Kickstarter, the crowdfunding platform for creative projects, is fast becoming the go-to site for journalists and publishers searching alternative ways of financing projects. Originally conceived in 2009 as a means of financing new and innovative technology, the site has since branched out to become the biggest crowdfunding site in the world with more than 6300 projects and over $250 million raised in pledges. As news titles continue cutting staffing budgets and editorial budgets, an increasing number of writers and reporters are presenting their ideas directly to the Kickstarter public.
Of course, the use of crowdfunding in journalism is old news by now. Spot.Us has been allowing journalists to appeal to the goodwill and largesse of like-minded people since 2008 and is still going strong with more than 1500 contributors and 110 publishing partners, including The New York Times. Meanwhile Emphas.is continues to provide a platform for photojournalists and is even developing a photography book project for later this year. Neither however has scaled the heights of fame in the same way as Kickstarter.
What sets Kickstarter apart is the phenomenal success experienced by several journalistic ventures that used the site to appeal for funding from the general public. When eight members of editorial staff at GOOD lost or left their jobs at the beginning of June, they decided to produce a new magazine together and took their idea for TOMORROW to Kickstarter. The results were astonishing. Having asked for a relatively modest sum of $15,000, they reached their target after only five hours and as funding came to an end on 25 July, TOMORROW magazine had received a total of $45,452 in pledges, an increase of more than 300 percent on the amount originally sought. In similar fashion journalists Bobbie Johnson and Jim Giles’ vision for Matter, a digital venture that would provide a home for long-form science and technology journalism, was met with great approval by Kickstarter contributors. Within 38 hours of being posted on the Kickstarter site their target of $50,000 had been reached, and the two were ultimately given $140,000 of backing for their online magazine.
Unsurprisingly, such stories are prompting media commentators to tentatively wonder to what extent Kickstarter could be used to crowdfund journalism. The fact that the site serves other types of creative projects, including dance, theatre, music and film, means that publishing, investigative journalism and photojournalism campaigns benefit from being placed in a forum that attracted more than 30 million visitors in 2011 and over 1 million backers. At a moment when lack of finances is forcing traditional media outlets to cut staff numbers and reduce editorial budgets, it is heartening to see that journalism still has the ability to inspire and motivate; news outlets hoping to develop payment systems for digital content and boost falling print circulation should take heart from anecdotal evidence that seems to suggest that members of the public are still willing to make a financial contribution to news and media projects, in one form or another.
However, though the news may be encouraging, major news and magazine publishers could struggle to find a way of capitalising on Kickstarter’s popularity. In an article for GigaOM Mathew Ingram presciently notes: “I’m not sure whether a platform like Kickstarter or … even Spot.us would work that well if a campaign were to be started by a major newspaper or the owner of a chain like Advance Publications, which has been laying off staff and shutting down printing at some of its newspapers. That kind of behavior isn’t likely to endear readers to the media outlet or make them want to donate money to it […]”. Indeed, many of the journalists featured on Kickstarter benefit from being thought of as outside of the mainstream media, of being intrepid independents. As a result they are able to foster a feeling of solidarity with the audience to which they are appealing, and herein lies the attraction of Kickstarter: backers are encouraged to feel involved in the development of projects from the very beginning, thanks to founder updates and the practice of offering “gifts” to donators – which in Kickstarter’s journalism category usually amount to early access to the publication in question or inclusion in a printed list of benefactors.
That said, it is not enough to simply devise an intriguing project and take it to Kickstarter in the hope that it will be noticed before the funding deadline (the site operates an all-or-nothing system, whereby projects that fail to reach their funding targets within a certain time period receive none of the money pledged). Should freelance journalists want to use Kickstarter as a platform, it would be advisable for them to create a following for their assignment before taking it to the crowdfunding website. It is becoming increasingly evident that having access to a large network of potential backers greatly enhances a founder’s chances of reaching 100 percent funding. A report published by academic Ethan Mollick in July 2012 titled “The Dynamics of Crowdfunding: Determinants of Success and Failure” emphasises the importance of a founder’s "social capital." Kickstarter pages can be linked to a founder’s Facebook account and project founders with a higher number of "friends" and Mollick found that “a founder with 10 Facebook friends would have a 9 percent chance of succeeding, one with 100 friends wouldhave a 20 percent chance of success, and one with 1000 friends would have a 40 percent chance of success.”
Comments made by marketing guru Seth Godin build on this theory. Godin maintains that in many cases “Kickstarter campaigns fail when the tribe of people who believe in the idea is too small.” "Tribes," the groups of people who are passionate about a Kickstarter proposal, need to be identified in advance in order to then be brought together through a Kickstarter campaign. For Godin, the site is the last step in the development of a project, not the first and should be used to enhance interest in an idea rather than create it. The example of GOOD/TOMORROW is a case in point: Tim Fernholz, Ann Friedman, Megan Greenwell, Amanda Hess, Cord Jefferson, Dylan C. Lathrop, Zak Stone, and Nona Willis Aronowitz, the magazine’s co-founders and editors, already had a considerable following thanks to their work at GOOD. Fernholz and co. were able to tap into the feelings of nostalgia and loss felt by many of their former magazine’s readers and used Kickstarter to organize support that already existed.
At present it is unclear as to how long the cultural phenomenon that is crowdsourcing will continue to flourish, or for how long Kickstarter will maintain its position at the head of the movement. What we do know, however, is that crowdsourcing in general and Kickstarter in particular have played a significant role in breathing new life into journalism, supporting eccentric ventures that stimulate public interest in the work and dedication of reporters. Autumn 2012 will see Kickstarter launch in the UK, meaning that over the course of the coming year European journalists could be the next group to benefit from the site’s immense popularity.