A Birmingham weekly is turning to crowdfunding for survival and growth

Weld, a weekly newspaper in Birmingham, Alabama, first launched five and a half years ago.

It started out of what founders saw as the necessity for more journalism in the community. Since then, the city has seen cuts to The Birmingham News and the end of daily newspaper delivery.

Weld, distributed for free, is a for-profit business.

"Theoretically," joked Publisher Mark Kelly.

"We live week to week and month to month, so we're trying to break out of that," Kelly said.

Two weeks ago, Weld (named for the city’s industrial past) launched a fundraising campaign and rebranded itself Weld: Birmingham’s Newspaper. The campaign, "The Fourth Check," is asking readers to step up and help them grow.

The idea for the campaign came from regular feedback Weld gets about its work and importance to the community, said Heather Milam Nikolich, general manager.

"From the business side, when they say ‘what can we do?’ the only response is, 'well just keep reading the newspaper.'"

It’s important to Milam Nikolich and Kelly to keep Weld free. They’d also like to further expand distribution of the newspaper. So, they came up with a few possible solutions to make more money:

  • Go back to existing investors and ask for more money.
  • Set up as an acquisition target and hope a bigger publication will step in.
  • Ask the community to help out.

Many people have a soft spot for local businesses; why wouldn't a local weekly count? The Fourth Check did a trial run a few months ago with its newsletter subscribers. Now it’s taken the message to the print edition and online. Organizers hope to raise $300,000 in a year.

So far, donations have mostly been in the $25 to $50 range, a phenomenon many news organizations have seen lately in response to criticism from President Donald Trump. Weld’s raising the money through a Go Fund Me campaign. So far, it has raised $7,320 from 71 people.

It hasn’t tried a membership model, which has been popular among news organizations seeking audience support, but the outcome is similar for contributors. Depending on what they donate, they’ll get swag, a monthly email, maybe a white paper on a bigger project in the community.

If they’re successful, they’d like to take the model of community fundraising to markets where local news is valued and necessary, possibly as a franchise. For now, that’s not their main focus, Milam Nikolich said. First, they want to see if community support is the missing puzzle piece to financial sustainability.

Chris Roberts is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Alabama and a former reporter for The Birmingham News. Weld does solid work, he said, but just look at al.com and you’ll see the city’s legacy paper still has reporters covering what’s happening.

"What Weld does is good stuff, but I'm not sure how compares to what The Birmingham News does," he said. "Weld may well see that as a compliment."

In the last few years, there has been a contraction of news coverage in the city, including the end of seven-day-a-week newspaper delivery and zoned editions, Roberts said. But Weld wasn’t the only news organization to fill in the blanks. Starnes Publishing has set up shop in seven nearby communities with a monthly newspaper and daily online coverage.

Many reporters working there now came from The Birmingham News, Roberts said, and they know those beats well. What Weld has done, he said, is focus on big projects that other news organizations in the area might not have the time or people to do. It's also partnered with several other organizations on big issues, including ProPublica, FactCheck.org and Kaiser Health News.

That doesn’t mean that their plan is a slam-dunk though, said Rick Edmonds, Poynter’s media business analyst. Digital nonprofits have had success with membership and crowdfunding projects, and there’s no reason it couldn’t work for a for-profit organization.

But it’s also not a given.

Asking for money for specific projects or positions, as Texas Tribune does, is usually a more successful approach than asking for general operating funds.

Weld doesn’t compete with The Birmingham News in quite the way the Advocate competes with the Times-Picayune (another Advance newspaper), Edmonds said. But they’re smart to point out how they can fill in holes created by years of industry disruption.

So what happens if they don't raise $300,000 in one year? Kelly's confident based on community feedback that they will. It's an existential moment for Weld and the community, he said.

"If you’re asking the community the question, 'is this valuable to you as a member of the community and to the community as a whole?' if we don’t get enough yeses, then it's very incumbent on us to decide at that point what does make sense," Kelly said.

Roberts is among those who are pulling for the weekly publication.

"Birmingham needs more journalism," Roberts said. "Every town needs more journalism."


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