Fresh from Ferguson Fellowship, Beacon eyes new projects

Earlier this year, The New York Times profiled Beacon, a crowdfunding platform for journalists. The writer wondered: With all the hand-wringing in the news industry about asking readers to pay for content, would they ever sponsor a journalist?

Now, just a few months later, that question has been answered. As of this week, Beacon readers have raised $41,074 in partnership with The Huffington Post for a reporter covering the ongoing story of Michael Brown's shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. The recipient of the funding, Mariah Stewart, has been catapulted from her job as a bra fitter at a nearby mall — she's since put in her two weeks notice — to the front lines of a national story.

The last few months have been big for Beacon, too. Stewart's funding represents the first time the company has ever bankrolled an entire reporter's annual salary. And as of last month, Beacon has paid out more than $500,000 to its network of journalists. August also saw the company reach 10,000 subscribers, individuals who pay for the work they read on Beacon.

The company has also expanded a bit. In July, the startup brought aboard Catherine Hollander, a former correspondent for the National Journal, to coordinate with its growing network of writers. In June, they hired Malcolm McDonald, formerly chief architect of financial services company Markit, to help handle Beacon's technical side. And they're looking to add three computer engineers to their ranks.

As the company grows, it's partnering with news organizations for increasingly ambitious projects. This summer, the company worked with Tech Dirt to raise nearly $70,000 for the online news organization's coverage of net neutrality. It's also in the midst of two partnerships with non-profit news organizations. This week, The Texas Tribune joined with Beacon to raise funds for its Shale Life Project, which aims to examine the impact of the shale oil boom on Texas residents. On Monday, Beacon will debut a campaign with The Colorado Independent to fund a year's worth of political cartooning from Pulitzer Prize winner Mike Keefe — just in time for the fall elections.

The initial conversations for both of these projects preceded the much-publicized campaign to fund a Ferguson reporter, said Dan Fletcher, Beacon's co-founder, in a phone interview. But the campaign was a good proof-of-concept. Now, Beacon uses that example when building partnerships with other news organizations.

“It becomes very easy to go to other news organizations and say, ‘look, this works, The Huffington Post did it,'” Fletcher said.

Fletcher, who was formerly the managing editor at Facebook and social media director at Bloomberg, says the company's biggest challenge for further expansion is making news organizations and other journalists aware of the company's services.

Beacon got some of that publicity — not all of it positive — shortly after Stewart's funding was announced in August. The Huffington Post partnership took flak from critics saying the news organization had the means to fund it without readers. Editors at HuffPost knew they'd be taking criticism when they announced the idea, Washington bureau chief Ryan Grim said in a phone interview.

“You know, we’re big kids," he said. "We can certainly take a few lumps for something we believe in.”

The public criticism might have actually prompted a groundswell of support for the program, Grim said. Many of the donations came in small increments, but one journalism professor kicked in $5,000. And several Huffington Post staffers contributed without telling him.

Grim said he's open to using Beacon to crowdfund projects in the future, but would likely restrict his pitches to local projects and specific topics that people can rally around.

Maintaining relationships with news organizations like The Huffington Post are key to Beacon's success, said David Cohn, the chief content officer at Circa, in a phone interview. The biggest obstacle for Beacon — and any niche crowdfunding startup — is that relationships built around crowdfunding projects are temporary by necessity.

Cohn should know. In 2008, he founded a crowdfunding site for journalists, Spot.us, which by February 2011 had funded over 160 journalism projects with the help of 5,000 contributors. That year, the site was acquired by American Public Media, which eventually mothballed it.

The site fell by the wayside without a champion willing to scare up new partnerships and coordinate with writers, Cohn said. And the same thing could happen to Beacon if it doesn't tirelessly identify new crowdfunding projects.

"It’s like a shark — they have to constantly be swimming.”

Correction: A previous version of this story said Spot.us was sold to American Public Media. In fact, it was acquired.

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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