Crowdfunding rides to the rescue of original journalism
Peter Jukes, a blogger and experienced freelance reporter, was delighted when he managed to secure the last of 12 press places in the courtroom at the Old Bailey for the News of the World phone-hacking trial in October 2013. Jukes had intended to produce a weekly article on the trial for The Daily Beast, but began instead to live-tweet the proceedings. He quickly attracted a large and loyal following, which included Rebekah Brooks and her defence lawyers.
But, having recently missed a mortgage payment Jukes told his readers he could only afford to cover the opening days. His readers thought otherwise. “Someone sent me £10 on Paypal, just by typing in my email address,” Jukes recalls. “I received dozens of tweets telling me to crowdfund the money I needed.”
From there, Jukes set up an Indiegogo page asking for $4,000 to keep him at the trial until Christmas. Within a day he had £6,000. At a second push, he received another £14,000.
As a result Jukes was able to live-tweet the entire seven-month trial. It was an exhausting and full-time task, which saw him wear out a keyboard and eventually publish his book Beyond Contempt: The Inside Story of the Phone Hacking Trial.
Jukes is one of a new breed of journalists to benefit from crowdfunding, a way of amassing many small payments from individuals to fund a single project or article, which has become a way for writers to circumvent publishers.
This new payment model has emerged over the last couple of years and has been heralded as a way to democratise journalism, giving a voice to individuals rather than large media organisations. So far it has been used to shine light on issues that might otherwise escape the mass market. But is it really as easy as putting out an appeal and waiting for the cash pledges to roll in?
Inevitably, it can be tricky to convince people to pay. Crowdfunding runs on goodwill and faith in the outcome of a story or investigation. In return, donators are often offered rewards such as a first look at the piece, merchandise, or simply the opportunity to become part of a community.
It can also be risky. During the phone hacking trial Jukes was vulnerable to being tried as an individual for contempt of court: “Practically every morning a defence lawyer would stand up and say: ‘My Lord, there’s been a tweet.’” On the other hand, his coverage was groundbreaking, precisely because crowdfunding set him free. “My audience really appreciated having a journalist there who was independent.”
Not everyone has a public profile like Jukes’ to help pull in donations. Danielle Batist is less well known, but has been a freelancer for 20 years. Two years ago, she was one of the first in the UK to tap into the crowdfunding trend. Batist calls herself a “journopreneur” who is interested in “finding ways to directly engage with the audience rather than relying on the old system of distribution”.
She uses the journalism community website Contributoria to fund articles, including her monthly column, ‘Someone I Met’, which details her encounters with individuals around the world.
Batist now trains other freelance journalists in how to crowdfun their projects. “You have to be very disciplined and driven to run a campaign,” she says. “There are never going to be enough strangers to fund your work every month. You need a strong network of a couple of hundred superfans. I don’t think every journalist is ready for it – you have to be a marketing person at the same time.”
Batist has also noticed that crowdfunding can act as a barometer to gauge the public’s appetite for a story. “I’ve found it hard to get positive, solution-based journalism placed in newspapers, but it has been very popular through crowdfunding,” she explains.
“Jukes’ reporting represented the most significant press innovation since colour newspapers”
Another area of journalism that has embraced crowdfunding is investigative reporting. More so than other types of journalism, investigations are facing budget cuts as newspapers and TV channels struggle to find ways to sell material that, for all its benefits, is expensive and time-consuming to produce.
In 2013 the Bureau of Investigative Journalism crowdfunded over $27,000 (£18,000) in three months for its ‘Naming the Dead’ project, which sought to name all those killed by drone strikes in Pakistan. Rachel Oldroyd, the Bureau’s managing editor, explains that having clearly defined results was the key to the success of the project: “You absolutely have to have a deliverable. We could promise exactly what we would achieve: finding the names.”
Freelance Irish journalist Lyra McKee has used US crowdfunding platform Beacon to raise over $6,000 (£4,000) for her investigation into the murder of Belfast political Robert Bradford in 1981.
McKee believes that more can be made of the reader-writer relationship, both financially and by sharing information. “We tend to look at readers as a commodity instead of as a community,” she says. “Don’t treat your readers like they’re a source of money. Treat them like co-conspirators who are helping you uncover the story, because they are, whether they’re contributing cash or giving you leads.”
Jess McCabe, the features editor at Inside Housing, raised £2,100 towards a six-month investigative series published by eNews. The series, called ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’, looked at the economic reasons behind women remaining in abusive relationships in the UK. McCabe points out that the intensive publicity behind her crowdfunding call enhanced the path of her investigation. “Lots of my interviewees got in touch with me after hearing about the project during the fundraising process,” she says.
“In order to take on power you have to actually have some”
McCabe also had to grapple with the expectations of her donors. She heard stories of women who had more financial means than their abusive partners, and had to ask herself: “Did that fit with the original brief? What would donors think of me including that story in a series that was meant to be about austerity?” In the end, she decided to include the story, which she called ‘In these cases of abuse, her money was no defense’. “Ultimately,” she says, “as a journalist you have to go where the story takes you.”
Some are sceptical about the scope of crowdfunded journalism. Every single one of the journalists featured here stressed how exhaustingly difficult it is to convince enough people that a project is worthy of their money, and then to sustain interest. Heather Brooke, known for her freedom of information investigation into MPs’ expenses, warns that crowdfunding would not work for every kind of journalism. “In order to take on power in an effective way, you have to actually have some. You have to have institutional power and lawyers behind you. That costs a lot of money.”
Crowdfunding may not be a one-size-fits-all solution to funding journalism, but it has undoubtedly enabled a lot of important work that may never have happened without it. Referring to Jukes’ hacking trial crowdfunding project, the BBC news presenter Jeremy Vine said: “If Peter Jukes is the future of journalism, our trade is safe. His reporting […] represented the most significant press innovation since newspapers started printing in colour.”
Four-step guide to crowdfunding
Ask yourself: “Is my project suitable?” Is it something you can explain to your readers ahead of time? If not, maybe crowdfunding is not for you. It helps if the project is already underway and your public can see the results so far, as a promise of what’s to come
Plan your publicity campaign. Some have started weeks, even months, in advance. Tweet, blog and email everyone you can. Can you offer your donors anything special? Ask them to help – if readers feel like it’s their story too, they are more inclined to chip in.
Tell potential donors what you are going to do, how you are going to do it, why it’s important, and that with their money you can achieve it. Quantify how much time and money your project will take. Be realistic about your outcome – you don’t want disappointed customers.
Momentum is not enough. Once you have started publicising, don’t stop – ever. Keep your sponsors constantly informed and engage new donors. Keep an open notebook – with updates, books your reading and interview transcripts.