and this fall they will be reintroduced to Tanzania.

O’Connor plans to interview biologists, government officials, environmental ethicists and Tanzanians and write a feature story about the frogs and the efforts to save them. Ultimately, she said, she’ll pitch the story and related multimedia, including video and radio segments, to magazines and news organizations.

The money she raises on Kickstarter will pay for her flight to Tanzania and transportation while she is there.

Raising money isn’t easy in a recession, when so many are strapped for cash. Still, O’Connor has raised $1,382 in the past month and said she’s confident she can raise $2,000 by her Oct. 20 deadline. The bulk of her donations have been from friends and former journalism colleagues, though some have come from strangers who thought the project sounded intriguing or from people who share an interest in biological conservation.

Using Kickstarter to fund her project, O’Connor said, has changed her perspective on pitching stories and following through with story ideas.

“Instead of me sending this to one editor and then deciding what the value of the project is, now I’m asking hundreds if not thousands of people what the merit of the project is,” she said. “It’s sort of taking the power of saying ‘this is a good story’ and ‘this is a bad story’ away from a single media outlet and submitting it to the public first and asking them to put their money behind it.”

For fulltime journalists, Kickstarter can help avoid the ethical issues of raising money for side projects.

Boston Globe reporter Geoff Edgers used Kickstarter to raise the $5,500 he needed to finish filming a documentary about his quest to reunite the Kinks. He couldn’t apply to local foundations for grants because he covers them. Kickstarter, he said, gave him an opportunity to reach out to a larger group of supporters who aren’t in his coverage area.

“I talk to people all the time who are really wealthy, but I can’t ask for money or take their money, so I had to find another way to raise it,” said Edgers, who covers the local arts community for the Globe. “My nightmare scenario would be if the director of a museum decided to give me a million dollars.” Many of the 74 people who have donated, he said, are strangers from around the world.

To encourage people to donate, Edgers created a video about his project and a blog with updates on the documentary’s progress. He ended up exceeding his fundraising goal by more than $630.

Edgers said he thinks Kickstarter could be especially beneficial for freelance journalists covering the arts.

“With newspapers cutting back on freelance arts writing, you could presumably see freelancers benefiting quite a bit from this. They could start an arts Web site or organize an arts conference,” he said. “But what it really comes down to is having a creative idea. That’s what inspires people to give.”

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