Reporters go extra mile with funds from iCrowd

By Patrick Thornton

With help from Spot.us donors, Louisville Public Media’s Erica Peterson reported on reported on the vast and growing pile of coal ash that comes between a power company and its neighbors. (Photo: LPM.)

Can crowdfunding be used to support meaningful journalism? To what degree can it replace traditional revenue sources?

There’s a lot of hype about crowdfunding — raising production money through a website. So far, the technique hasn’t been able to support full-time journalists, much less a beat, a substantial weekly program or a newsroom. But independent journalists, public media stations, newspapers and web startups all have had successes:

  • WFPL in Louisville, Ky., is using crowdfunding to pay additional costs of reporting that the station couldn’t normally afford, such as independent environmental testing.
  • Independent journalists use it for projects that traditional outlets can no longer afford. California startup Oakland Local uses it to extend its freelance-writing budget.

Kickstarter has become a tool for funding projects as big as the launch of a new reporting website. Spot.us and Public Radio Exchange’s Story Exchange have also emerged as useful crowdfunding platforms.

Crowdfunding + crowdsourcing

Public media are trying to integrate crowdfunding into their operations. American Public Media, for instance, acquired crowdfunding site Spot.us late last year and will integrate it into its Public Insight Network (PIN), enabling journalists to crowdsource and crowdfund from a single platform.

Journalists using PIN at Minnesota Public Radio, Marketplace and 41 other pubradio and print-media newsrooms have recruited more than 142,000 community members as volunteer sources for stories that draw on their expertise or experience.

Spot.us has funded about 250 stories and raised more than $300,000 since its launch with a Knight Foundation grant about three years ago. Its founder, David Cohn, believes APM’s acquisition will help the site assist more newsgathering projects and make a bigger impact.

“Journalism startups will probably need stronger, older, more mature organizations to grow,” said Joaquin Alvarado, until recently APM’s senior v.p. of digital innovation.

“There are not enough resources currently to do all the reporting that needs to be done in this country,” Alvarado said. “We feel that pressure constantly. Whether it’s the ability to work with freelancers or the ability to launch new beats or new verticals, newsrooms are having to navigate how they pay for anything.”

Alvarado said Spot.us mostly supports one-off stories, but he expects it eventually will be able to gather support for entire beats. He sees public broadcasters as naturals for community funding — his preferred term for the practice — because they have long histories of direct public support.

Mike Reszler, APM’s new v.p. of digital media and overseer of Spot.us, expects it to expand beyond text-based reporting into radio and video. “The big challenge with TV in particular, but also to some degree radio, is the cost of the projects can be substantially more than a traditional print piece.” The average project funded through Spot.us costs around $1,000, Cohn said. The average donor gives about $80 to projects on the site.

Management of the project is shifting at APM, with Reszler taking charge of PIN after Alvarado’s departure and Spot.us founder Cohn soon to depart. Cohn is finishing up contract work as PIN’s Spot.us expert; now he’s spending most of his time on another project, running hyperlocal sites for the University of California Berkeley’s j-school.

PRX tries preproduction funding

PIN isn’t the only public radio project being given a dose of Spot.us. The Public Radio Exchange (PRX) won a Knight Foundation grant in 2010 to integrate Spot.us into its web platform.

The result is Story Exchange, planned to bring crowdfunding to both independent and station-based producers.

In Kentucky, Louisville Public Media’s WFPL tried out the site to see what works and what doesn’t. Todd Mundt, content director in Louisville and now editorial director for NPR Digital Services, started small, seeking $150 to $250 for partial funding of reporting projects. Even at those modest levels, two of the original six pitches did not get funded. A second round of pitches will begin soon, with some goals reaching $1,000.

Mundt said the Louisville newsroom aims to use crowdfunding for costs they normally couldn’t cover, such as independent environmental testing and a series of polls. WFPL also is pitching a full-length audio documentary.

The station pitches its ideas to prospective donors in several ways: on the air, in its biweekly listener newsletter and through social media. The language of the pitch can make or break it; tweets must be eye-catching.

The pitch doesn’t have to address the many goals of a station but can focus on specific interests. “There are a lot of people at the edge of the core audience,” said Jake Shapiro, c.e.o. of PRX. “They may be fans of a particular story or show, and they might give where they wouldn’t with traditional fundraising.”

Crowdfunding is a natural fit for PRX because it’s always aggregated money for producers, though its original model was to recoup costs after production. PRX was started as an online marketplace for independent audio producers, showcasing their work and collecting broadcast fees from stations. Through PRX, indies can upload public radio content, and stations can download the shows for a fee and air them. (PRX receives a cut.) The most successful evergreen shows make tens of thousands of dollars a year through PRX, Shapiro said.

Story Exchange is offered free to pubradio stations. The long-term business model for the service hasn’t been worked out.

No substitute for a salary

Can crowdfunding provide more than occasional spare change for journalists? That depends on the journalist’s beat, creative skills and ability to make a persuasive pitch online. Cohn believes that a big-name journalist could support his work through crowdfunding.

For most journalists, one-off, high-profile projects are the most likely winners at crowdfunding. Kickstarter has proven that big, expensive projects can be funded: video games, documentaries, design products and more. But could one person or producing organization repeatedly succeed with big projects? Would donors tire of helping a TV station fund expensive documentaries?

Lindsey Hoshaw, a freelance journalist based in the Boston area, raised $10,000 for her first Spot.us story to travel to and report on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a little-known mid-ocean spot where flotsam accumulates. She could never have done the story without the crowd’s help. The New York Times published her work, paying her $1,500 for the finished story and a few photos.

The costs of getting the story, including renting and insuring a boat and packing three weeks of food, were so high Hoshaw ended up without pay for her time.

For Hoshaw, the venture was worth it anyway. She had a rare chance to see and describe the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and the story boosted her freelance career.

Hoshaw hopes to raise a bigger budget for a story on fog harvesting in drought-stricken communities, though she’s wary about setting the price tag. If a fundraiser asks for too much and doesn’t get 100 percent, Spot.us or Kickstarter will cancel the project and refund contributions to the donors. But if the fundraiser asks too little, she may have to start fundraising again to finish the job.

Peter Byrne, a freelance journalist based in Northern California, netted a bit more from his award-winning eight-part investigative series about conflicts of interest between the investments of the University of California and its regents’ personal investments. Parts appeared on eight relatively small California news sites and in newspapers.

Byrne raised $7,000 and paid 15 percent of that for an editor. His reporting costs were about $500, not counting his office overhead. That left him with about $5,500, a moderate amount for 200 hours of work over eight months.

But he figures crowdfunding was the only way he could have gotten the gig. “No magazine would have paid me that amount of money,” he said.

Byrne and Hoshaw see Spot.us as a market for stories and Kickstarter as the place where books, films and other projects could flourish. Both look to use it for future projects.

By far the biggest crowdfunding site in dollars raised, Kickstarter amasses more than $2 million a week from people all over the world. More than 1.3 million people have pledged for projects on the site. Projects typically raise about $5,000. Few have raised more than $1 million.

Public TV stations and others looking to produce video projects have perhaps the greatest potential for success on Kickstarter, according to company spokesperson Justin Kazmark. Of the more than $130 million pledged in the site’s four years of operation, about $40 million has gone to film and video projects, $30 million to music, and $15 million to graphic and visual arts.

Miscellaneous other kinds of works have raised $45 million.

Film and video proposals tend to do well because their compelling videos do much of the selling, Kazmark said. But web and print media projects have also succeeded. The Classical, a new daily online sports publication, asked the Kickstarter community to help launch it. Planners set a goal of $50,000 for startup costs and exceeded it by almost $6,000. The average donor pledged about $52.

L.A. Streetsblog, a website that covers transportation and livable communities, used Kickstarter to fund an expansion of its reporting into Spanish. For $1,000 they proposed to produce a film in Spanish about CicLAvia, an annual event for which Los Angeles converts certain streets into havens for pedestrians and bicyclists.

The campaign worked, and the bloggers know that the community will also support Spanish-language content. “It was not only a way for us to get funding for it, but it was also a way to gauge interest from our readers,” said Damien Newton, founding editor.

Reszler expects journalists will be able to make use of both Spot.us and Kickstarter. “We believe that as we develop Spot.us, the differences between the two will become clearer,” he said. “First, we have journalists and other professionals independently review the project before it goes live. This helps to ensure that Spot.us stays focused on journalism and not advocacy projects.

Expanding freelance budgets

Cohn sees Spot.us as a way for news organizations to do pricier stories than their tight budgets would allow. Oakland Local, a community news site started with a J-Lab grant, chips in some money for its Spot.us pitches.

The site relies on crowdfunding, says editor and publisher Susan Mernit. Though the community doesn’t have a lot of money or a deep history of contributing to nonprofit media, the site’s 13 pitches since early 2009 resulted in about 50 stories. At first, Oakland Local sought $300 to $400 for a single story, but lately it has asked for $1,000 or so for a series of stories. The editors plan about 15 pitches this year at that level, supplementing ad sales, sponsorships and training seminars on citizen journalism and outreach. To avoid wearing out their donors, the pitches emphasize that it’s okay to give just $5 or $10, Mernit said.

Crowdfunding works better to support coverage of a selected topic instead of a single story, Mernit said. Donors contributed about $4,000 for Oakland Local coverage of the homicide trial of a police officer. The donations bought 40 blog posts with daily trial updates.

Crowdfunding producers are still experimenting to find its limits and its sweet spots. Users say it already has proven itself as a way to enable expanded coverage for a newsroom, to help connect community members to a story or a project, and to cover part of project costs. And that’s not such a bad achievement, because public media tends to excel at pulling together money from multiple sources for a common good.

Patrick Thornton succeeded David Cohn as the primary writer of BeatBlogging.org, a blog launched by J-school professor and blogger Jay Rosen to examine how beat reporters use social media in their work. He also served as web content editor for Stars and Stripes newspaper and social-media manager for the conservation group Rare.

Copyright 2012 American University

EARLIER STORIES

ReelChanges, a defunct crowdfunding site for documentary producers, provided a platform for producers willing to do a lot of outreach and promotion, 2011. Earlier story, 2009.

RELATED LINKS

Spot.us founder David Cohn tells Poynter Institute’s Steve Meyers that he’d planned to join Joaquin Alvarado’s APM team based in Oakland, Calif., but he changed plans. APM laid off Alvarado and his Oakland staff in March.

Kickstarter: “A new way to fund and follow creativity.”

Story Exchange, PRX’s extension of Spot.us.

Louisville Public Media’s coal ash stories, assisted by crowdfunding.

Spot.us claims 13,050 contributors.

Indiegogo: another crowdfunding site.

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