Crowdfunding Journalism

Online fundraising injects journalism with new options.

Joey Coleman is always on the clock.

He favours editorial autonomy over punching in and out. Proud to call himself ‘Hamilton’s 24/7 news source’, the independent Ontario journalist is not required to daily answer to a boss, but does feel a need to answer to the public.

Coleman feels accountable to his followers.
Coleman feels accountable to his followers.

The 31-year-old publishes his personal schedule. Whether he’s at an opera, meeting a friend, or catching up on a few hours of sleep, he ensures his 5,803 Twitter followers know. Any time Coleman isn’t reporting, he informs the public. He feels accountable to Hamiltonians, especially after many of them contributed to his crowdfunding campaigns to start a local news outlet.

“Crowdfunding is very stressful. It’s, ‘I’m holding a party and what if nobody comes?’,” Coleman says.

But people came to Coleman’s party.

After receiving 331 contributions over the course of three crowdfunding campaigns, he’s raised more than $20,000 and was able to buy the equipment needed to provide the coverage contributors want.

At joeycoleman.ca he offers “accurate and reliable news” with a heavy focus on municipal politics. He streams video of meetings and offers deep analysis to help readers understand the inner-workings of city hall. Coleman himself is a political science student part-time and online with the University of Manitoba.

Forward-thinking journalists have enabled readers to see a story unfold from start to finish, rather than seeing only the finished product. They see the story pitch, and accept it by clicking in support. Through contributing to a crowdfunding campaign, the reader emerges as part of the process. This model of financing relies on participation. Without contributors, a story could not evolve.

Contributing to a project is like shopping. Project backers browse campaigns on crowdfunding platforms and contribute to a campaign they support. They can pay to see a story of their choice materialize and finance its creation.

Kickstarter is the platform with the most web traffic, which explains why it’s home to the most-funded journalism project to date. Roman Mars raised US$170,477 to fund his radio show 99% Invisible—405 per cent of his goal, thanks to 5,661 contributors.

According to a statistical analysis on Medium.com, 4,094 writing projects have been funded on Kickstarter, compared to 399 on rival Indiegogo. Coleman ran his campaigns on the latter, which offers more freedom than Kickstarter.

CrowdfundingchartKickstarter doesn’t allow any “fund my life” projects, which may send some freelancers into the open arms of Indiegogo.

Spot.us is a crowdfunding platform created specifically for financing journalism. It has less web traffic and a more extensive filtering process than both Kickstarter and Indiegogo. There have been 249 successfully funded projects on Spot.us and project creators are required to verify their identity.

David Cohn, founder of Spot.us, has written that GoJournalism.ca is the Canadian equivalent of his site. Spot.us donated the digital architecture to build the Canadian site, which is owned and operated by Algonquin College in Ottawa, and works much the same way as Cohn’s own. At GoJournalism.ca it is explicitly stated that all funds raised by the non-profit site go directly to paying the journalists. Once funded, they get to work.

Although crowdfunding has given Coleman and many other journalists the power to report stories they’re passionate about, critics say this way of financing journalism raises some troubling ethical questions.

If Hamiltonians with an agenda pay Coleman for a story, how is that different from a company paying for a sponsored article? In both cases, a group with specific interests pays to have their views published.

Jeffrey Dvorkin, a media ethics commentator and director of the journalism program at University of Toronto Scarborough, is concerned that crowdfunding to finance journalism is fraught with danger. He believes allowing people to buy stories robs journalists of editorial independence and serves people who have power, influence and money.

Dvorkin says the problem with crowdfunding is that it creates “a sense of undue influence over specific issues.”

Alan Mutter, a consultant and investor in media and technology properties, has similar concerns. Mutter, based in the San Francisco Bay area, believes journalists need to find new ways to finance journalism, but crowdfunding is not the solution. When story production is up for sale, Mutter says, the process can be hijacked by people trying to push a particular point of view.

“You don’t know who’s doing it, you don’t know where they’re coming from, you don’t know how good of a job they’re going to do, you don’t know if you can believe the outcome, and you get to pay for it upfront,” he says. “What’s wrong with that idea? It sucks.”

Coleman believes this kind of reaction comes from “establishment journalists” who can’t conceive of a model that doesn’t rely on an institution for money. He says the traditional model works sometimes, other times it fails, and it’s going to be the same with crowdfunding.

“False neutrality is one of the reasons people hate the media. I’m not afraid to take those stands.”
— Joey Coleman, crowdfunded journalist

Coleman’s model concentrates on gaining community trust through transparency and accountability. This is why he livestreams every meeting he attends. It’s also why he’s braved a few Twitter wars. He candidly explains his personal opinions, even if that means offending some financial supporters.

“There are people who won’t fund me because their interests are not best served by what I do, which is fine,” says Coleman. “False neutrality is one of the reasons people hate the media. I’m not afraid to take those stands.”

Although these disagreements put Coleman at risk of losing financial support, the pressure he feels to let anyone influence his work is far less than it was when he was writing for Maclean’s and the Globe and Mail. He says everyone in those newsrooms knew who paid the bills.

When San Francisco-based freelancer Lindsey Hoshaw decided to pursue a story on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating pile of garbage estimated to be twice the size of Texas, she went to the New York Times with her pitch. The Times was intrigued, she says, but didn’t have the budget to get her to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. So she turned to crowdfunding.

Hoshaw reached her goal of US $6,000 on her Spot.us campaign and raised the other US $4,000 she needed on Facebook Causes. The Times didn’t contribute to the campaign, but it did allow Hoshaw to put its name on her project, which helped her gain the trust she needed from potential backers.

The story was published in November 2009. Hoshaw felt pressure from contributors, but it wasn’t to make the story a certain way — it was pressure to deliver a powerful story.

“I met up with a few of the donors before I went (on the trip), just to get their feedback,” she says. “It was more about journalistic tips than how I should write the story… I didn’t feel like they unduly influenced it in any way.”

Cohn, the Spot.Us founder, believes his site is more transparent than traditional advertiser-based media. Spot.Us displays where money is coming from, how many people are funding, and who gave what. “There is a benefit in being transparent about the source of money, as opposed to if it’s behind some publisher or business deal,” says Cohn. “That’s dark money and it’s hard to see if or how it’s influencing journalism.”

In summer 2013, Gawker’s Crackstarter campaign quickly became the most high-profile instance of journalism-related crowdfunding in Canada. People went from questioning whether Toronto mayor Rob Ford was caught smoking crack on video, to questioning the ethics of crowdfunding to pay an anonymous source.

The Vancouver Province also started a crowdfunding campaign in hopes of attaining the video. Although it was overshadowed by Gawker’s, the paper’s digital news editor, Erik Rolfsen, argued that if a news organization creates a crowdfunding campaign but does not donate to it, it’s not paying for news, but is giving people who want to pay for the video a venue to do so. People now have the power to choose the information they buy.

At Hamilton’s City Hall, Coleman works alongside journalists operating within more traditional models. (Photo: Christine Bennett)
Joey Coleman livestreams from inside Hamilton City Hall. (Photo: Christine Bennett)

Kevin Smith, chair of the ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists, based in Indianapolis, says news organizations are no longer the gatekeepers when it comes to deciding which stories get reported.

He says a crowdfunding campaign typically results from someone thinking there’s a particular issue that isn’t being addressed, or a side of an argument that is missing. The only people who will fund that story have a predetermined notion of how that story should be reported—they  expect the story to unfold a certain way.

“When you’re talking about journalists presenting a ‘side’ you’re not talking about objectivity or balance here, you’re talking about a subjective viewpoint,” Smith says.

He warns journalists to be wary of the “commitment to satisfy the people who paid money.” Journalists should be independent and free of any obligations that would affect their credibility. He believes that if the public thinks journalists are biased now, this concept of presenting a “side” or subjective viewpoint will do nothing to improve that.

Crowdfunding isn’t just raising concern among critics. When the public gets to essentially vote for their favourite campaign, journalists worry their pitches will be overlooked and contributors will back projects with more tangible results (think high school student council elections). Voting for the “best candidate” can very quickly turn into a popularity contest. A pitch that draws a lot of attention is likely to continue to receive a lot of attention.

Momentum equals success. Once the ball gets rolling and a project is 20 per cent funded, it’s unlikely to stop until it is fully financed; 82 per cent eventually achieved the goal after making it that far, and 98 per cent of projects reached their goal after being 60 per cent funded.

Ayah Norris works for Indiegogo Canada in Toronto as its manager of marketing and community. She says campaign marketing is a key determinant of success, which is why crowdfunding can be a perfect fit for journalists.

“Journalists can be really successful because they’re good storytellers. They know how to pick something that interests people and tell it in a compelling way,” she says.

But a captivating pitch might attract more than just contributors. If a project creator is working to reach the financial goal but another journalist sees the story idea and has the money to pursue it, that could happen. The story could be written by someone else before the original crowdfunding campaign is complete.

Anyone looking to compete with Coleman would have him beat in terms of content and resources, he says, which is why he aims to underpin his work with a foundation of trust.

Coleman prides himself on being a crowdfunded journalist. It has allowed him to produce local coverage that otherwise would not exist. But he won’t run another campaign. He needs to find a way to establish monthly subscriptions for his reporting to be viable.

Crowdfunding is an exhaustive model designed for one-off projects. As it stands, it’s not a sustainable means of financing journalism. While crowdfunding is not the answer to financing long-term journalism, the success it has brought journalists is indicative of a new era in which some readers are willing to pay for the news they want.

Edit/Layout by Braeden Jones
Spring 2014