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January 22, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 9:56am

Alternative ways of funding journalism: Crowdfunding has raised $20m+ and seeded some major titles

By Aisha Majid

The 30 single-biggest crowdfunded projects in journalism have raised $21 million since 2012, research by Press Gazette has revealed.

Spanish online newspaper El Español which was set up by El Mundo founder Pedro J. Ramirez was the biggest crowdfunding success. The publication raised $3.9 million for its launch in 2015. This is $1.3 million more than the second-most successful campaign by now-defunct, The Correspondent..

The research, which considers crowdfunded projects from a variety of platforms and ranks individual campaigns rather than the total funds gathered, found that while major crowdfunding campaigns have a wide global reach, the majority of the highest-funded campaigns were from Europe.

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Over the past decade, pressure on advertising and print sales has led the news industry to experiment with new ways of raising revenue. While crowdfunding has for at least a decade been used to fund product launches and one-off campaigns, recently platforms such as Patreon and Substack have emerged as a model that might lend itself better to journalism’s need for sustainable revenue.

Although crowdfunding remains a niche way of paying for journalism – dwarfed by the $333 billion spent on digital advertising in 2020 – its emergence as an alternative revenue source has been quite surprising, says Tanja Aitamurto, assistant professor in Communication at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

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“It’s pretty remarkable that whole new publications have been set up just by using crowdfunding as a revenue model. If somebody had said some ten or 15 years ago that that was going to happen, I don’t think anyone would have believed it,” she says.

Several of the publications set up through crowdfunding campaigns have become stalwarts of their media landscapes. El Español, which claims 23 million readers, rivals well-known Spanish brands such as El Pais and El Mundo for reach while De Correspondent, which launched with a crowdfund of $1.7 million in 2013, is a well-respected voice in the Netherlands.

While Aitamurto says it’s unlikely that crowdfunding will ever be a sustained form of revenue for major media organisations, it holds promise for smaller, digital-only start-ups.

“I don’t think we should even approach crowdfunding as something that should be what ad revenue and subscription revenue are for publications,” she says.

“I don’t think for any established news organisations [that] crowdfunding is ever going to be the main funding source. It’s an add-on, it’s something extra,” she says. “But I’m hoping that these new, smaller news organisations… like El Español and Krautreporter will be able to sustain themselves.”

Crowdfunding has grown in popularity

An additional Press Gazette analysis of more than a decade of journalism projects on Kickstarter, suggests that crowdfunding is more popular now than a decade ago.    

In 2020, journalism projects on Kickstarter received $1.2 million, almost twenty-five times more than the $50,000 raised in 2008 – although funding had fallen from a high of $2.9 million in 2018.

The number of backers has similarly risen. In 2020 more than 16,000 people supported 74  successful projects, up from the just 890 people who donated to the 20 successful journalism projects on Kickstarter in 2009.

Although journalism projects use numerous international, local and bespoke platforms to crowdfund, Orianna Leckert, a journalist who directs publishing outreach at Kickstarter believes that the trends on the platform reflect trends in crowdfunded journalism more broadly.

“Kickstarter mirrors the trends in the industry at large in that crowdfunded and reader-supported media has been on the rise for several years and continues to be,” she says. “Tortoise and De Correspondent opened everyone’s eyes to what was possible in crowdfunded journalism.”.

And although campaigns by established media organisations and well-known groups often receive most attention, a 2016 analysis of Kickstarter data by Pew Research Center found that individuals produced almost half of the funded projects submitted to Kickstarter. Our analysis of the top 30 highest-earning campaigns on the platform, however, suggests that groups (particularly those led by better-known journalists) tend to get most funding.

Connecting with audiences 

Much of crowdfunding’s appeal is down to the way it allows journalism to reconnect with audiences – increasingly important in a market where Google and Facebook dominate ad revenues.

According to Leckert, while journalism which depends on fixed revenues might seem antithetical to project-based fixed funding, crowdfunding and journalism are natural partners.

“The method of crowdfunding is an extremely good match with the way you make journalism – it’s the same building and connecting with an audience in a deep way,” she says. “If this industry can survive, making those deep connections is going to be what underpins this.”

While connecting with audiences may not be unique to crowdfunding, it’s something crowdfunding is especially well-positioned to do, says Sebastian Esser, co-founder of Krautreporter, a digital magazine launched in 2014 in Germany’s biggest-ever journalism crowdfunding campaign.

“The main point is just connecting with this brand. And that’s the basic definition of crowdfunding”, he says.

Krautreporter was established to tackle what Esser calls the “downward cycle” of advertising-driven journalism. “We saw that journalistic models of reach were not working and there was a lot of production of clickbaity type content.”

In a rebuke to reach driven-models, putting readers at the centre is fundamental to Krautreporter’s offering. And it’s one of the reasons the website did not seek any other forms of revenue.

Enabling different kinds of journalism 

Relying on readers for revenue also allows Krautreporter to sidestep topics of mainstream interest and focus on what’s of interest to readers.

“You couldn’t afford to just ignore your reach as an editor in chief or a publisher,” says Esser. “But our most important KPI is new members, which focuses you on something completely different. Something that might not be breaking news and not really of mainstream interest to most people in the country. But to our readers it’s very important. That can be the best converting content and it changes the kind of content that we produce,” he says.

Although any journalism that the public is interested in and willing to pay for makes a good topic for crowdfunding, long-form stories, public interest pieces and investigations are good candidates for public funding. De Correspondent for example targets in-depth investigations that are difficult in cash-strapped newsrooms.

“Crowdfunding has diversified the topics and types of coverage,” says Aitamurto. “It provides an alternative funding mechanism. So if you, as a journalist are not able to cover the topics you care about. If you work for a bigger news organisation and the topics you care about are not valuable or relevant in that publication’s agenda you can take off and launch your own campaign.”
The promise of a different type of journalism is the driving force behind British-publication, Tortoise, launched by former BBC director of news, James Harding and ex-Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones president Katie Vanneck-Smith after a successful Kickstarter campaign.

According to Vanneck-Smith the site came out of a desire to escape the pressures of reporting breaking news after the media failed to spot the Brexit outcome and Trump victory and a demand to escape the overload of fast news.

“It felt like the media hadn’t really called those stories, so it got James thinking, there’s lots of great breaking news out there but is there a space and a need for a slower, more thoughtful reflective journalism –  what’s driving the news, not what’s breaking the news? That was the journalistic aha moment,” says Vanneck-Smith.

“And from a membership business moment and a customer perspective, people were talking about digital detoxing and the accelerated endless scroll,” she says. “So from a consumer perspective, we solved that pain point of the accelerated consumer overload. Rather than detox and turn off, we felt there was space for an alternative.”

Although Tortoise remains Kickstarter’s highest-funded journalism campaign to date, existing angel investment meant that financial need was not the driving motivation behind Tortoise’s crowdfunding campaign. Instead Harding and Vanneck-Smith turned to crowdfunding to draw in the crowd.

“The reason we used crowdfunding is because we’re a membership model and we wanted to provide a way for people to join early and help us shape the product. So all of the 2500  members that joined via Kickstarter became founding members of Tortoise and helped us in the first three to six months to build the product,” says Vanneck-Smith.

“It was part and parcel of delivering a different model of journalism, which is built with members for members.”

Tortoise currently counts 65,000 subscribers – 40,000 of which are fully paid. The site also relies on revenue streams such as producing podcasts for companies and partnering with brands on its signature ThinkIns – live unscripted discussions between editors, members and experts.

Vanneck-Smith says: “The whole issue with our industry is the lack of diversification of revenue. So there’s an over-reliance on advertising and advertising goes away, okay, so then we’ll move to a subscription model, but then we’re over-reliant on consumer revenues. The lack of diversification of revenue is critical – and it’s not small, nice to have. It’s got to be genuinely diversified revenue.”

While the crowdfunding’s financial contribution was essential for Krautreporter to get going, turning to the public was also an important way for the publication to build its readership, says Esser.

“We used the crowdfunding campaign to create the audience and brand. Legacy media has decades of history with their audiences and crowdfunding was an important way to leapfrog to a situation like that,” he says.

Like many other publications launched after crowdfunding drives, Tortoise and Krautreporter have used the momentum garnered from their initial crowdfunds to transition to a membership model.

Challenges of crowdfunding

But turning even the most successful crowdfunding campaign into a successful long-term stream of income is challenging as the experience of The Correspondent shows. Despite raising $2.6 million in 2018 in one of the biggest-ever journalism crowdfunding campaigns, the publication ceased operations in 2020.

But even the crowd-funded publications that have endured have faced challenges. 

“We almost didn’t manage to be sustainable,” says Esser. Krautreporter’s membership at one point fell to 5,000 from the 17,000 backers of its original crowdfunding campaign. 

“We always knew that the real challenge would be to survive year one because after one year you’re in a completely different situation when talking to your audience. They’re not paying you anymore for a big idealistic idea,” he says. ”After a year of publishing articles that are not 1000% different from other journalism, it’s not easy to create that same emotion.”

The pandemic also threw a curveball to Krautreporter although the website managed to survive the year by mounting a new crowdfunding drive in November which brought in 2000 new supporters. 

But pulling off a successful crowdfunding campaign involves much more than simply putting your project on a platform like Kickstarter and waiting for the money to roll in.

According to Press Gazette analysis, less than 25% of the journalism crowdfunding campaigns proposed on Kickstarter since 2009 have succeeded. 

Like fundraising in any sector, getting the proposition right is tricky, says Aitamurto.

“You have to be able to reach the online crowd and pitch your story, your publication or your project to them so they donate. And that’s the hardest part because it’s really hard to go over the threshold to get attention.”

And as with any start-up or new project, friends and networks are an invaluable resource, according to Vanneck-Smith.

“Our success was 50-50,” she says. “I’d say it’s 50% the fact that James, myself, and everybody else in the early Tortoise Team were very good at corralling our networks, friends, family and everybody we knew to be part of the new thing, and 50% genuinely because there is a pentup demand for a different type of news.”

While crowdfunding looks unlikely to solve the financial woes of journalism, it can, however, be part of the solution, says Leckert

“Radical outside the box thinking is where we need to be going all across the media,” she says. “In this moment there are no bad tactics and no idea too wacky and experimental to try.” 

Image credit: Shutterstock/Debasige

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