The Kickstarter Chronicles

Investigating a mysterious illness, Zelda's Christian ties, and small-town basketball

Each week, dozens of journalistic endeavors turn to Kickstarter for funding. Pitching media projects to this online community brings another meaning to the concept “public interest journalism”; success depends on how intrigued people are by the pitch. From the hugely popular to the barely noticed, CJR’s Kickstarter Chronicles is a weekly look through some of these journalistic proposals.

Project of the week

A campaign with a haunting name, The Island of Widows, is on Kickstarter to fund a report on a rare form of chronic kidney disease that’s killing some of the world’s poorest agricultural workers. The Kickstarter is named after a Nicaraguan community, La Isla, or The Island, that locals are now calling La Isla de las Viudas, The Island of Widows, where 40 percent of the working age population has this illness.

The victims of this chronic kidney disease are mostly men, some as young as their 20s. Launched by investigative reporter Sasha Chavkin, multimedia reporter Anna Maria Barry-Jester, and the Center for Public Integrity, this project is an expansion on the work already laid out by these reporters: Chavkin for a story published on CPI, and Barry-Jester in an award winning photo gallery. (Full disclosure: this author knows Chavkin from working in the same building as he does, here in Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Chavkin is a reporter for The New York World.)

The research done by these two suggests that this chronic kidney disease is more prevalent than originally thought. For this project, Chavkin and Barry-Jester will be traveling together to another community that’s having the same horrific experience. As they write in their Kickstarter:

We suspect that the new strain of chronic kidney disease that affects otherwise healthy young men working in agriculture is not an anomaly to Central America but a serious international epidemic.

Some researchers have speculated the outbreak is from pesticide exposure, or from dehydration and heat stress from long hours in hot fields. Chavkin says that calling it a “work-related issue” is a point of contention. “Sick workers’ livelihoods depend on whether this can be tied to their jobs,” says Chavkin. “The treatment of dialysis makes this an incredibly expensive disease, and it’s affecting some of the world’s poorest people.”

This project is the first time the Center for Public Integrity has used Kickstarter to fund an investigation; they’re featuring it on their site and hired a videographer for the pitch. “This is something they’re trying to pilot,” says Chavkin. CPI even spoke with the Kickstarter folks to learn some best practices, and part of the reason this project is CPI’s first on Kickstarter is because of the level of reporting that has already been done. Displaying photos and completed reporting increases the chances of successfully getting funded, and by showcasing Chavkin and Barry-Jester’s previous work on the topic, donors can see that the reporters have experience and expertise. The project has been met with an enthusiastic response. In a little over a week, almost $6,000 has been pledged towards the $7,500 goal. (Deadline: April 22, 8:05pm)

New arrivals

A project about the impact of Christianity on the videogame Zelda came onto Kickstarter late last week from Lucas M. Thomas, a writer who’s covered video games for the website IGN. Called Zelda vs. Jesus, the project has already inspired some anger. As Thomas writes:

Some have responded with anger or offense, attacking me for daring to conceive of such a project. Others have pleaded with me to cancel the book and stop what I’m doing, saying I’m shoving Christianity into their favorite video game and they don’t want it there. Still others think that I’m reading too much into things that shouldn’t be given such consideration.

As a kid, I played Zelda, but I hadn’t picked up on the Christian themes. The game’s hero, Link, has a cross on his shield, but Thomas points out more subtle references: the game’s book of magic is the Holy Bible, Link gets swallowed by a whale (like Jonah in the Old Testament), and the cross is used to see ghosts in Zelda II. Thomas says on his Kickstarter page that his project will look into the background and intention of these details at book length, a format that’s rare in the video-game beat. (Deadline: May 8, 8:00pm)

Reporting trips that involve driving vast distances are a popular type of journalism proposal on Kickstarter, and Energy and Climate Change in the American Southwest is one such idea. The pitch contains nine story ideas, all centering around how climate change is effecting the Southwest region of the US. The work is meant to culminate in a long-form piece, which would “ideally” turn into something book length, and a website with the “intention of making it a go-to spot for anyone interested in energy, the environment, or climate change in the Southwest.” Ari Phillips, a journalism student at University of Texas at Austin, has written on environmental topics in the region before, but the pitch seems like a huge undertaking for one person, and for the $3,750 he’s pledged to raise. So far, $605 has been donated. (Deadline: May 11, 7:00pm)


The Gentlemen’s Guide to Midnite Cinema, simply GGtMC on Kickstarter, is a podaast that reviews films of all genres, and has a simple pitch: “We are looking for funding to keep the podcast running and give you the entertainment you have come to grow and love….your help is much appreciated!!!” With that, the project has raised over $1,800 after an initial goal of only $500, and the comments page shows this podcast has a loyal fan base. “I love you two basta’ds” writes one enthusiast. “WOW WOW WOW how much to give up your day jobs?” writes another. (Deadline: Apr 14, 3:58pm)

The documentary film project, Medora, was inspired by a New York Time’s article about a high school basketball team in Medora, Indiana, a town that counts about 500 people as residents. “As the third smallest high school in Indiana, winning has become almost impossible,” says journalist Davy Rothbart in the Kickstarter pitch. “You know how most sports documentaries are about a team trying to win the championship? Here in our film, the team’s just trying to win a single game.” But the film is also about the difficult lives of these teenagers growing up in a town where drugs and poverty are rampant. With a pledged goal of $18,000, this film has already raised over $36,000, and still has 33 days to go. (Deadline: May 17, 12:18pm)

Long shot

I don’t see any way that the Kickstarter project The Hunger Games Review will be reaching its $900 goal. The man behind the project, Joe Leibovich, appears to be trying to fund his own mea culpa, writing that he “repeatedly mocked the Hunger Games as being teen fiction” but now “If I raise enough money, I will actually read the books and give a fair review of them, and, if appropriate, apologize for my mockery.” So far, the project has $9. At the $6 mark, Leibovich updated the Kickstarter: “This is $6 more than initially anticipated, so our excitement levels are off the charts! Will we get full funding? Will the reviews appear? Will we stop referring to ourselves in plural third person, despite the fact that there is only one of us? All these questions remain to be answered. By us.” (Deadline: April 20, 4:17pm)

Out of time

Pixel Perfect, an “outlet by gamers, for gamers” has a lot of ground to make up before the Kickstarter closes on Tuesday morning. “To stay on top of the industry and really keep our pulse on all things video games we can’t do this alone,” reads the about section. “We want to take Pixel Perfect out of the blogosphere and into the mysterious land of the e-zine.” But with $560 raised out of its $5,000 goal, this project has not inspired enough members of their gamer audience to open their wallets.

The Face of Maar is a photography project documenting the return of Sudanese people to their villages after fleeing decades ago. “After escaping the horrors of genocide that included burning their villages to the ground, thousands of Sudanese people fled Sudan to seek safety in countries like Kenya, Ethiopia and even as far away as the United States,” says the projects about section. “More than 20 years have gone by, and many of the survivors have returned to rebuild their villages, their homes and their lives.” The project went a few hundred dollars over its $2,000 goal, and has until Sunday night to bring in any last minute donations.

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Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , , ,