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Show me the money

Why crowdfunded journalism makes sense—philosophically + financially

March 9, 2016

The Pew Research Center recently reported that crowdfunding, via sites like Kickstarter, has rapidly grown as a method for supporting journalistic ventures. That finding is unique in and of itself, but what’s particularly interesting is the type of content most frequently funded by these platforms. 


Pew found that long-form, narrative-style journalism like magazines, niche websites, books and podcasts were the most popular funding projects in the genre. Nearly half of those projects were created by individuals or groups of individuals rather than media organizations.


This growth is an exciting opportunity for narrative journalism, for independent producers and for creative folks of all types. Most industries, journalism included, have traditional barriers to entry: education, money, connections, etc. The growth of crowdsourcing as a funding mechanism is one small way to lower those barriers.


It also serves as an interesting model for the journalistic consumer-producer relationship. Audience members with niche interests have the opportunity help their dream publications come to fruition, and the journalists obviously get to make their project happen. By empowering audiences as investors, they may form a strong relationship with journalistic products and spreads the concept that quality media must be paid for in some fashion.


However, they also noted that journalism ranks pretty low in both success rates and total funding for Kickstarter projects. Compared to the other categories (technology, film, art, fashion and more), journalism is the only one that is usually considered a public service. As conservative as this country is compared to other western nations, it could be that Americans subscribe to the fundamental belief that journalism is a public service that should be free. 


So, where does this leave us? Alternative forms of funding are still being explored, and crowdsourcing is not an option that should be ignored. It’s an option that empowers audiences and journalists alike.


It’s also not the end all be all of individually funded journalism projects. While most Americans may not believe they have to pay for journalism (and especially journalism start ups), there is a long history in America of philanthropy projects—wealthy benefactors helping to fund organizations that they believe in. Investigative journalism outlets like the Texas Tribune and ProPublica are largely supported by individual benefactors, who are supporting a public service out of their own pockets.

It’s a precarious line to walk, because if these benefactors run out of money or decide to cease funding it could mean the end of important projects. Nevertheless, crowdfunding is an exciting creative solution for independent journalists. Pew’s report is, at the very least, a sign that the Internet is providing creative opportunities for business models that will help narrative non-fiction stay afloat.

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