Crowdfunding as the future of journalism
The traditional methods for funding journalism are failing — at least in terms of sustaining a robust, transparent, accountable and reliable media.
Earlier this month, The Independent declared its intention to go digital-only in response to the lagging sales of its flagship daily and weekend print titles. Just two weeks before, The Guardian announced its plans to cut running costs by 20%, to the tune of £50 million, over the next three years.
It might seem like there’s not much life left in 21st-century journalism, at least to the casual observer. But a look at what’s happening on the grassroots level tells a different story. Innovative and disruptive funding models are emerging, and they show that meaningful reporting can still attract a loyal and supportive audience.
Readers who participate in these new, alternative forms of media creation are prepared to pay for the journalism they want, and crowdfunding gives them a way to do just that. It’s an exciting prospect given that many companies seem to believe that quick-fire clickbait is the only financially viable future for news.
Some of the more questionable UK print titles still insist they “don’t have budget for online”, yet they happily publish freelance contributions on their website and plaster paid-for advertising all over them. By contrast, writers who are part of the growing crowdfunded media scene will almost always find themselves fairly compensated for their work.
Here are four examples of disruptive, reader-focused publications that are paving the way for the future of journalism through crowdfunding.
1. Positive News
Over the course of 30 days last summer, the Positive News team raised over £260,000 to relaunch as a print magazine. They did so by restructuring themselves as a cooperative and launching a crowdfunding campaign that would make every reader who contributed a co-owner. Their beautiful relaunch issue is available now.
The video below shows editor-in-chief Sean Dagan Wood talking about Positive News and the importance of constructive journalism — a concept at the heart of the magazine.
2. Guardian Membership
The Guardian’s membership scheme was launched last year. It asks readers to pay a monthly subscription in exchange for perks like free entry to the publication’s events and complimentary copies of the books it publishes. Like Positive News, The Guardian has turned to its audience for direct support.
Instead of hiding everything away behind a paywall — a move that would go against the title’s core values of transparency and openness — The Guardian is exploring whether small monthly donations of £5 or £15 could sustain the brand in future.
The following video explains a little of how Guardian Membership works. If you’d like to become a member yourself, visit this page.
Contributoria was a promising startup that received funding from Google and was bought by Guardian Media Group in 2014. After 21 issues, it published its final issue — edited by Vivian Westwood — in September 2015.
The platform allowed anyone to pitch a story, and readers would then allocate points (obtained through free subscriptions, or micro-subscriptions of £2 to £6 per month) to the proposals they liked. Those that met their target (a number of points generated from the fee requested for the story) would be commissioned and published on the Contributoria website. There was also a monthly newspaper edition with a select few stories.
As well as functioning as a crowdfunding platform, Contributoria demonstrated the potential for development of freelance commissioning platforms like The Washington Post’s Talent Network in the US. Some stories that appeared on the site were licensed by publications like New Internationalist and key sections of The Guardian, while others prompted collaborations with Al Jazeera.
Since then, the Contributoria team has started a new project called Publish.org, though there’s not much information available yet.
Patreon is one of the broadest crowdfunding platforms out there, suitable for any kind of “content creator”. Instead of crowdfunding towards a particular project, Patreon allows users to crowdfund monthly subscriptions of as little as $1 USD from digital-era patrons.
There’s scope for journalism, blogging, vlogging, and even manually aggregating news about particular topics (yes, seriously). The idea is to build up a fanbase who each pay a small sum per month to help you keep doing what you’re doing, or to encourage you to devote more time to it.
I’m currently using Patreon to crowdfund a longform journalism series about the future of democracy in Europe. The project is called Notion Lab Media (Twitter | Facebook) and you can take a look at the Patreon campaign here. If you have $1 USD a month to spare, your contribution will help make Notion Lab Media possible — the idea is to fund it through tiny public donations. Read my Medium post here to find out more.
Other websites to explore include Inkshares (allowing readers to fund the creation of independent books in print and digital formats), Beacon (a purely journalism-focused crowdfunding platform that operates similarly to Patreon) and The Canary (a left-wing political blog that splits all of its advertising revenue directly with writers).
This blogpost is based on a session I ran at The Norwich Radical’s Progressive Media Conference on 20th February 2016.