Last year, crowdfunding was hailed as a great new hope for journalism. A handful of media startups—including a single-issue magazine I worked on called Tomorrow—took to Kickstarter to appeal to readers to directly to fund their publications. And there have been a few modest success stories: Soccer-themed Howler magazine has produced three issues this way.
But in an era when a person might read dozens of articles for free daily, each one produced at a different publication, most traditional magazines and newspapers have failed to convert these casual readers to subscribers or “members.” Some enterprising journalists and upstart publications have decided to accept this fact, and try to convince readers to only pay for the articles that interest them. We’ve long known that publications cobble together funding through a variety of means. The same is becoming true for individual reporting projects.
Usually, the single-story crowdfunding ask comes after the work is produced. A publication pays for the work up-front and then sells it, often through a platform like Kindle singles, for $2.99 or $3.99 per download. A few new (or new-ish) media ventures produce just one significant work at a time—most notably the Atavist, which created a publishing platform that other one-by-one journalistic outlets, like the brand-new New New South uses. These publishers try to get readers to pony up to read each 7,000-word article. It’s not a bad deal for journalists. But $3.99 for a single longform article is a tough sell to readers when an issue of The New Yorker, which contains more than five times as many words printed on paper, goes for $6.99.
Also, the reach is limited. It’s the classic paywall problem: In making journalism exclusively available to readers who have paid for it, you miss out on most of the benefits of the social Web—and significantly lessen your audience. Unless you’re Beyonce, of course. Then you can do whatever you want.
But let’s say that, rather than publish through an intermediary, you want to appeal to the crowd first. Rather than get people to pay for work you’ve already produced, circumvent even new-media publishers and get readers to support your reporting up front. Earlier this year, journalist Barry Yeoman raised $7,000 to complete his project on a blues artist from New Orleans. Though he used Indiegogo, and other journalists have used Kickstarter, the new site Uncoverage specifically enables reporters to pitch their readers directly.
This form of crowdfunding turns the general public into your editor. And that’s going to make many types of stories a tough sell. Think about it: Figuring out which pitches to accept and which to decline is one of the toughest editorial skills to master. A story idea that sounds too broad or general can, in the hands of the right writer and reporter, turn into a revelatory feature. A pitch that seems well-supported by initial reporting can end up falling flat, leaving nothing but a weak thesis and no sources or scenes to support it. These are the scenarios that editors consider when they decide whether to assign—or, for our purposes, fund—a story idea submitted by a freelancer. It’s tough to imagine the general public being quite so discerning, or having enough knowledge of all the potential pitfalls.
But these problems are still the privilege of a select few journalists. Even those with lots of experience and a decent online following are going to have a tough time getting readers to pay in advance. It’s hard enough to package and sell most things after they’re reported. It’s even trickier to do so up front. Especially when it comes to time-consuming investigative projects, any journalist will tell you that the story you pitch is very rarely the narrative you end up with after extensive reporting. You can promise an investigation, but you can’t promise results. Even the best tips and most well-founded hunches sometimes don’t pan out. In order to circumvent this problem, you’ve gotta do a pretty significant amount of reporting up front. Yeoman did much of the work on his New Orleans bluesman project before pitching it to the public.
For those who are worried about an overall dumbing down of media due to disappearing resources for investigative work on unsexy topics, single-story crowdfunding probably doesn’t present a great long-term solution. And sometimes it doesn’t even work out for individual journalists in the short term. A few months ago, the photojournalism crowdfunding site Emphas.is went bust, leaving some photographers’ work in the lurch.
It’s understandable that most journalists will not want to assume the risk of appealing directly to their audience to fund a particular story. So at least for now, it’s probably best to think of such fundraising as a supplement to other funding methods. Several writers have chosen to publish a feature-length version of a story with a mainstream magazine, then produce a longer, Kindle Single-length version through a publisher like The Atavist. Or use crowdfunding to push a languishing project across the finish line after other resources have dried up. This is where I see the most promise. Every little bit helps.