While handwringing over financial support for journalism is nothing new, it’s been especially fraught recently. From the Nate Thayer/Atlantic dustup to the possibility that the Tribune papers may be sold to the Koch brothers, everyone in media seems worried about funding the Fourth Estate.
One hopeful sign for such worriers: Crowdfunding has become a way to support journalism projects from one-off articles to the wholesale launch of new publications.
Back in 2008, crowdfunding platform Spot.us launched to support reporting, and has helped publish stories on partner sites ranging from The New York Times to Cleveland Free Press. Since Kickstarter’s launch in April 2009, 816 journalism projects have sought funding on the site, with 36 percent of them succeeding.
But while raising money via crowdfunding can be a big part of a launch plan, it isn’t a sure bet. If you’re looking to try crowdfunding, keep these tips in mind.
1. Choose a topic that works.
Crowdfunding campaigns demand time and publicity. That makes them a poor fit for breaking news, or investigative pieces that require some stealth.
And since you’ll need many people to support your cause, projects with a larger geographic scope are more likely to attract funds.
“You could say one percent of the people that would be interested in a story will fund it,” Spot.us founder David Cohn told Poynter. “If the topic is about Stockton, Calif., let’s say the population is — I’m making this up — 300,000. You’d have to get in front of a lot of eyeballs, and they’d have to be Stockton eyeballs. If you do California, it’s easier to get in front of the same number of California eyeballs as Stockton eyeballs.”
Cohn also said stories about a topic with wide appeal do well: “The number of people interested in environmental issues is even greater than the population of California.”
2. Consider the audiences.
Aside from Kickstarter and Indiegogo, there are journalism-specific crowdfunding sites such as Spot.us, Emphas.is for photojournalists and Vourno.com for video journalism. Cohn advised considering which audience you want to reach: While Kickstarter has a big audience, it focuses on creative projects of all stripes, including music, film and fashion. Audiences reached via the journalism-specific sites may be smaller but a better fit for your project.
But that’s not a hard and fast rule. Andrea Seabrook, a former NPR reporter who crowdfunded DecodeDC, a blog and podcast covering news from Washington, D.C., said by phone that she chose Kickstarter for its credibility:
“My natural audience as a public radio reporter were a bit older and not familiar with Kickstarter, but even when they were like, ‘Wait, what’s that?’ their kids knew it, and it was something they could search for and recognize was credible right from the beginning. … You’ll always be associated with that [crowdfunding] organization, even if you never do a thing with them again — so you need to think about that in terms of your own brand and the credibility of your work.”
3. Read the fine print.
Investigate how each site handles money raised. Kickstarter is “all or nothing” — if you don’t reach your goal, you won’t receive any money. Indiegogo, on the other hand, allows you to accept however much you raise, or opt for all or nothing.
Kickstarter says the all-or-nothing method prevents project creators from having to deliver projects which don’t attract enough funding. The company also believes that its deadlines for crowdfunding projects encourage backers to rally and push a project past its goal line. But you should weigh these potential benefits against the ability to take whatever money you raise, even if you fall short of your goal.
4. Factor fees and other costs into your budget.
On top of the budget for your journalism project, you need to take into account fees. For instance, Kickstarter collects a 5 percent fee from a successfully funded project’s total, while Indiegogo collects 4 percent on projects that meet their goal and 9% on projects that fall short but choose to take whatever funding they receive. Payment processing fees take another 3 percent to 5 percent out of the money you collected.
“And then, if you’re a for-profit like I am, you have to consider taxes that you’ll pay on that income, and the amount of money that the rewards cost, and the postage.” Seabrook said. “Postage is really expensive for sending out rewards.”
5. Establish your credibility.
Anyone funding a project wants to be confident that their money will be put to good use and a project will actually come to fruition. Toward that end, backers will want to know where you’ve been published, just like an editor who’s weighing whether to give you an assignment.
“Don’t just have an idea — make a prototype of it,” Seabrook said. “We had three episodes up by the end of the campaign, and that helps a lot — it gives a sense of the integrity and the worthiness of their money.”
Similarly, Cohn said stories on Spot.us that already had a publisher on board got funded more quickly and often exceeded their goals. “It was a stamp of approval,” he said, “and there was maybe a little bit of excitement for the donors that would get to see the story published in the newspaper or magazine.”
6. Make a professional video.
Getting on camera may seem daunting, but both Cohn and Kickstarter find projects that include a video appeal are more likely to be funded. “Be yourself and put yourself out there,” Cohn said. “Keep it real in that respect. Also, know who you’re talking to. Kickstarter has a fun, creative community, and Emphas.is is more about serious journalism, so you want to talk to that community.”
Seabrook learned from something she didn’t do right: “My video is pretty terrible production-wise. … I showed it to a few friends in the industry before, and they counseled me not to put up my campaign. They said you shouldn’t put up something that is less quality than your own work.”
Because of the poor quality of her video, Kickstarter didn’t feature her project — a better video, Seabrook speculated, could have led to a featured spot on the site and brought in more funding.
“If you get featured it’s a huge bump, because they send it to everybody’s inboxes,” she said.
7. Create rewards that narrow the distance between you and your audience.
People don’t want to hand over money and have no contact with a project until it hits newsstands months later. If they’re excited about a project, they want to stay involved during its creation, whether that means getting a peek behind the scenes or actually helping to bring the project to life in some tangible way.
Photojournalists and writers can create rewards from what’s left on the cutting-room floor — photos that don’t get used or scenes that get cut from a longform piece. Or consider offering backers a postcard from a reporting destination, exclusive access to a blog that details the weeks or months of work, dinner and drinks after a big reporting trip, or an acknowledgement in a forthcoming book.
You could also go the traditional swag route: Seabrook created DecodeDC T-shirts, mugs and tote bags, and ordered extras for the show.
8. That said, make sure the rewards don’t take over your life.
Your main goal is to finish your journalism project, not to spend a significant amount of time fulfilling rewards. “My biggest error was promising personal postcards to a huge group of people — 800 postcards,” Seabrook said, adding that supporters are still asking her where their postcards are.
9. Have rewards at a variety of price points.
According to Kickstarter, some people don’t have the money to substantively support a project, but appreciate the chance to chip in something and spread the word. The site recommends including a reward level of $25 — the most common pledge.
10. Choose a campaign long enough to build momentum but short enough to feel urgent.
Kickstarter says 30-day campaigns are strong time frames for projects, while campaigns longer than 60 days tend to languish.The site no longer allows campaigns longer than 60 days.
11. Devise an outreach strategy.
Before your campaign goes live, talk it up with journalists and bloggers who might write about it. Reach out to “social influencers” who can reach interested Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or Tumblr communities so they can help you get the word out. And get friends and family to agree to back the project the moment it goes live. Securing a significant chunk of your funding early will give other backers confidence to sign on.
12. When you launch, get the word out any and every way you can.
“The amount of energy you can put into spreading the word will have a bigger impact than anything else,” Cohn said. He cited the statistic that non-profit news organizations only get donations from readers and listeners after having contact with them seven times.
“You have to be prepared to reach out a few times,” he said.
And be prepared to ask people one by one for support — it’s easy to ignore a mass email. Cohn said that reaching out to individuals sounds really hard but actually isn’t: write up your core pitch, then tailor the beginning and end for each person.
Seabrook said it’s important to give a campaign everything you have.
“If you don’t make it the first time, it’s a lot harder to go back” and ask for money again, she warned. She recommended contacting everyone you know, as well as organizations with which you have an affiliation, such as your alumni organization, and asking them to help get the word out on social media.
“Get people who have a lot of pull and clout on Facebook and Twitter and contact them personally and say, ‘I need a retweet or a repost,’ “ she suggested. “I said, ‘Please, I’d rather you repost and retweet than give me money.”
But, she cautioned, be creative, not annoying: “Be interesting, be funny, don’t say the same thing all the time — show people your wit and your value, especially as a journalist. Put up links people will want to see, and roll out bits and pieces of your project as you go along.”
13. Funding is just the beginning.
Offer your backers regular updates that offer insight into the creative process, or even access to the project itself. For instance, Seabrook has hosted Google hangouts and created a section of DecodeDC featuring interviews that haven’t aired yet and extras from previous episodes. That section is exclusive for high-level subscribers.
Most importantly, don’t underestimate the amount of work your campaign will take.
“It is a full-time job the entire time the campaign is running,” Seabrook said. “Imagine how much work it’s going to be and then double or triple it.”