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Things I learned about crowdfunding journalism in 2014

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2014 has been the year of crowdfunding for me. To inform my work helping to make the best possible experience for writers on the Contributoria* network, I’ve undertaken various experiments across the sector.

As well as asking for support for pieces of my own journalism, I’ve backed other people’s work using four sites – Kickstarter, my own Contributoria, Crowdfunder and Beacon Reader. This is a personal account of what I’ve found as well as some important insight from people who have been successful.

Different approaches

The current crop of crowdfunders offer uniquely different solutions to the problem of bringing together multiple funders for journalism. Of the platforms I concentrated on, Kickstarter approaches it to fund projects, work which has a specified timescale; Crowdfunder is aimed at community projects; the Contributoria community funds individual articles on a monthly basis and Beacon Reader makes it about supporting a person in whatever they choose to write about, as well as some projects.

Kickstarter

I supported one Kickstarter journalism project in the year – Eliot Higgins’ Bellingcat for investigative citizen journalism which raised £50k+.

He was lucky to win early support from a BBC producer who volunteered to make the striking and professional video which fronted the campaign, and then he plunged in. I asked him about the experience:

“I had three weeks to put together a Kickstarter. I went to a professional campaign management company in New York and they helped me put it together. A lot of the money was for costs I’d already spent and then 20% went to campaign team and 8% to Kickstarter so that was a big chunk and then there was the money I’d already spent on the website. If I ran it again it would be for a much smaller amount because I wouldn’t have those costs now.”

Rewards
The first thing to notice about the Kickstarter experience is the idea of layers of reward. I was unreasonably pleased to receive my Bellingcat T-shirt as well as special access to a non-public part of the site as a thank you for my cash.

But while T-shirts is a fairly standard offer, the idea of exclusivity prompted some difficulties for Eliot in getting a coherent message across.

“I was advised by the crowdfunding campaign people that I should keep the Bellingcat site closed and only for people who were donating until the end of the campaign. Unfortunately that’s led to some people believing it is subscription-only even though it’s an open website and created that wrong impression in some people’s minds.

“Crowdfunding is also a hugely stressful way of having to do something, when you are working by yourself especially. I was getting all sorts of interviews for the promotional work and found it hard to do the work needed to do the stories for the content to actually go on the site at the same time.”

Crowdfunder
The hyperlocal publication, A Little Piece of Stone used the UK based Crowdfunder for its campaign to raise a £15,000 target to improve its website and found that people responded to meet 75% of that by the Friday of week one.

Despite the town of Stone being a very small place, site publisher Jamie Summerfield reached out using social media and other platforms to widen the potential funding net.

As he posted at the Community Journalism blog, early on in the process, he also found that promotional aspect hard work:

“I don’t think it’s something to be entered into lightly. Crowdfunding requires a huge amount of effort, as we’re discovering! I hadn’t anticipated the amount of work required just to get your campaign to the start line. But if you get it right, and you can get the support of your audience (as I hope we’ll be able to do) then a successful campaign is a wonderful platform to galvanise support and move towards sustainability.”

Unlike the system at Kickstarter, as a (very small) funder, I didn’t feel quite as involved in the process using Crowdfunder. Once I’d paid the money and been thanked, that seemed to be about it for involvement so I’d be interested to hear if others’ experiences of the site differ.

Contributoria
Like many Contributoria members, I am both a funder and fundee on the platform. (Please note, I have chosen to donate any fees earned from writing on the site to charity, more than £1K to date).

The writers I’ve backed on the site have received some, or all, of my monthly ‘points’ allocation – a currency all members receive and can spend towards their chosen targets. Those points are then automatically translated into real pounds and pence for the journalists.

As a writer, I have pitched stories which have likewise been backed, or not, by other members of the community. So far they have supported me to write about topics as diverse as the pressures on journalists to sexual exploitation in the LGBT community raising money for the Frontline Fund and Barnardos respectively.

I asked for people’s support on Twitter and Facebook as well as using my subscription newsletter to outline what I was planning to write about and update people on how that was progressing.

Because I didn’t need people’s actual cash – people joining Contributoria get a small amount of points for free – getting the necessary support involved explaining how the system works rather than extracting their credit cards.

Membership on Contributoria does have benefits outside of cash and meant I could receive help and input on my articles as well as, likewise, helping others with their work. This collaborative aspect is so far unique among the crowdfunding sites I’ve used.

Of course, my own use of the site to fund stories doesn’t fully reflect the experience of all the thousands of members, many of whom have earned significantly more from the site and used it to fund travel to places as far afield as Botswana.

The members are worth contacting for further tips and experience if you’re looking to fund your own work at the site and one of them, Jon Hickman, is currently writing about his own experiences of crowdfunding here.

Beacon Reader

When I saw how well Lyra McKee Had done with this site ($11K+) by accessing significant funding for a whole series of articles which investigated a murder cold case in Northern Ireland I chose to support her. This means that $5 has been going out of my PayPal account automatically every month. I don’t have any particular input into what she chooses to publish, I have to trust that she’ll serve up another interesting episode in the story, which she does on a regular basis.

Because the Beacon Reader content is largely behind a paywall for members, I asked her how she’s managed to amass so much interest in her work.

“I genuinely have had a fantastic experience using Beacon – the team bends over backwards for writers, the support you’ll get is literally second to none and they’re always prompt/on time with payments. Like any crowdfunding campaign, though, you need a good video pitch or it’s going nowhere. I was very, very lucky; I had a friend who was a fantastic amateur filmmaker with a £2,000 camera who was willing to help for free and a composer friend who charged me just $100 for a track (and was happy to wait to see if the crowdfunder was successful first).

“I was also very lucky to have a fanbase who had followed my progress with the book via Twitter/my blog and wanted to help any way they could. Basically, I was surrounded by this network of people who were willing to go to the wire for me, even though most of them had never met me. It was humbling. These were the ingredients that made it work. I started off by giving my work away free – blogging, tweeting, Facebooking. I did this for 2-3 years. People grew to like it then they wanted to support me.

“I think this is the part people forget about when discussing crowdfunding; you can’t just ask people for money when they don’t know you (unless you create something that, for whatever reason, goes viral). You have to give them something for free first.

“The one thing I would say – it’s very hard to grow your fanbase when your work is hiding behind a paywall. The Beacon team understood this – if you’re a writer or subscriber who shares a link on Twitter, your followers can read it for free. But I think, in the future, the most effective model will be – and has been – freemium. Take Serial, for example – they asked readers to donate over the course of a week so they could make Season 2. Listeners didn’t need to be coerced or threatened with a paywall – they coughed up. People will pay for stuff they love. If you want them to pay for news, create stuff worth loving and then stick the tip jar out.”

My own experience of Beacon Reader has been rather less successful, so far. After publishing a few articles to what felt like an empty room being behind the paywall, I did start a project with the US site based on a family mystery I’d be interested to investigate further and which I felt could end up revealing some wider international intrigue.

I’d asked for a fairly small amount of money – $2,000 for three months work which included travel and several multimedia pieces as well as a few feature length articles.

It was a shock when the site organisers suggested I send out 500 personal emails to garner support for it. And it was here that I also ran into some cultural issues – the people I started approaching were members of the family and extended circle. They were mostly older British people and found my approach odd to the point of rude.

Feedback came through saying they felt as if they were being involved in a pyramid selling scheme, it was all a bit US and the language of the site too brash for them.

I failed to reach my target (I actually don’t have hundreds of people I could approach for cash, sadly!) and it’s difficult to gain wider traction without more effort than I could muster at the time. Plus I simply didn’t have the time to make a video – in hindsight that looks to have been a key driver for both Lyra and Eliot.

That said, I am continuing with the site, just approaching it in a rather more gentle manner to see if I can build it up over time. Feel free to follow me here. (And I couldn’t agree more with Lyra – the staff at Beacon are extremely helpful and encouraging for anyone wanting to dip their toe.)

Conclusions
So there we are, a year of crowdfunding journalism viewed from both sides of the fence. If you are looking to crowdfund work, or support others doing so, in 2015, I’ve come up with these five takeaways in summary:

1. Understand the different site offers
It’s well worth investing some time considering all the different options – ask yourself what it is that’s being funded, i.e work, person, project? How does the platform work? Does the language used on the site fit with your personal style? Will the demands fit in with your other activities?
Ask someone who has been successful on the platform how they feel about the site, how accessible the people behind it are and whether they can offer any advice for a newbie.

There’s a good list of further sites with summaries of their own particular approaches here at Journalism.co.uk.

2. Consider the timeframe
Some sites offer a quick turnaround on funding decisions (Contributoria is in calendar months) others rely on longer-term effort to establish a presence as Lyra did with Beacon. There’s also some psychology with timing in terms of when to pitch ideas and how long to run them for – having a shortish, defined timeline makes it easier for potential backers to understand the process and feel an urgency to get behind the call for action. If you’ve ever undertaken a sponsored swim, run or similar, these sort of behaviours will sound familiar.

3. You will need a properly planned strategy
Plan all the activity out ahead of making the call for funding. Things you need to think about include the milestones for the project or stories, what is going to happen/when, the promotional activity, how/where the backers will be involved, how long is the relationship to be, what do you want from backers other than cash, etc. etc. Once the call for funding is live, it will be a juggling act to deliver on your part of the promise while also promoting the need for funding. A full content and activity calendar planned out in advance will be a great help plus allow more time than you think strictly necessary to explain what you are doing – I soon discovered that even the term ‘crowdfunding’ is largely unknown outside of the tech/digital world.

4. Social media alone will not work
BUT social media is incredibly important. As with the launch of any content driven project, having a documented content plan for your social media channels will help you target the message appropriately.

Video proved to be the clinching thing for two of the projects I’ve mentioned here so, depending on your choice of platform, might be worth investing time with.

Simply asking for cash is unlikely to hit the spot outside of family and friends but being inventive with social media to offer specific interest points to your followers or rewards such as exclusivity, picture access or merchandising could support your campaign.

Using newsletters and other platforms such as blogs and LinkedIn can also help widen the net of potential backers and find people who might be interested in investing.


5. Get ready to work hard.

If you haven’t already realised this from the experiences I’ve detailed here, you’ll need to be prepared to work hard! Sadly crowdfunding doesn’t simply mean exposing your brilliant idea to the world and waiting for the cash to flow in, it does require planning, a certain amount of marketing nous and a little pinch of cheek. You’ll need to allow enough time to undertake it properly and approach it as a job of work for the maximum success.

Good luck and remember, what goes around, comes around so why not give a little to learn a lot.

These are my personal reflections on using crowdfunding for journalism – I’d love to hear yours. Please do feel free to share via the comments below or on Twitter.

Happy New Year!

* Disclosure: I am editor and co-founder at Contributoria.

Written by sarahhartley

December 31st, 2014 at 4:50 pm

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