Ian Reeves

There are an increasing number of examples in the United States of media outlets being funded by community donations

  • National Public Radio raises 30% of its revenue from ‘pledge drives’
  • News sites in New York, Chicago and Minnesota have also had some success with this model
  • A handful of individuals have also sought reader-funding for their work, although there aren’t any examples of this working particularly well

There are some interesting examples of community-funded journalism from the United States.  It is plausible to ask a diverse community to donate to something that they consider a common cause.  The election of Barak Obama is a great example.  He used digital media to mobilise and raise funds for his campaign.  He raised record sums, more than $600m dollars from more than 2.5m individuals. More than that half of that was from individuals who gave between $5 and $200.  The average online donation was $80.  So, yes, it is plausible.

But is it plausible to ask a diverse community to pay for journalism?  There is a news-based organisation that operates more foreign bureaus than any other mainstream USA media; that has an operating budget of $150m per annum. And its audience has grown 47% in the last decade.  It is called National Public Radio (NPR) – which is rather an old fashioned brand, but its model depends on donations from its listeners.  It is actually a network of radio stations.  They frequently have ‘pledge drives’.  Station presenters directly ask the audience for money.  About 30% of NPR’s revenue comes from that source.

WAMU is Washington-based.  Its main pledge drive is in February.  Last year it raised $1.2m directly from pledges.  NPR, although not entirely community-funded, demonstrates that people can be persuaded to pay for something that is free-to-air.

It is an established organisation, however, with an entrenched infrastructure.  Is the model workable further down the food chain of journalism?  Would it work on a smaller outfit, or help to fund a start-up?

There are news organisations where they are trying to make it work.  The Gotham Gazette (gothamgazette.com) regularly runs reader appeals, usually for specific purposes.  In a recent one, the Gazette said that it wanted to fund a reporter for a particular part of the city.  So, they ran a $25,000 funding campaign for a reporter to cover that beat – and they were successful.

Chi Town Daily News (chitowndailynews.org) – is another not-for-profit news site.  Most of its funding comes from grants – but it has raised $25,000 from reader appeals.  The site has now closed.  Its owners thought that it was falling 60% short of funding needed.

The most positive example is Minnpost.com, based in Minnesota.  All its content is free-to-view, but they have a ‘membership approach’ to raising funds.  Depending on the amount that you pledge, then you are accorded ‘media baron’ status, or ‘city editor’ or, ‘cub reporter’ for a $10 donation.  In the first 12 months, 1,250 people signed up to the Minnpost.com as donor members at different levels. It was initially funded by various grants, but they have a robust business plan.  They hope to break even by 2011 or 2012, and appear to be on line for that.

The Miami Herald has started soliciting donations from readers. You see at the bottom of all their online stories a tip-jar style feature.  The paper is making positive noises about how they are doing, but some argue that it amounts to begging, and will damage their brand in the eyes of prestige advertisers.

Could you scale it down for an individual journalist to use a similar model on line? There are examples which give some credence to the idea.  Chris Allbritton (back-to-iraq.com) is a former AP and New York Daily Post journalist.  He was covering Iraq for the NY Daily Post.  They called him home and he wanted to stay.  He had been doing a blog that had quite a lot of readers, so he asked his readers if they would stump up to keep him there as a non-embedded war reporter.  He got $15,000, which was not enough for what he wanted to do, but it was enough for him to stay there for several months, just writing for that audience.

In 2005, tech blogger, Jason Kottke (kottke.org), had a three-week fund raising drive, made $40,000 from ‘micro patrons’.  He found the pressure of that number of owners to be far too onerous –  1,500 bosses was too many.  His relationship with the readers changed.  He could not go on holiday.

Jim Hopkins, launched a blog about Gannett (gannettblog.blogspot.com).  He is a former editor from USA Today.  He set up a blog about the company and asked if followers would donate.  He wanted to raise $24,000 to cover the costs he felt he was incurring running this blog.  In six months he raised half of that, but again, the pressure grew too much.  “I have grown weary of people second-guessing how I live.  Imagine having dozens of parents chastising you for taking a vacation?” he said.

So, the idea of community funding is plausible; but it is not a silver bullet.  There aren’t any examples going on over here, to speak of.  But it is worthy of investigation.

Ian Reeves is director of learning at the department of journalism at the University of Kent and a former editor of Press Gazette. He has made a study of how ‘crowdfunding’ works in the USA, both in the national public radio network and on news websites and of how the approach might be applied in Britain.

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