Business of News

How a volunteer-based LA startup multiplied donations forty-fold

July 9, 2021

Knock LA—a digital startup that launched in 2017 to bring an alternative voice to Los Angeles news coverage—saw donations increase almost forty-fold over the past year.

As they look to the future, three Knock LA volunteers who have all served rotations as managing editors talked with CJR about working collectively, a volunteer-based model, and building a sustainable future. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

CJR: How did Knock LA get its start?

Liam Fitzpatrick: Knock LA is a project of Ground Game LA, which is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit in Los Angeles focused on civic engagement and political outreach. We launched Knock back in 2017 or so.

When lockdown started in 2020, we noticed that this is a really great brand, and we produce a lot of really great things. For example, we do a very comprehensive voter guide every year—covering a lot of different local and municipal races in LA—that a lot of people really like and rely on. Through a grant, we’re able to translate into Korean and Spanish and Armenian, so we’re proud of that. It’s an all-volunteer organization, people have different levels of capacity that they can put into it, so the spring of 2020 was a more [low-coverage] period, and we thought we could establish more editorial workflows: making this more of a cohesive operation and recruiting freelance writers. And it was weirdly good timing. A lot more people had a lot more time to dedicate to organizing and to writing. Then, over the next, you know, several months, there were the George Floyd uprisings in LA, which we were covering; there was the 2020 election, which was incredibly contentious.

In March 2020, when I started volunteering with Knock LA in a more focused way, we received $73 in monthly donations through Patreon as our source of income, which averages out to around $876 annually. It was basically all purely unpaid volunteer labor at that point. We really weren’t able to start paying people until around the summer of 2020. But, as of now, Knock LA receives a little over $3,000 a month in Patreon donations (so currently projected to around $38,000 annually) plus an additional $7,416 this year so far through ActBlue.

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Now, we’re talking about forming our own separate LLC. We’re at a place where maybe we can start staffing.

CJR: So you’re a volunteer organization, but you work to pay freelancers and editors? Who’s doing the volunteer work? What’s the organizational structure?

Shelby Eggers: The service positions that we hold are volunteer-based, and we rotate. We work through Slack. Pretty much everyone’s in on every part of it, and participates as much as they want. We’ve gotten to a place now where we have a solid group of twenty or so people who are doing lots in different areas that they’re passionate about, whether that’s editing, fundraising, recruitment. We get pitches and we throw them in Slack and see what people think. Then we move forward and people will volunteer to edit. And editors get paid now for specific articles. But the volunteer labor behind the scenes is not paid at all, just voluntary people who are passionate.

Maggie Clancy: We’re horizontally aligned, because that’s how our umbrella organization works. That definitely creates some fun, creative opportunities for inventing new editorial processes. We absolutely try to pay our writers and our editors, and it works on a sliding scale. There have been times where I’ve been lucky with other freelance work where I can volunteer time; other times, I’m actually going to need the stipend for this editing piece. Most people who can give up their time are people with work-from-home jobs. That’s another reason why I think it’s important that we are able to hire people to staff [to diversify our team].

CJR: How do you think about editorial independence, being an offshoot of a political organization?

Fitzpatrick: There are occasions where Ground Game may assist organizationally in supporting a community (for example, the unhoused residents of Echo Park Lake) that Knock LA will also report on, as it would be a disservice to our readership to turn a blind eye to important issues. We do our best to disclose our relationship to Ground Game and specific members of the org as often as is appropriate.

Ground Game LA does explicitly endorse candidates as a 501(c)(4). Our voter guides recommend candidates across LA County. When we cover candidates endorsed by Ground Game, we make that disclaimer clear in our articles. Additionally, Knock does not accept contributions from political campaigns or candidates, and we never publish pieces under the direction of campaigns.

CJR: Your model doesn’t adhere to traditional expectations of what a newsroom should look like. Do you have people that come through that have worked in newsrooms? How do you think about the traditional model compared to what Knock LA is doing? 

Fitzpatrick: We come from a place that says non-biased journalism is bullshit. It’s a fantasy idea that you can be a thinking, feeling human with a heart and lungs attached to a brain and move through the world without having opinions on things. We’ve always been very upfront that we are news with a progressive spin, because when newsrooms try to present themselves as pure information with no context, the conversation tends more towards corporate interests and the status quo. We’ve been very staunch from the beginning about replicating practices from traditional newsrooms that work, but always challenging ourselves into thinking, Okay, are we doing this because it’s a good way for us to tell stories in Los Angeles that don’t get told very frequently, or are we doing this because it’s the thing that we know happens in a more corporate newsroom? We do have journalists that come from more traditional backgrounds. We did a series on the history of deputy gangs in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department that was written by Cerise Castle, an incredibly gifted journalist who went to journalism school and has worked in different newsrooms: the whole nine yards. But the thing that makes Knock worth putting so much time into is the ability to consistently challenge the status quo.

CJR: I’ve had a lot of conversations over the past year with newsrooms that depend on an advertising business model, and they’ve had a terrible year. Some of those have been traditional alt-weeklies. You’ve had the opposite happen: multiplying your financial resources. What made the difference this past year?

Eggers: Last year politically activated a lot of people in Los Angeles specifically. People wanted to be aware of what’s going on and know where to find that information. We report on certain things in ways that people care about, like stories about the unhoused community and other minority groups in Los Angeles.

Clancy: I think the fact that we don’t have a paywall is huge. We never have, because we want all the information to be publicly available. We’re doing a public service.

Fitzpatrick: And we’re telling hyper-local stories.

CJR: How do you make editorial decisions? What makes a story for a Knock LA audience?

Eggers: We have internal guidelines, but I think one of the biggest ones is that it’s about Los Angeles. It needs to be very localized and affect the people here in LA. That’s inherent with our values as a movement. Not every media outlet or business has to be an empire.

Fitzpatrick: Another one of our core values is not to have false urgency, which I think is very easy to fall into in a newsroom, where you’re like, Hey, we got to do this now, now, now. A larger media outlet can cover the facts quicker and more efficiently than us, but we can take another week and do some more digging, to provide some more historical context, to talk with organizers. It’s not really in our interest to cover breaking news.

CJR: Over the past year, I’ve talked to a lot of newsrooms about the idea of sustainability. Is your work sustainable?

Eggers: You know, people give exactly the amount of time and energy they want. If we started producing significantly less content, there’s a worry of losing patrons, but we say all the time that many hands make light work and I think that is really important for sustainability. We want many people to be involved. Different people will give different amounts of time and energy. And I think that’s what makes it more sustainable than some other places where there’s like a small staff working full time.

Clancy: It’s kind of like a choir, when someone has to stop to take a breath, you can’t really tell, because everyone else is still singing. That’s how I think about when people need to take a break. Maybe they were carrying a lot, but there are still a lot of other people singing in various capacities. And I think a huge part of keeping it sustainable.

The Journalism Crisis Project aims to train our focus on the present crisis, fostering a conversation about what comes next. We hope you’ll join us (click to subscribe).

EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past year, researchers at the Tow Center have collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. Now there’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here.

Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms:

    • “NOT JUST A NEWSPAPER:” LA Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong told Kevin Merida, the paper’s new editor in chief, that the paper is “a media platform and not just a newspaper” in a conversation with CNN’s Reliable Sources podcast. “There’s a broader kind of ecosystem of content you can wrap around the journalism and compete for people who would not have thought about the LA Times before,” Merida said, citing audio projects, live events, poetry, and comedy as possible avenues for content.
    • THE STATE OF THE NEWS: In 2020, newspaper advertising revenue decreased to the point that circulation revenue surpassed ad revenue for the first time recorded, the Pew Research center found. Last week, Pew released its State of the News Media Report, which found that newspaper circulation and newspaper employment continued to decline, terrestrial radio listenership decreased while podcast audiences increased, radio station revenues decreased significantly from 2019 to 2020, and radio broadcasting employment declined. And a new report from Media Impact Funders found that community foundations have given $1.1 billion in grants to media organizations since 2009.
    • PINK SLIME SITES AMPLIFY ELECTION MISINFO: For NPR’s All Things Considered, Stephen Fowler discussed the increasing phenomenon—first reported by the Tow Center—in which localized partisan sites pose as local news sources. Many such sites have contributed significantly to misinformation about the 2020 election, Fowler reports.
    • READERS TRUST THEMSELVES, NOT THE NEWS: Researchers found in a recent study of sixty news consumers that Americans of all political persuasions agree that news coverage is fundamentally untrustworthy and take pride in their own critical approach to journalism. “The phrase ‘I take it all with a grain of salt’ came up time and time again, as did the claim that our interviewees were not ‘sheep’ who would mindlessly accept whatever a news source told them was true,” Jacob L. Nelson and Seth C. Lewis wrote for CJR. “For many of the people we spoke with, the news serves as an intellectual foil—something they can push against and knock over.”
    • ALDEN CUTS TEN PERCENT OF TRIBUNE STAFF: Alden’s takeover of Tribune Publishing has led to buyouts eliminating more than ten percent of Tribune’s newsroom staffing, Poynter reported. Papers like the Chicago Tribune and Allentown Pennsylvania’s Morning Call saw a twenty percent drop in union staff as a result of the buyouts. And, Rick Edmonds adds, “one should never underestimate Alden’s proclivity to cut more.”
    • CONNECTICUT LOCAL MEDIA GROWS: Hearst’s Connecticut Media Group has launched a new digital news site aimed at providing coverage for new audiences in the state using a “freemium” business model: free content with premium features available via subscription. The company has seen 1,000 percent growth in its digital subscriptions since it launched new content in September of 2019. “Where many businesses right now in our industry are tightening their belts and trying to do everything they can to stay afloat, we’re investing,” Mike De Leuca, president and publisher, told WAN-IFRA. “And that’s a very positive thing for our employees, but most importantly for our readers.”
    • THE APPEAL CLOSES, STAFFERS PLAN RELAUNCH: The Appeal, a digital news site dedicated to criminal justice reform, shut down at the end of June, announcing that staff hope to relaunch the site as a worker-led newsroom, NiemanLab reported. (In May, Appeal staffers announced the formation of a union; within minutes, management announced layoffs). Former management has agreed to transfer intellectual property rights, Defector reported, and Scalawag magazine will assist in a small-dollar donation campaign while the newsroom figures out its funding model. “The transition team sees this effort as an opportunity, not only to create a better workplace for themselves but to change the ways in which power is conceived, both in the newsroom and in their work covering exploitation, injustice and inequality in the criminal legal system,” Laura Wagner writes.

    • USA TODAY LAUNCHES A PAYWALL: USA Today has become the last major national daily news publication to require its readers to pay for its stories, the New York Times reported.
    • MEL MAGAZINE LAUNCHES AGAIN: A venture-equity digital media company called Recurrent Ventures has acquired MEL magazine, leading to the publication’s relaunch, Axios reported.
Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites