Why Pay Attention to Crowdfunded Journalism?

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NPQ has long covered the emergence and travails of nonprofit journalism sites. Though they are no longer subject to the kind of IRS scrutiny that blocked the tax exemptions of many for a few years, they now face the challenge of reliable revenue generation. Their business models are many and varied, depending on the publication, mission, and audience, and few can afford to eschew out of hand any creative addition to the revenue base.

But more and more, journalism is being pursued by individuals who are not necessarily associated with any media company, nonprofit or not. These pieces may take the form of articles, but they may also be documentaries, blogs, storytelling projects, or longer-form coverage. Who is the natural buyer for this variety of products? Well, in some cases, it is the interested crowd.

A new report about crowdfunded journalism has been released by the Pew Research Center, and even if you are not a journalist, it should be of interest. For one thing, the notion of who can act as a journalist and under whose auspices and with whose money is very much in transition; for another, journalism can be an essential tool for social change, as we mentioned last week in our coverage of the Chicago police misconduct database.

Written by Nancy Vogt and Amy Mitchell, the report, “Crowdfunded Journalism: A Small but Growing Addition to Publicly Funded Journalism,” documents the growth of crowdfunded journalism since April 2009, when it first appeared as an option on Kickstarter and where it remains a relatively tiny but distinct and growing category of crowdfunded projects. It is worth mentioning that a few other journalism crowdfunding sites tried to start up in the years since 2009, but none have sustained independently. Indiegogo, the other major crowdfunding platform, does not have a specific category for journalism projects, so this report only covers the emerging landscape of crowdfunded journalism projects on Kickstarter.

Among the more interesting points covered in this very detailed report:

  • Among those proposing journalism projects on Kickstarter are individuals, independent groups, media organizations and institutions (such as a university or high school.) Projects by individuals made up 71 percent of those projects that were fully funded.
  • Media companies were much more likely to propose an expansion of something they were already doing than to propose a brand new initiative, while individuals and groups of individuals are about twice as likely to propose a startup than an expansion.
  • Journalism projects proposed on Kickstarter had a success rate (full funding or more) that was lower than most at 22 percent, second only to technology related projects, which stumbled in at a surprising 20 percent. Of course, the volume on the proposed tech projects was far higher, and where crowdfunding for journalism had raised $6.3 million, crowdfunding for technology projects raised $265.7 million.
  • In six years, 658 journalism projects have been fully funded on Kickstarter for the $6.3 million total, but the amount has grown significantly from year to year, from $49K the first year to $1.7 million in the first nine months of 2015. The number of people donating to these projects has grown also, from 792 in 2009 to 25,651 in 2015. Some of this is doubtlessly due to the rise in awareness of crowdfunding overall.

Despite the fact that the pool of money here is very small in comparison to the kind of money media is receiving from philanthropy both individual and institutional, there is a kind of beauty to the idea of the crowd helping to back its own information flows directly. Of course, this already happens through donations to nonprofit news sites and subscriptions, but this nontraditional alternative seems to be a natural part of the mix, and one that may prove in the long run to be very important to real freedom of the press.