February 18, 2016

#EmergingUS announced the launch of a million dollar crowdfunding campaign through Beacon on Thursday. The campaign marks the next stage in the evolution of the project, which focuses on the redefining demographic shifts in our country. It’s also the biggest yet for Beacon, a journalism crowdfunding platform. Beacon plans to match each pledge dollar for dollar, up to half a million.

“This is a completely new way to launch a media startup,” said founder and Pulitzer-winner Jose Antonio Vargas in an email with Poynter. “Most startups start with VC funding or a foundation grant or corporate support and then go chasing after an audience. But our crowdfunding approach means that #EmergingUS will be built on an audience of thousands of Americans, of all backgrounds (ages, races, ethnicities), and they’ll be treated as real stakeholders. They’ll play a big role in shaping the content and the distribution strategy. Hence the hashtag in our very name. Engagement will be key.”

#EmergingUS first launched as a platform at the Los Angeles Times, but the two appear to have gone in their own directions. I asked Vargas if there was still a partnership.

“#EmergingUS was first incubated at the Los Angeles Times,” he said, “and we are grateful for their support during the early history of #EmergingUS.”

Now, Vargas is changing the project to focus on video storytelling. And he thinks there’s an audience to support it.

For Beacon, #EmergingUS’s ask keys in on all the elements it’s seen so far with successful crowdfunding, said Beacon co-founder Dan Fletcher in a phone interview:

  • There’s a strong personality anchoring the project.
  • People feel like they can trust that personality.
  • Because of those first two, they believe the journalism #EmergingUS is planning will actually have an impact.

“That last point is the most key and what we’re the most excited about,” Fletcher said.

Last month, Pew reported that crowdfunding journalism was on the rise (it only looked at Kickstarter.) In the first nine months of the year, Kickstarter raised $1.74 million for journalism projects, compared with $49,256 in 2009. From the report:

… The growing activity here is about more than just dollars and cents or prizewinning reporting. In today’s evolving digital era, it represents a new, niche segment of nontraditional journalism driven in large part by public interest and motivation. It is bringing voice and visibility to efforts that would likely otherwise go unnoticed or unfunded, adding yet another way for the public to engage in creating, funding and disseminating journalism and adding one more option to the arsenal of revenue sources that the industry is desperately seeking to build up.

Beacon saw how crowdfunding can work when readers feel they have agency, Fletcher said, particularly with its Ferguson fellow, Mariah Stewart. There was criticism in media circles that the Huffington Post should have created a position and hired Stewart itself, he said. But from the readers’ side, feedback was positive and they asked for more.

“Everyone says they won’t pay for journalism until you hit them with the one story that they’re really, really passionate about,” Fletcher said.

Beacon’s support for immigration reporting comes from private philanthropists and foundations, he said, and they haven’t made those sources public. Here’s a quick look, via Beacon, at where some of that money has gone so far:

Screen shot, Beacon

Screen shot, Beacon

Vargas plans to hire multimedia reporters, producers and editors for #EmergingUS, which, he says, will focus on “the intersection of race, immigration, and identity in a multicultural America, and at the core of our journalistic mission is exploring this question: Who are we, and who are we becoming?”

I asked Vargas about the content of the site itself and what’s changed since #EmergingUS first emerged a year ago.

“Though I’ve been a print journalist for most of my career, I’ve made two documentaries (one aired on CNN, the other on MTV) in the past five years. So creating a video-centric #EmergingUS, packaged with essays, articles, slideshows and other digital content, has not changed,” he said. “If you think the purpose is much more solid, it’s probably because, in light of this historic election in which American identity itself is at stake, something like #EmergingUS feels more urgent and essential.”

There is a possibility of co-publishing with other news organizations, he said, but first the project itself needs to get started. The crowdfunding campaign has 60 days, Fletcher said, and will end April 18.

I asked Vargas if the work of #EmergingUS will offer users, at least, some remedies to #JournalismSoWhite, which we spoke about recently.

“To me the the work of #EmergingUS is a possible solution to #JournalismSoWhite,” Vargas said. “Most newsrooms are led by White journalists and White editors who, for the most part, frame stories from their point of view, from their prism of being the majority. Now that White Americans are an emerging racial minority in many parts of the country — that is certainly the case in most major cities in the U.S., cities that are home to major news organizations — how can we reframe certain stories? What narratives are missing? A new America, an America where the so-called ‘minorities’ constitute the new mainstream, is emerging right before our eyes and #EmergingUS will take the lead in covering it. But first we need the funding!”

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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