the news frontier

The Kickstarter Chronicles

Open-source robots, David Lynch, and the “Eat More Kale” guy
March 23, 2012

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
While researching an oral history project about a Baltimore neighborhood for Johns Hopkins University, Tom Smith was having trouble finding images to illustrate the story. He visited the Afro American newspaper headquarters, and discovered an archive of over 1.5 million photos dating back to 1890. Smith realized much of his original Internet searching had been in vain; these historical documents only existed in their original, print format. He set himself the ambitious goal of digitizing these photographs, and, rather than rely on mere humans, he built an open-source robot to help with the workload. Referred to by The Wall Street Journal as a “robot [which] rescues black history,” the Gado 2, an improved version of the original Gado, works alongside Smith’s friend, Alex Neville, scanning images and recording notes and newspaper clippings taped to the back of photos. All of this is then organized by keyword and uploaded online. Smith started a Kickstarter to fund Neville’s “modest rent/sandwich requirements,” because even though the Gado 2 is quite self-sufficient, a person is required to feed the robot new images and scan the ones that are delicate or torn.

The photos and their notes can be quite revealing. For example, Smith refers to a “relatively generic scene of men listening to a preacher,” from World War II. Since it’s a US Navy photo, it came with an official caption, which reads: “Enhanced by the stress and peril of war, the Negro’s deep religious feeling finds frequent expression at South Pacific bases.” But “the Afro reads this scene entirely differently,” says Smith. That caption says: “Seabees in the South Pacific listen to a sermon delivered by a white chaplain. The Navy won’t accept colored ministers in the services, which is quite in keeping with their policy in keeping colored out of the commissioned ranks.” These are the kinds of historical insights Smith is looking for. “With the exact same photo, you get two radically different perspectives; the Navy uses the photo to reinforce a stereotype about African American soldiers,” says Smith. “The Afro uses it to highlight an injustice and reveal a hidden dynamic, by pointing out that these soldiers don’t have the option to worship with someone of their own race.”

People who donate $550 to Smith’s Kickstarter project will be rewarded with a Gado 2 kit, which includes everything needed to build the machine, and is a pretty generous deal, given that the Gado 2 costs around that much to order. The only piece that’s not included is the scanner. Smith hopes other institutions with limited resources and large archives will use Gado to digitize their collections and make them more widely available. His next “dream collection” is the archives of the Baltimore News-American, which documents the same period from a white, working class perspective. The Gado project has so far been funded by grants from the Abell Foundation and the JHU Sheridan Libraries. Their Kickstarter goal is only $1,000, though they’ve already raised almost double that amount. Smith says this is his second Kickstarter, and after setting a goal that was too high with his first, he didn’t want to “shoot for the moon again and end up with nothing.” (Deadline: April 9, 9:40am)

New this week
Just because a publication starts online doesn’t mean it was intended to stay there, and a few of this week’s newest projects are trying to raise the funds to give their readers a print edition. Atlas, a student magazine at Emerson College, has raised $345 of its $2,000 goal. You can see the layout in its Winter edition on Issuu, a digital publishing platform, and the Kickstarter is to fund their first hard copy. (Deadline: April 11, 5:00pm) Also showing its stuff on Issuu and aimed at students is the “Vice-style, pseudo-gonzo print for San Diego’s college crowd,” a magazine called Brick Road. Complete with a professional-looking design, their own “Page 5 Girl,” a section called “Erotically Neurotic,” and the offer of “$100 cash money” for a Facebook like or share, I’m feeling the success vibes here, even though Brick Road’s only $335 of the way to its $6,000 goal. (Deadline: Apr 21, 2:59am)

Print is also the goal for mom-and-pop hyperlocal news shop The Brentwood Spirit. “We’re not reaching everyone we’d hope to reach with the news in our community,” says cofounder Toni Bowman in her Kickstarter video. “We still have quite a few folks who do not own or use a computer, much less have data access on their phones. We believe offering printed weekly editions of the Brentwood Spirit may be the answer.” The Spirit’s going to need to rally its Missouri community behind it to make its $20,000 goal. As of this writing, Bowman’s only raised $230. (Deadline: April 18, 1:16pm)

The makers of a series of David Lynch documentaries are reaching out to fans of the filmmaker for the money to make a third installment, which will cover Lynch’s early years. There’s lots of enthusiasm for this project: so far it has attracted 800 individual backers. You can check out song and video submissions from fans on this Facebook page, which “have the potential of making it into the actual film if they fit into our story line.” The project has reached its funding almost four times over: From an initial ask of $30,000, the filmmakers are already well over $100,000, and have set a new goal of $150,000. (Deadline: April 11, 4:43pm)

Long shots
Suzette’s Gazette, a “backyard journalism project” for Newberry, Florida (population: 3,100) is the only newspaper in town. But reaching a $10,000 goal seems unlikely. The project hasn’t raised any money yet, and the Kickstarter doesn’t give much to go off of. The accompanying video silently scans the pages of the paper, and the 104 word description, with multiple typos, isn’t very encouraging. (Deadline: May 19, 3:14pm)

The Coal Ash Chronicles, a project from independent journalist Rhiannon Fionn, is on Kickstarter to raise the funds for a “nationwide tour of coal ash ponds and dumps,” which will “investigate the various angles of the coal ash issue.” It’s a great idea, with a thorough pitch. She’s even written about the topic before, but I’ve been watching this project for a couple weeks now, and it just doesn’t seem to have the traction to reach its $75,000 goal. I hope I’m wrong. (Deadline: May 7, 6:35pm)

Out of time
Blog Camp is trying to raise the money to “create a reliable source for news relating to today’s digital culture” and has until the wee hours of Sunday morning to reach its modest $600 goal, but with zero dollars raised so far, it’s likely to fail.

Meanwhile, theNewerYork Lit Mag, which publishes “lists, fictional glossaries, internet forums, classified ads, post-cards, love letters, aphorisms, fragments, punctuationless stories, upside down stories, and other absurdities,” had success funding its first issue on Kickstarter. Raising money for the second issue has also gone well, and with 2 days left to fundraise, the magazine is $2,500 over its pledged goal of $7,000.

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With over 1,600 backers, the documentary project A Defiant Dude was only $500 away from its $75,000 goal this morning, but as of the posting of this piece, it’s surpassed its pledged amount. This film comes from James Lantz and Bo Muller-Moore, also known as the “Eat More Kale” guy, for his T-shirts with that motto. He received a cease and desist letter from Chick-fil-A claiming his t-shirts infringe on their “Eat Mor Chikin” slogan, and apparently he’s just one of many to receive such a threat from Chik-fil-A over the words “Eat more” fill-in-the-blank. Muller-Moore’s story has been called a “modern day David and Goliath,” and has been written about by CNN, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. The filmmakers campaign will come to an end on Sunday evening.

Radio Ambulante, which is pitched as a Spanish language This American Life, had humble beginnings. A month ago, in addition to their online campaign, the founders held a bake sale in Oakland, California to assist their fundraising. It’s safe to say they can put away their mixing bowls and cookie sheets for now. They’re almost $5,000 over their $40,000 goal, and will continue to accept donations until the Kickstarter ends on Sunday afternoon.

Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR.