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July 01 2013

14:52

Kick-start ‘Upstate Girls’


For nearly a decade, photographer Brenda Ann Kenneally has followed the lives of a group of young women living in Upstate New York. The stories of the women of Troy, NY are an intimate and powerful look at the cycle of class separation and economic inequality facing many Americans today.

Working in collaboration with students at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and the Visual Studies Workshop (VSW), Kenneally has been building a multi-platform documentary titled Upstate Girls to tell these stories. The project has now reached a point where its contributors’ hard work and good intentions need financial support. You can help them complete their work on Kickstarter.

Background

According to the 2010 census approximately 20% of the households in Troy are headed by single females. Their jobs have evolved from the factory work of the industrial revolution that earned Troy the name “Collar City” to the post industrial service sector jobs like Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonalds, and other big box food chains that are now cemented in the American landscape. What has remained constant is the women of Troy’s ability to draw on their maternal skills to power them through long days at work and huge family demands when they return home.

The Upstate Girls project is not only a document of the America that we all share with these women, but more importantly a story of the emotional connections that are universal to being human.

The Project

The project’s goal is to create a platform for deep exploration of the complex issues inherent to Upstate Girls‘ stories through an interactive web documentary. Visitors will be able to discover the lives of the women of Troy through videos, photographs, letters, historical documents and scrapbooks and tie the pieces of the stories together in their own way.

The second phase of this work will be to open the database of information Kenneally has gathered over the past 9 years to those people who can activate change. It is the photographer’s hope that this project will reach beyond the traditional audience of documentary photography and news to support research and change.

How to Help

Your donation will help access the resources needed to bring Upstate Girls to its full potential. The students at both RIT and VSW will benefit greatly from collaboration with professional web designers, web programmers, and video editors.

Donate to the campaign by July 24, 2013 to help finance these expenses. Visit the Upstate Girls Kickstarter, Facebook, and Twitter page for more information.

June 26 2013

18:43

Three lessons from ProPublica on how to run a successful journalism Kickstarter

ProPublica’s Blair Hickman writes about what the news nonprofit learned running its first Kickstarter project. (At this writing, with 18 hours left to go, it’s just $521 short of its $22,000 goal, making funding almost certain.)

Twenty-nine days ago, ProPublica launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to hire an intern to help us investigate unpaid internships — an issue that has regained national attention with a flurry of new lawsuits following a key ruling against Fox Searchlight Pictures.

If our Kickstarter succeeds, our intern will spend the fall semester traveling around the country, tracking these cases and documenting interns’ stories for a microsite on the intern economy. They’ll blog about their journey, the investigative process and their learning experience as an intern — a unique opportunity for our newsroom, and this intern.

We’ll know tomorrow at 9:32 AM ET whether our campaign was a success — as of this writing, we are just over $3,000 away from meeting our goal, and per Kickstarter’s rules, we have to raise the full $22,000, or we get nothing.

Regardless of the outcome, we’ve learned a lot through our first foray into project-based crowdfunding. Here’s some of what we’ve learned:

Your project should be creative and well defined

ProPublica has pondered Kickstarter crowdfunding for years. One of our biggest hurdles is that Kickstarter campaigns work best for concrete, defined projects – a documentary, another season of a podcast or a new level of a video game.

But investigative journalists often don’t know what their reporting will yield. We’re sifting through more than 360 detailed tips from interns or people whose career plans changed because they couldn’t afford to take an unpaid internship, but we don’t yet know exactly what our stories will be.

We were fortunate that for this particular investigation, a substantial piece of the story is hidden in plain sight. Millions of Americans have completed internships, many of which were unpaid. We think capturing their stories and voices through an interactive microsite gives us a tangible way to define the project for our Kickstarter backers and add impact to our overall investigation.

It’s also been tough for us to pitch the internship as an all-or-nothing project — a key Kickstarter funding factor — because we are committed to reporting this story, even if we don’t get to hire our intern. But it’s a Catch-22 we can live with.

(For some other great examples of successful journalism projects, check out Roman Mars’ 99% Invisible, Decode DC and Matter.)

Creative rewards and crunching the numbers

Donor rewards are a crucial part of Kickstarter’s model, and we tried to be creative and strategic about what we offered at different levels. Think $25: get a T-shirt. $50: get early access to a podcast. $5,000: get a project-related celebrity to speak at an event.

The best rewards make backers feel like they’ve benefited from a project they helped make possible. For journalism projects, this could include access to the editorial process, tote bags or t-shirts with custom project designs or special, real-time updates on the reporting.

But you need to make sure to figure out how you’ll pay for your rewards. Does your marketing budget cover them, or will your Kickstarter funds need to cover those costs?

Once you set your fundraising goal, make sure the cost of your rewards fit within your overall budget. If you’re going to offer a T-shirt or a postcard, figure out how much that will cost, including shipping. (We were a bit surprised at how much shipping increased the cost.)

Then compare that unit cost to income projections, and an estimated number of backers. We found it useful to compile all of this in a spreadsheet that let us tweak rewar costs until it fit our budget (we set a limit of 10 percent to be spent on rewards).

Mobilize your readers and networks

How are you going to raise awareness about your Kickstarter campaign? Our game plan included social networking, email outreach and pitching our story as widely as possible. Nearly 90 percent of our donations came from outside the Kickstarter platform, and we had articles or coverage appear in New York Magazine, The Week, Business Insider, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Wire and more.

We sent a minimum of one, if not two project updates via our social media accounts every day. We emailed all of our existing listservs, crafted project updates for our Kickstarter backers and emailed organizations with an interest in the issue asking if they might be willing to share our project with their listservs.

In short: Marketing a Kickstarter is a close to full-time job, so make sure to budget the time.

Fresh stories were also incredibly helpful for building momentum around the Kickstarter campaign. During the past month, we produced seven pieces on internships, linking to the Kickstarter and encouraging people to back the campaign in each.

In the end, our own site was the third-highest source of donations after Twitter and direct referrals.

Based on our experience, Kickstarter can be a great tool for creative, unique projects, but also tricky for those designed around story-driven projects. But if your newsroom has the time, resources and smart idea, it’s definitely worth an experiment.

A huge thank you to everyone who has donated to our Kickstarter so far. If you’ve ever known, or been, an unpaid intern, we’re sure you can appreciate its importance. And if you haven’t already, please donate in the final stretch to help us achieve our goal!

A big thanks to our Kickstarter team, which included News Apps Fellow Jeremy Merrill, Senior Engagement Editor Amanda Zamora, News Applications Director Scott Klein, ProPublica President Richard Tofel and Explainer Music.

May 22 2013

19:31

Want an Affordable Infrared Camera? Give to Public Lab's 'Infragram' Project on Kickstarter

This post was co-written by Public Lab organizer Don Blair.

Public Lab is pleased to announce the launch of our fourth Kickstarter today, "Infragram: the Infrared Photography Project." The idea for the Infragram was originally conceptualized during the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and as a tool for monitoring wetland damages. Since then, the concept has been refined to offer an affordable and powerful tool for farmers, gardeners, artists, naturalists, teachers and makers for as little as $35 -- whereas near-infrared cameras typically cost $500-$1,200.

Technologies such as the Infragram have similar roles as photography during the rise of credible print journalism -- these new technologies democratize and improve reporting about environmental impacts. The Infragram in particular will allow regular people to monitor their environment through verifiable, quantifiable, citizen-generated data. You can now participate in a growing community of practitioners who are experimenting and developing low-cost near-infrared technology by backing the Infragram Project and joining the Public Lab infrared listserve.

PublicLab Infrared1.png

some Background

Infrared imagery has a long history of use by organizations like NASA to assess the health and productivity of vegetation via sophisticated satellite imaging systems like Landsat. It has also been applied on-the-ground in recent years by large farming operations. By mounting an infrared imaging system on a plane, helicopter, or tractor, or carrying around a handheld device, farmers can collect information about the health of crops, allowing them to make better decisions about how much fertilizer to add, and where. But satellites, planes, and helicopters are very expensive platforms; and even the tractor-based and handheld devices for generating such imagery typically cost thousands of dollars. Further, the analysis software that accompanies many of these devices is "closed source"; the precise algorithms used -- which researchers would often like to tweak, and improve upon -- are often not disclosed.

PublicLab_Infrared2.png

Public Lab's approach

So, members of the Public Lab community set out to see whether it was possible to make a low-cost, accessible, fully open platform for capturing infrared imagery useful for vegetation analysis. Using the insights and experience of a wide array of community members -- from farmers and computer geeks to NASA-affiliated researchers -- a set of working prototypes for infrared image capture started to emerge. By now, the Public lab mailing lists and website contain hundreds of messages, research notes, and wikis detailing various tools and techniques for infrared photography, ranging from detailed guides to DIY infrared retrofitting of digital SLRs, to extremely simple and low-cost off-the-shelf filters, selected through a collective testing-and-reporting back to the community process.

All of the related discussions, how-to guides, image examples, and hardware designs are freely available, published under Creative Commons and CERN Open Hardware licensing. There are already some great examples of beautiful NDVI/near-infrared photography by Public Lab members -- including timelapses of flowers blooming, and balloon-based infrared imagery that quickly reveals which low-till methods are better at facilitating crop growth.

PublicLab_Infrared7.JPG

What's next

By now, the level of interest and experience around DIY infrared photography in the Public Lab community has reached a tipping point, and Public Lab has decided to use a Kickstarter as a way of disseminating the ideas and techniques around this tool to a wider audience, expanding the community of users/hackers/developers/practitioners. It's also a way of generating support for the development of a sophisticated, online, open-source infrared image analysis service, allowing anyone who has captured infrared images to "develop" them and analyze them according to various useful metrics, as well as easily tag them and share them with the wider community. The hope is that by raising awareness (and by garnering supporting funds), Public Lab can really push the "Infrared Photography Project" forward at a rapid pace.

Accordingly, we've set ourselves a Kickstarter goal of 5,000 "backers" -- we're very excited about the new applications and ideas that this large number of new community members would bring! And, equally exciting: The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has offered to provide a matching $10,000 of support to the Public Lab non-profit if we reach 1,000 backers.

With this growing, diverse community of infrared photography researchers and practitioners -- from professional scientists, to citizen scientists, to geek gardeners -- we're planning on developing Public Lab's "Infrared Photography Project" in many new and exciting directions, including:

  • The creation of a community of practitioners interested in infrared technology, similar to the community that has been created and continues to grow around open-source spectrometry.
  • The development of an archive for the Infrared Photography Project -- a platform that will allow people to contribute images and collaborate on projects while sharing data online.
  • Encouragement of agricultural imagery tinkering and the development and use of inexpensive, widely available near-infrared technologies.
  • Development of standards and protocols that are appropriate to the needs, uses and practices of a grassroots science community.
  • Providing communities and individuals with the ability to assess their own neighborhoods through projects that are of local importance.
  • The continued development of a set of tools that will overlap and add to the larger toolkit of community-based environmental monitoring tools such as what SpectralWorkbench.org and MapKnitter.org provide.

We hope you'll join us by contributing to the Kickstarter campaign and help grow a community of open-source infrared enthusiasts and practitioners!

A co-founder of Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, Shannon is based in New Orleans as the Director of Outreach and Partnerships. With a background in community organizing, prior to working with Public Lab, Shannon held a position with the Anthropology and Geography Department at Louisiana State University as a Community Researcher and Ethnographer on a study about the social impacts of the spill in coastal Louisiana communities. She was also the Oil Spill Response Director at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, conducting projects such as the first on-the-ground health and economic impact surveying in Louisiana post-spill. Shannon has an MS in Anthropology and Nonprofit Management, a BFA in Photography and Anthropology and has worked with nonprofits for over thirteen years.

Don Blair is a doctoral candidate in the Physics Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a local organizer for The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, a Fellow at the National Center for Digital Government, and a co-founder of Pioneer Valley Open Science. He is committed to establishing strong and effective collaborations among citizen / civic and academic / industrial scientific communities through joint research and educational projects. Contact him at http://dwblair.github.io, or via Twitter: @donwblair

April 02 2013

10:39

How Public Lab Turned Kickstarter Crowdfunders Into a Community

Public Lab is structured like many open-source communities, with a non-profit hosting and coordinating the efforts of a broader, distributed community of contributors and members. However, we are in the unique position that our community creates innovative open-source hardware projects -- tools to measure and quantify pollution -- and unlike software, it takes some materials and money to actually make these tools. As we've grown over the past two years, from just a few dozen members to thousands today, crowdfunding has played a key role in scaling our effort and reaching new people.

DIY Spectrometry Kit Kickstarter

Kickstarter: economies of DIY scale

Consider a project like our DIY Spectrometry Kit, which was conceived of just after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to attempt to identify petroleum contamination. In the summer of 2012, just a few dozen people had ever built one of our designs, let alone uploaded and shared their work. As the device's design matured to the point that anyone could easily build a basic version for less than $40, we set out to reach a much larger audience while identifying new design ideas, use cases, and contributors, through a Kickstarter project. Our theory was that many more people would get involved if we offered a simple set of parts in a box, with clear instructions for assembly and use.

By October 2012, more than 1,600 people had backed the project, raising over $110,000 -- and by the end of December, more than half of them had received a spectrometer kit. Many were up and running shortly after the holidays, and we began to see regular submissions of open spectral data at http://spectralworkbench.org, as well as new faces and strong opinions on Public Lab's spectrometry mailing list.

Kickstarter doesn't always work this way: Often, projects turn into startups, and the first generation of backers simply becomes the first batch of customers. But as a community whose mission is to involve people in the process of creating new environmental technologies, we had to make sure people didn't think of us as a company but as a community. Though we branded the devices a bit and made them look "nice," we made sure previous contributors were listed in the documentation, which explicitly welcomed newcomers into our community and encouraged them to get plugged into our mailing list and website.

newbox.jpg

As a small non-profit, this approach is not only in the spirit of our work, but essential to our community's ability to scale up. To create a "customer support" contact rather than a community mailing list would be to make ourselves the exclusive contact point and "authority" for a project which was developed through open collaboration. For the kind of change we are trying to make, everyone has to be willing to learn, but also to teach -- to support fellow contributors and to work together to improve our shared designs.

Keeping it DIY

One aspect of the crowdfunding model that we have been careful about is the production methods themselves. While it's certainly vastly different to procure parts for 1,000 spectrometers, compared to one person assembling a single device, we all agreed that the device should be easy to assemble without buying a Public Lab kit -- from off-the-shelf parts, at a reasonable cost. Thus the parts we chose were all easily obtainable -- from the aluminum conduit box enclosure, to the commercially available USB webcams and the DVD diffraction grating which makes spectrometry possible.

spectrometry.jpg

While switching to a purpose-made "holographic grating" would have made for a slightly more consistent and easy-to-assemble kit (not to mention the relative ease of packing it vs. chopping up hundreds of DVDs with a paper cutter...), it would have meant that anyone attempting to build their own would have to specially order such grating material -- something many folks around the world cannot do. Some of these decisions also made for a slightly less optimal device -- but our priority was to ensure that the design was replicable, cheap, and easy. Advanced users can take several steps to dramatically improve the device, so the sky is the limit!

The platform effect

One clear advantage of distributing kits, besides the bulk prices we're able to get, is that almost 2,000 people now have a nearly identical device -- so they can learn from one another with greater ease, not to mention develop applications and methodologies which thousands of others can reproduce with their matching devices. We call this the "platform effect" -- where this "good enough" basic design has been standardized to the point that people can build technologies and techniques on top of it. In many ways, we're looking to the success of the Arduino project, which created not only a common software library, but a standardized circuit layout and headers to support a whole ecology of software and hardware additions which are now used by -- and produced by -- countless people and organizations.

Spectral Challenge screenshot

As we continue to grow, we are exploring innovative ways to use crowdfunding to get people to collaboratively use the spectrometers they now have in hand to tackle real-world problems. Recently, we have launched the Spectral Challenge, a kind of "X Prize for DIY science", but it's crowdfunded -- meaning that those who support the goals of the Challenge can participate in the competition directly, or by contributing to the prize pool. Additionally, Public Lab will continue to leverage more traditional means of crowdfunding as our community develops new projects to measure plant health and produce thermal images -- and we'll have to continue to ensure that any kits we sell clearly welcome new contributors into the community.

The lessons we've learned from our first two kit-focused Kickstarters will help us with everything from the box design to the way we design data-sharing software. The dream, of course, is that in years to come, as we pass the 10,000- and 100,000-member marks, we continue to be a community which -- through peer-to-peer support -- helps one another identify and measure pollution without breaking the bank.

The creator of GrassrootsMapping.org, Jeff Warren designs mapping tools, visual programming environments, and flies balloons and kites as a fellow in the Center for Future Civic Media, and as a student at the MIT Media Lab's Design Ecology group, where he created the vector-mapping framework Cartagen. He co-founded Vestal Design, a graphic/interaction design firm in 2004, and directed the Cut&Paste Labs project, a year-long series of workshops on open source tools and web design in 2006-7 with Lima designer Diego Rotalde. He is a co-founder of Portland-based Paydici.com.

August 23 2012

14:17

June 25 2011

05:20

February 17 2011

16:10

LocalWiki Tries "Open-From-The-Start" Development Process

It's time for another project update. We've been hard at work on the core of the software that will power LocalWiki. We've also been spending time running around meeting people passionate about local media and planning out many things to come.

Basic groundwork laid

whiteboard_small.jpg

Many of you know about the Davis Wiki, but what you may not know is that we developed the custom software that powers it ourselves. Back in 2004, there was just nothing else that could do everything you see on the Davis Wiki while being easy enough for most people to use. Developing the custom software was well worth the effort, but the more we learned along the way, the more we wished we could change some of the choices we had made early on and build on a better foundation.

When we got the opportunity to embark on the LocalWiki project, we knew this was our chance to take another look at the core of wiki software and rebuild it using today's technology and the lessons we learned from years of experience and analyzing our other wiki engines' code. At the most basic level, one of the things we learned was that providing even simple wiki features like editing and versioning pages was difficult and cumbersome. What's worse, if done wrong these things make it downright painful for developers to add more complex features. For instance, while there may have been lots of code to help save and track versions of pages, that code couldn't be used to help someone save and track versions of map points.

By laying a solid foundation for the LocalWiki software, we'll not only make it easier for others to create basic wiki-like systems but that code will also allow us to go farther with our vision of making the best software for local communities to collaborate on information. In the past couple of months we've written an extensive versioning system for the Django framework that will allow us to simplify later development; explored and refined ways to show changes between different objects, especially rendered HTML pages; began the work on our graphic editor interface; and did lots and lots of research on different technologies.

Opening up our development process

We want the LocalWiki project to have an open-from-the-start development process. As such, while the code isn't ready for casual contributors quite yet, we are fully opening our development process. While we have experience working in the open-source world, one thing we're new at is working full-time alongside other folks. We'll probably make some mistakes, but we want to get this right.

Are you an experienced developer who wants to get involved? Please sign up for our developer mailing list. We'll be sending out a super-geeky developer update in the next day or two.

A (tiny) space to call our own

philip_painting_small.jpg

A little over a week ago, we moved into a little hole-in-the-wall office space. After working out of a coworking space for the first two months, we felt we could be more productive without the distractions that come with sharing a space with so many (admittedly, incredibly nice and professional) people. The space in San Francisco's Mission District is tiny and barely fits two desks, but it's quiet, it's convenient, and we can stay here late into the night working. After spending a weekend furnishing it, the new space has made a huge difference in our comfort, communication, and ability to work for hours on end without interruptions. It also turns out to be cheaper than the coworking setup, which is a nice bonus.

What about the Kickstarter funds?

Several months ago, we faced a serious issue: The Knight Foundation committed funding to the software development aspects of the LocalWiki project, but essential outreach and education aspects were unfunded. With your help, we raised an absolutely essential fund through Kickstarter.com to support outreach and education in pilot communities.

Our plan for the Kickstarter fund is to hold on to it until we begin the outreach and education phase of the project, which will happen shortly after the first pilot community is selected.

November 23 2010

15:00

A handbook for community-funded journalism: Turning Spot.Us experience into lessons for others

In creating a new system to fund reporting directly by donations from a geographic or online community, Spot.Us broke some of the traditional rules of journalism — namely that reporting is funded through a combination of advertising dollars and subscriptions.

That was two years ago, and now a network of individual journalists and small news organizations are attempting to use Spot.Us as a model to find new ways to fund their work and strengthen their connections to the community. And what they need are a new set of rules.

As part of his fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, Spot.Us founder David Cohn is developing a handbook for community-funded reporting that will cover everything from how reporters can pitch stories to establishing partnerships in the community to learning whether crowdfunding is right for your project. I spoke with Cohn and Jonathan Peters, who are working together on the project. In their eyes, it’s as much an assessment of how Spot.Us methods work as it is a handbook.

“I don’t want it to evangelize Spot.Us,” Cohn told me. “I want it to evangelize the type of community-funded reporting of Spot.Us.”

Spot.Us has worked with more than 70 organizations, from MinnPost and Oakland Local to The New York Times. “In my experience so far, it’s been the journalism community that has been adopting the Spot.us model, not the journalism industry,” Cohn said.

Which is why the book will serve not only as a how-to, but also something of a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the (Community-Funded Journalism) Galaxy, pointing out what has (and hasn’t) worked for Spot.Us, introducing the new players in community journalism, new methods of generating funding and a helpful glossary of terms (the difference between micro donations, crowdfunding and crowdsourcing for instance).

What they did not want to do, Peters says, is try and create a paint-by-numbers book that applies the same method to every community. “The community-funded model relies wholly on a very local focus, not only in the reporting that sites provide, but also in the structure of the site,” Peters said, adding that what works for one site may not work for another.

Only a few months into the project (they expect to be done by the spring), Cohn and Peters have found that one of the biggest questions the handbook can answer is how to explain the way community-funded reporting — and Spot.Us — works. For their research the two are surveying reporters who have worked with Spot.Us to fund and report stories. “The most interesting thing to the two of us was the majority of reporters who talked to us could not give an elevator speech to someone who does not know what Spot.Us does,” Peters said.

Making a pitch to an editor and convincing groups of people to help pay for a story are different things — largely because reporters tend to think journalism should be supported simply because it’s journalism, Cohn said. This is where a little entrepreneurship and the art of the sale come in, teaching journalists to articulate their goal and show their work meets an identifiable need. Just as important as the pitch is knowing how much of a story to tease out when trying to get funding. Cohn said reporters need to show what an investigation could reveal instead of giving up all the information their story will hold. Why would anyone pay to fund your story if you tell them the whole thing during the pitch?

Becoming something of a salesman and being more transparent in reporting are part of a broader question the handbook will deal with: Is community-funded journalism right for you? Those considerations, along with the amount of time it takes to raise money for reporting and having regular interaction with the audience, are key to whether a reporter will be successful working in Spot.Us model, Peters said.

Just as important is being able to navigate the playing field. Peters said its important for journalists to be aware of the varying options for getting funding for the work, whether it’s Kachingle and Kickstarter or GoJournalism (for Canadians).

Cohn and Peters say they don’t expect the handbook to be the definitive resource on community-funded reporting, but they expect it can help people who are curious. (As far as the actual book part of the handbook, they expect to publish it online.) Cohn said a large part of what he does now is talk to others about how Spot.Us works and how it can be applied elsewhere. Now all of that will be in handy book form.

“The audience is — as far as we can tell — writing for reporters who want to work with people like Spot.us or GoJournalism, and don’t know what it’s like,” Peters said. “We can knock down barriers and misconceptions.”

November 15 2010

14:06

The Pros and Cons of Using Kickstarter to Fundraise

We recently ended our first big fundraising drive for the LocalWiki project and wanted to take a moment to step back and reflect.

In particular, we'd like to talk about the funding platform we used, Kickstarter, and its advantages and disadvantages. While we already had a grant from the Knight Foundation to develop the LocalWiki software, we need to raise more money to go beyond just the software and help us do community outreach, coordination and education to ensure our project's success.

What is Kickstarter?

Kickstarter describes itself as "a new way to fund creative ideas and ambitious endeavors." It works like this:
  1. You post a project description on Kickstarter. You make a pitch video. The video isn't a strict requirement, but almost all funded projects have a video. You come up with a set of "rewards" for different pledge levels on the site. You set a funding goal and a time frame for your project.
  2. Kickstarter staff look at your proposed project and provide feedback. Then they (hopefully) approve your project and it's posted on the site.
  3. Your project goes live.
  4. If you don't hit your funding goal in the specified time frame, no one's cards get charged and you don't receive any of the funds.

Sounds simple enough, right?

An almost remarkable percentage of Kickstarter projects reach their funding goal. How's this possible? There are a few reasons why Kickstarter appears to be such a successful fundraising platform.

1. Staff Filtering

As mentioned before, the Kickstarter staff review postings before they appear on the site. In our case, it took a few days of back-and-forth with Kickstarter staff for our project to get a green light.

In our case, Kickstarter staff were concerned with our initial reward selections. Kickstarter wants you to have a rich selection of rewards that provide a lot of value to pledgers. For instance, something that seems like it ought to be worth $50 should be priced as close to market value as possible in the reward selection. We almost gave up on using Kickstarter because the approval process appeared to be pushing us toward a reward selection that would really cut into our real, post-reward funds.

That raises another important point: Kickstarter staff wants your project to succeed. Their filtering process helps Kickstarter ensure high quality (lots of successful projects!) and also lets them push project creators to maximize their chances of success (well priced rewards!). The main reason Kickstarter staff wants your project to succeed, though, is because Kickstarter takes a 5 percent cut of your funds.

So, in our case, we ended up paying Kickstarter $1,316. That's fairly significant, but it may be worth it.

2. The Kickstarter "Mold"

Launching a Kickstarter project means you're going to have to do certain things if you want to meet your funding goal:
  • Produce a video about why you want to raise money. This helps you focus your message into a couple minutes. This helps you fundraise.
  • Write about, and provide updates, why you want to raise money. Again, this forces you to focus your message.
  • Widely publicize your project. This is magnified by the next point ("All-or-nothing").
Your project will also be sitting alongside lots of other interesting projects, so just "hanging out" on Kickstarter may help your fundraising effort seem more legitimate. However, you may not get many pledges from traffic originating from Kickstarter.com -- this really depends on what type of project you have. In our case, probably 90 percent of our pledges came directly from folks browsing Davis Wiki.

Having to fit into this mold means you're going to have to do the kinds of things that organizations that fundraise successfully do. Which is great, because you might not have done all these things otherwise.

3. User Interface

When we decided to launch our outreach/education fundraiser we didn't have a lot of time to prepare a fancy fundraising site. We knew the Knight Foundation grant announcement would generate a fair amount of press and we wanted to capitalize on that excitement and energy. We had a couple days before we had to be in Boston for the announcement and most of our time was spent making our fundraising video. So having a pre-built, well designed fundraising site like Kickstarter really helped us.

Here's what you see when you click the usual Paypal "Donate" button on our site:


and here's what you see when you click "Pledge" on Kickstarter:


While we could have crafted our own pledge drive interface on top of a payment gateway, using Kickstarter saved us a lot of time.

4. All Or Nothing

Kickstarter pledge drives are "all or nothing," meaning that if the goal isn't met by the specified time then no one's credit cards are charged and the project doesn't get any of the pledged funds.
 

Surprisingly, the all-or-nothing nature of Kickstarter is its greatest asset in ensuring projects hit their funding goal. Once a project has reached a certain threshold of funding, the project creators (and pledgers!) feel an intense desire to "unlock" the money. In fact, word has it that something around 90 percent of projects that reach 25 percent of their funding goal are eventually fully unded.

Having projects be all-or-nothing was probably a decision made by Kickstarter to support projects that need to meet a concrete goal, such as printing the first major run of a new book. These are, by and large, the sort of projects Kickstarter excels at funding -- projects where, if a certain amount of money isn't raised, the project simply isn't possible, or isn't worth it.

But what about projects that deviate from this format? Projects that need to fundraise money but aren't goal-or-doesn't-matter? For more general fundraising projects, the all-or-nothing property has an interesting effect: It functions as a sort of "matching donation" multipler. In traditional fundraising, matching donations -- where an individual or organization pledges to donation $X but only if $X is raised independently -- are a common and successful way to drum up contributions. With Kickstarter, a donation of $50 with a $10K goal can be thought of as being "matched" by 199 other $50 contributions!

The all-or-nothing characteristic is a way to create a big "matching donation" pool and helps drive pledges even for projects that could make do with less than their goal amount.

Drawbacks

It's not all milk and honey, though. There are some hidden drawbacks and costs to using Kickstarter.
 

Fees

Kickstarter takes a 5 percent cut of your pledges and Amazon will take an additional amount (around 2 percent) on top of that. If your margins are slim, this could be significant.

You should think about it like this: I'm paying Kickstarter 5 percent of my pledge goal if we make it. Is the Kickstarter service worth the 5 percent? In particular, you should think about 1) The pre-built platform you get with Kickstarter; 2) the publicity of being on Kickstarter; 3) the "mold" that Kickstarter forces you into and the value of that.

#1 is worth it if you don't have a lot of time or resources to build something yourself. We certainly didn't.

In some cases, #2 is really valuable. Obscure, quirky projects can get amazing press just by being a part of Kickstarter. But if you're doing something more like a traditional community-based fundraiser you probably won't get much from #2. For us, the publicity of being on Kickstarter didn't drive a lot of pledges, but it did give us some valuable exposure.

I think everyone can benefit from #3 unless you're a large organization with a track record of successful fundraisers. In that case you've already got methodology, fundraising materials, and probably a big existing donor base.

It's hard to take Kickstarter fundraising offline

We held a couple of offline events during our pledge drive (a bar night and a silent auction). Unfortunately, it's pretty difficult to move offline funds back onto Kickstarter. You're not permitted to "pledge" toward your own project, which means you need to find a trustworthy third party to agree to pledge any offline funds. This also means the offline donors won't be noted on Kickstarter.

For local community-based fundraising efforts this can be problematic.

The all-or-nothing system is a bit confusing

Unfortunately, the all-or-nothing pledge system can be a bit confusing. Many folks we talked to thought they had already given us money before we hit our funding deadline.

Our fundraising period was 90 days -- the longest allowed by Kickstarter -- and so there were lots of people who'd simply forgotten they'd pledged by the time their cards were charged. Thankfully, Kickstarter is astonishingly good at collecting funds (they pester pledgers with an email every day for a week if their card is declined), and we only saw a few pledges that never came through.

Many successful projects are basically product sales

Despite the perception of Kickstarter as a fundraising site, a large number of high profile Kickstarter projects are, at their core, product sales. What do I mean by product sales?

Well, all Kickstarter projects have rewards. And unless you get remarkably lucky, you're going to have some cost associated with acquiring, shipping, and dealing with that reward. For folks in the non-profit world, we're all very familiar with the standard tax-deductability formula that's on donation receipts:

(Amount contributed) - (Value of goods or services given to donor) = Deductible amount

This isn't just some tax mumbo-jumbo -- it tells that the donor intended to give at least the deductible amount to the organization or project itself. But this formula doesn't tell us everything. After all, oftentimes we get goods or services donated to us and then, in turn, give them away. We're still bringing in money, either way. So the important missing part here is the cost to us of those goods or services, right?

(Amount contributed) - (Cost to us of goods or services given to donor) = Our profit

The first formula is still useful for differentiating these "I'm basically selling something" Kickstarter projects from "I'm doing something amazing, help us!" projects. So let's call the first formula the "Donation amount" and the second formula the "Profit amount."

How do projects measure up?

Methodology: I calculated Profit and Donation amount by using my best guess of production cost and resell value of the rewards (to an interested party). For instance, a T-shirt is counted as having little or no value (unless the project is all about T-shirts). This is roughly how the IRS counts things.

I also subtracted estimated Kickstarter and Amazon fees from total profit. I also factored in over-pledging and "no reward" choices.

The following are projects I've heard about recently, either because they got widespread press or because they touched my social circle in some way:

  • Vuvuzelas for BP: Raised $6,846 with a pledge goal of $2,000. Estimated Profit: $5,437. Estimated Donations: $6,846. Profit percentage: 79%. Donation percentage: 100%.
  • NIMBY - Industrial Art and DIY Space: Raised $17,897 with a pledge goal of $17,255. Estimated Profit: $16,161. Estimated Donation: $17,823. Profit percentage: 90%. Donation percentage: 100%.
  • Hollaback!: Raised $13,560 with a pledge goal of $12,500. Estimated Profit: $12,241. Estimated Donation: $13,466. Profit percentage: 90%. Donation percentage: 99%.
  • Decentralize the web with Diaspora: Raised $200,641 with a pledge goal of $10,000. Estimated Profit: $135,905. Estimated Donation: $180,051. Profit percentage: 67%. Donation percentage: 90%.
  • Embodiment: A Portrait of Queer Life in America: Raised $12,568 with a pledge goal of $10,000. Estimated Profit: $11,397. Estimated Donation: $10,848. Profit percentage: 90%. Donation percentage: 86%.
  • Punk Mathematics: Raised $28,701 with a pledge goal of $2,400. Estimated Profit: $20,224. Estimated Donation: $17,225. Profit percentage: 70%. Donation percentage: 60%.
  • Power Laces: Raised $25,024 with a pledge goal of $25,000. Estimated Profit: $12,429. Estimated Donation: $12,904. Profit percentage: 50%. Donation percentage: 51%.
  • Designing Obama: Raised $84,613 with a pledge goal of $65,000. Estimated Profit: $24,717. Estimated Donation: $30,010. Profit percentage: 29%. Donation percentage: 35%.
  • Coming and Crying: Real stories about sex from the other side of the bed: Raised $17,242 with a pledge goal of $3,000. Estimated Profit: $10,773. Estimated Donation: $6,144. Profit percentage: 62%. Donation percentage: 35%.
  • Glif - iPhone 4 Tripod Mount & Stand: Raised $137,417 with a pledge goal of $10,000. Estimated Profit: $98,950. Estimated Donation: $15,467. Profit ratio: 72%. Donation ratio: 11%.
  • Lockpicks by Open Locksport: Raised $87,407 with a pledge goal of $6,000. Estimated Profit: $64,043. Estimated Donation: $4,922. Profit percentage: 73%. Donation percentage: 6%.

This is hardly a proper random sample, and all of these projects were successfully funded. Many projects on Kickstarter never reach their funding goal. Unfortunately, it's difficult to search Kickstarter for unsuccessful projects for more data points.

Additionally, there are other costs associated with shipping rewards and time spent drumming up pledges, processing shipments, etc. Theses costs weren't included, but some costs (like time) are very real.

Conclusion

So, is Kickstarter good for running fundraising drives? Well, let's take a look at this graph:

That big spike is the Diaspora project, which had a few extraordinary factors working in its favor -- perfect timing, massive public backlash against Facebook, and a huge NYT piece. Ignoring that spike, it's clear that the projects which have the highest Kickstarter totals are those that are actually getting the least amount in donation-like pledges.

So while Kickstarter has many high-profile, successful pledge drives under their belt, the campaigns that raise the most cash tend to not look much like traditional donation drives.

All-in-all, we're happy we used Kickstarter. It helped us raise significantly more than we would have otherwise. It has drawbacks, though, particularly for non-profit organizations wanting to run somewhat traditional fundraising drives.

September 21 2010

18:14

How Filmmakers Use Crowdfunding to Kickstart Productions

art machine grab.jpg

According to the crowdfunding pitch for the film "Art Machine," a $1 donation will buy you "love and respect from the cast and crew." And if you give $1,000, you get perks like a DVD and a speaking role in the film. That's the promise from director Doug Karr and Chop Wood Carry Water Productions for anyone who supported his film, which raised more than $26,000 using Kickstarter.

Two startups, Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, have jumpstarted online crowdfunding for filmmakers. Kickstarter describes itself as "a new way to fund and follow creativity," while IndieGoGo says that it's "a collaborative way to fund ideas." A mix of the two taglines defines crowdfunding, allowing the audience to fund films with small donations.

I spoke with Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler and received feedback from IndieGoGo CEO and co-funder Slava Rubin about crowdfunding, their respective sites and how filmmakers can effectively raise funds and awareness through them.

The Crowdfunding Comparison

Strickler called Kickstarter a flexible tool and resource for filmmakers that, thanks to its integration with social networks, is "an easy way to aggregrate all the love and support that a filmmaker has in the world." Kickstarter aims to be "a place for artists to build a community" and where filmmakers "get to control what success is and talk to their audience the way they want to."

Kickstarter homepage.jpg

Kickstarter's supporting film role:

  • A total of $6 million has been raised for film projects since April 2009
  • More than a dozen filmmakers have successfully raised $40,000 (the maximum individual donation is $10,000)
  • 2,500 film projects have been supported so far
  • 45 percent of filmmakers successfully reach their funding goal
  • What Kickstarter gets: a 5 percent, one-time fee
  • Filmmakers only receive their funds if they reach the set goal

IndieGoGo calls its crowdfunding approach as "Do It With Others" (DIWO) fundraising, giving any ideathe tools and process to raise money, offer perks and keep 100 percent ownership. Rubin said that filmmakers on the site "range from Sundance award winners to college students making their first film."

IndieGoGo homepage-thumb.jpg

IndieGoGo's supporting film role:

  • Hundreds of new film projects are launched on the site each month
  • One film was able to raise more than $70,000
  • The "sweet spot" for films raising funds on the site is between $2,000 and $13,000
  • The average funding contribution is $84
  • What IndieGoGo gets: 4 percent fee if filmmakers reach their goals or a 9 percent fee if they don't
  • Filmmakers are able to keep the funds even if they don't achieve their goals

Both sites have grown more than 400 percent over the past year, while Kickstarter has attracted seven times the number of unique monthly visitors as IndieGoGo. Kickstarter also has doubled site traffic in the past six months, according to Compete.com.

Perks for Pledges

Both Kickstarter and IndieGoGo give filmmakers the freedom to add incentives to encourage various levels of contributions and a larger number of funders. "With a good pitch, proactive marketing, and some cool perks, it's amazing the support the film campaigns have been getting," Rubin said.

Strickler highlighted three categories that filmmakers should consider when offering perks or rewards for participating in the funding process:

  1. A token of recognition: A credit or some form of acknowledgment that the funder is part of the project
  2. Physical products: DVDs or props from the film, for example
  3. Creative experiences: Participatory opportunities such as watching the dailies, meeting the director, attending the premiere or even having a role in the film

For film enthusiasts interested in funding projects, the opportunity to play a pivotal role in the production and post-production processes can be a reward in itself. On the other hand, filmmaker Bill Delano will actually give you a prayer flag blessed by a guide named Karma, for a pledge of $300 to support his "Karma Walkers" film.

Karr, the writer and director for the Chop Wood Carry Water Productions film "Art Machine," used Kickstarter to raise "an eighth of the production budget" because "it seemed like the perfect mix of crowdsourcing, marketing and fundraising."

"I can't emphasize strongly enough how palpable the mix of awareness-raising tied with people helping to get the film made with even just a few dollars," he said. "It's really a fantastic way to open up the whole process."

Nick Mendoza is the director of digital communications at Zeno Group. He advises consumer, entertainment and web companies on digital and social media engagement. He dreamstreams and is the film correspondent for MediaShift. Follow him on Twitter @NickMendoza.

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September 13 2010

14:00

Photojournalism site Emphas.is wants to leverage the crowd through the romanticism of its craft

If times have been tough for journalists who write, they’ve been no better for photojournalists. Magazines and newspapers have cut staff positions and freelance budgets. And the Internet has given rise to free or inexpensive substitutes, like Flickr and iStockphoto. A new startup launching this winter hopes it has come up with a way to solve some of the field’s financial problems, while giving world-class photojournalists a new level of freedom in telling stories and interacting with their audience.

The site, called Emphas.is, will be a platform that looks to the crowd to fund photographers’ work in dangerous places around the world. Similar to other crowdfunding sites like Spot.us or Kickstarter, photojournalists will post trip pitches with a fundraising goal. If that goal is reached, backers will get access to postings from the photographer about his or her experiences and the photographs and videos that are filed along the way. The photos will be initially available to only to backers, but photographers will be free to distribute them as they please — Emphas.is will not own the photographs.

“We’ve been badly hit and we need a solution,” says the site’s founder Karim Ben Khelifa about his work as a photojournalist. In the last 12 years, Khelifa has photographed stories in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somaliland, Kashmir, Kosovo, and other war-torn and dangerous places. His cofounder, Tina Ahrens, is also an established photojournalist. Khelifa’s reached out to elite photojournalists around the world to join him in launching the project. He says plenty of his colleagues are eager to give the idea a try. “We have the top of the top,” he says.

The platform is not a distribution tool meant to reach media outlets, but an experiment in storytelling that will let the photographer take on a more central role.

“The project comes out of frustration,” Khelifa told me. “Having a double-page [photo display] in Time or Vanity Fair…it doesn’t give me a point of view. You might have seen my photographs in Time magazine, but you don’t know me. And I don’t know you.”

And maybe that doesn’t make sense. Photojournalists, particularly war photographers, have a certain allure, one Khelida hopes is the basis for a business model. “We have a romanticism around our profession,” he says. “We realized that our work isn’t the end product, but how we got to it. This is what we expect to monetize.”

Khelifa says he’s often asked how he manages to move around a war zone, or join up with groups like the Taliban and photograph them from the inside. That backstory will be the draw, he says. Backers on Emphas.is will get to meet the photojournalist and then ride along virtually as they sneak through border check points and embed themselves with rebel groups. (Imagine getting a text message from the photog you’ve funded: I’m entering a dangerous region of Yemen, will check back in three days.) The experience will drive how the audience consumes the story.

Khelifa also says that it’s a good opportunity for photographers passionate about injustice in far-flung places. A crowd of funders can support a trip in a way only a few magazine photo editors could before.

But that doesn’t mean media isn’t interested the project. Khelifa is rounding up endorsements from top photo editors and directors at outlets like Time and agencies like the VII and Magnum. For them, the platform offers the potential for both more and lower-cost high-quality photography.

Once the site is launched, photographers will bank on the public pledging small amounts to back their ideas. Khelifa says one of their strategies for reaching those potential donors is through NGOs with large email lists. (NGOs themselves will only be allowed to fund 50 percent of any single project.)

For now, Khelifa has raised his own startup funding from a number angel investors. The next few months will be about getting the details in order, including finishing the platform and bringing on photographers. He hopes to see the site go live in January 2011.

June 01 2010

14:00

Parsing Panera: Could a name-your-own-price model work for news?

The former CEO of Panera Bread recently announced an intriguing experiment: The chain’s store in Clayton, Missouri is doing away with prices. The Clayton franchise, now run as a nonprofit restaurant and renamed the “Saint Louis Bread Company Cares Cafe,” offers the same products as typical Panera stores, the same baked goods and soups and salads. Instead of assigning a monetary value to the products, though, the store leaves it to customers to decide what they’ll pay. “Take what you need, leave your fair share,” reads a sign above the store’s counter.

Name-your-own-price schemes like this aren’t new; often, they don’t work. (“If you use a PWYW scheme too liberally, you are courting financial disaster,” the economist Stephen Dubner points out. “Just imagine if Tiffany & Co. held a PWYW day on all diamond jewelry.”) But sometimes — under the right circumstances — the approach can be quite effective. At One World Everybody Eats, a community kitchen in Salt Lake City, Denise Cerreta runs an analog service to the Panera experiment: Instead of pricing the meals One World serves, she asks customers to pay what they can — and, she told me, “to pay it forward when they can.” She’s doing something right, it seems: One World’s been in business for seven years.

Which brings me to the question you’ve seen coming, but one I’ll come out and ask anyway, as a thought experiment if nothing more: Could the Panera payment model work for news?

Request, not demand

First of all, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that it couldn’t. Carta, the German public-affairs publication, is currently the highest-grossing participant on the donation-facilitator site Kachingle. Carta’s current yield from Kachingler donations is $198.27 — from a total of 65 people. Oof. Membership drives both journalistic and otherwise tend to suggest specific notation amounts for a reason: We like prices. Or, more specifically, we’re conditioned to expect them.

But what if our expectations changed? What if news outlets built into their online interfaces a more structured, and systematic, request for content compensation? Take, again, One World. One of the reasons Cerreta’s effort works is that, at the cafe, consumer behavior is monitored: The kitchen has built into its physical layout what Cerreta calls a “point of accountability” — a point at which, moving through the consumption-to-satisfaction continuum, consumers know that this is the moment they’re expected to compensate the kitchen for what they’ve (literally) consumed. In One World’s case, the accountability point is a simple donation box. One that is situated — explicitly, purposely, unavoidably — in public.

And that makes a big — and perhaps all the — difference. (Recall the “Big Brother Eyes” experiment from a few years ago.) Which means that, when the accountability is negotiated in private — when there is only, as in the case of online news, the glare of the computer screen to cast light on our shoulders’ angels and devils — our willingness to drop dollars in the donation box certainly becomes a more open question. But, then, what if we took a looser approach to publicness — what if we translated Cerreta’s physical accountability point to the ephemeral interactions of the web? Even if we citizens need a little push to behave in private with as much civic sensibility as we would in public, there’s nothing to say that news outlets can’t provide — or, at least, experiment with providing — that push. It would simply be a matter of building the push into the structure, and patterns, of consumption. Of creating, to modify Cass Sunstein’s phrase, an architecture of accountability.

Step one would be re-framing the terms of the transaction when it comes to compensating news providers for the content they provide: from fee (obligatory, and therefore purely economic) to donation (optional, and therefore suggestive of social good). It’s a semantic shift, certainly; but it could be a psychological one, as well.

Take the work of Edward Deci. In a series of experiments in the 1970s, the social psychologist examined the behavior of two groups of subjects: One was asked to solve a puzzle; the other was told it would be paid for solving the same puzzle. Those who worked for what Deci called the “intrinsic” reward of solving the puzzle — the simple satisfaction of a job well done — were, he found, more successful in finding solutions than those who were paid. Payment functioned, ironically, as a disincentive.

Deci was studying the motivation to work, rather than the motivation to pay; still, his overall finding (officially, that “contingent monetary rewards actually reduced intrinsic task motivation”) is illustrative. Introducing the concreteness of payment into an otherwise more ephemeral exchange can sometimes discourage action, rather than encouraging it; assigning monetary value to goods and experiences has a way of confining — and even negating — their broader value. Pricing is practical, of course, and, for the most part, entirely necessary. Still, we prefer to think of ourselves as motivated by something other than — something more than — rote obligation. And price tags, general necessity notwithstanding, tend to rob us of our altruism.

Accountability and urgency

What Deci’s findings suggest for news is that, paradoxically, “It’d be nice if you paid” could actually be more incentivizing for consumers than the more blunt, and more transactional, “You have to pay.” Paywalls are one thing; pay doors, if you will — come on in! have a bite! pay what you think is fair! — are another. Permeability suggests trust; expectations of good behavior have a way of encouraging good behavior. Broken windows, in reverse.

Again, though, publicness (read: public accountability) is key; roughly the same number of people who want to be good citizens want to be recognized for being good citizens. Every year, I receive a series of emails from my college (usually featuring a slick little slideshow: “Campus in the Fall,” “Campus in the Spring,” “Campus in the Summer, with Children and Puppies and Rainbows”) asking for contributions to its Annual Giving drive. And it usually takes several of those emails before I actually make my donation. It’s not that I don’t want, or for that matter intend, to give back; it’s just that the give-back ask lacks urgency. The payment isn’t a demand; it’s a request. It doesn’t have to be paid now; it can be paid whenever. And that decelerates the dynamic of the transaction.

One of the most recent emails I received, though, tapped into something other than nostalgia: It featured a long list of donors from my class — ostensibly, as a way of thanking them for their contributions by way of public acknowledgment…but also, of course, as a way of highlighting those who hadn’t yet contributed. The loud, empty space between ‘Ganson’ and ‘Geannette,’ I have to say, made for an excellent disincentive against future dallying. Suddenly, the urgency was implicit.

The Alumni Giving staff, in other words, built into their donation request a point of accountability. Not a virtual cash register, a “pay now, or you won’t get the goods you want” approach — an impossibility for donation-seekers who sell not goods but potential good — but a more subtle (and, yet, just as impactful) message: “pay now, or everyone will know you haven’t paid.” Social capital is an economic good as much as a civic one; the AG donation-seekers wove that fact into their email so implicitly that their request suddenly bore the semblance of demand. By highlighting the social, rather than the monetary, aspect of their appeal, they conveyed the fact that they meant business. Literally.

Leveraging the social economy

When it comes to the problem of monetization, we sometimes to fall into the trap of equating “pay model” with “pay wall.” We assume that news is a straight commodity, and that the cash register model is therefore the only viable option for monetizing it. (“We’re not NPR, after all.”) But the commodity-focused approach ignores the social aspects of media economics. Particularly online, with the web’s built-in mechanisms of mutuality, news is a social good as much as (and perhaps even more than) a product to be bought and sold. It is also an experience good — something that needs to be consumed before its value can be accurately determined. A tip-based model — which combines reward for a job well done with the social prestige of being generous enough to leave a tip in the first place — actually makes more sense than a paywall, which is necessarily predictive in nature.

Cerreta’s name-your-own-price experiment, and my Alumni Giving’s public-accountability approach — not to mention the experience of, yes, many a public media membership drive — suggest the raw potential of a request-oriented, rather than a demand-oriented, approach to the pay-for-news problem. They hint at what might happen when we bring a little humanity to paid content’s practical, yet wholly impersonal, business proposition. Most of us, after all, are much happier to make donations than to pay bills. Even if the checks we write are for the same amount.

That’s not to say that reframing the terms of transaction is a broad answer to the seeping problem of content monetization; “no silver bullets” has become a common refrain for a good reason. (Plus, as Laura Walker, president and CEO of WNYC, told me in a conversation about PWYW’s scalability, “I think there is a much stronger pull toward supporting an organization that is not supported by advertising — that is not there to deliver an audience to advertisers — but is there because of a mission. I think that’s why people value us.”) It is to say, though, that it may be worth widening the scope of consideration when it comes to how we think about payment structures in the first place. The many experiments we’re seeing with social media right now — HuffPo’s implementation of recognition for committed community members, Gawker’s star commenter system, Spot.us’s and Kickstarter’s public donor lists, Foursquare’s merit-badge framework — leverage users’ cultural connection to the news — and their desire to be recognized for, essentially, good citizenship within the cultures news systems create.

What would happen if those same motivations were employed in the service of monetizing online news? What would happen if we shift our focus from transactions to exchanges? Kachingle may not have revolutionized online payment structures; then again, its digital tip jar is a rare presence on websites. But what if The New York Times — or The Washington Post, or The Huffington Post — had its own kind of Kachingle? What if it also had a badge-like way of praising, publicly, the people who had financially supported its services? What if, instead of erecting a paywall, it built its site on an architecture of altruism?

It’d be an experiment, certainly. An experiment that well might fail. Still, though: I’d love to see what would happen if we broaden our notion of what a viable pay model could be.

May 21 2010

09:11

Next Generation Journalist: crowdfund your journalism

This series of 10 moneymaking tips for journalists began on Adam Westbrook’s blog, but continues exclusively on Journalism.co.uk.

Adam’s e-book, Next Generation Journalist: 10 New Ways to Make Money in Journalism is on sale now.

10. crowdfund your journalism

Crowdfunding has made it into my book even though, on the face of it, it is hardly entrepreneurial. It is however a method only possible thanks to the internet; and as you’ll read in the e-book, a method which actually requires some of the toughest entrepreneurial spirit.

The idea of crowdsourcing news stories, opinion and media isn’t that new. But the notion of crowdsourcing money is only beginning to come to fruition. The real pioneers on this have been in cinema: last year the producers of Age of Stupid funded the entire project with donations from the public.

The internet has made it easier too. In particular we’re seeing new platforms from which to launch your crowdfunding project. Spot.Us is one of the first, and currently helps to fund projects with networks in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. More recently another startup – Kickstarter – has emerged working along similar lines.

Crowdfunding your journalism…

  • has so far proved successful in print, online and cinematic projects
  • is not easy and requires strong marketing skills
  • is only possible because of the internet

But be under no illusions: crowdfunding is not an easy ride.

“You have to tell people what’s in it for them” says multimedia journalist Annabel Symington, “people want to know what their money is going to do, and saying it’s going to fund a piece of quality journalism isn’t enough.”

Along with two partners Annabel has spent the last few months using Kickstarter to raise enough money to report on the Guarani Aquifier. As with almost all of the ideas suggested in Next Generation Journalist: 10 New Ways to Make Money in 2010, crowdfunding it’s about being more than a journalist:

“Through this project I’ve become a brand designer, a social media guru, a public speaker and an event organiser. You name it, I think I’ve done it,” says Annabel.

You can find out more about the Guarani Project here, and more about the ins and outs of crowdfunding in the ebook.

And that wraps up the 10 new ways to make money in journalism in 2010. If you’ve been inspired by any of them you can find out how to make them happen inside the ebook – on a discount price until 27 May.

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April 02 2010

17:00

Ted Rall is going to Afghanistan, with the help of Kickstarter, 200 supporters, and 101% funding

Ted Rall is going back to Afghanistan.

In January, the cartoonist, reporter, essayist, radio broadcaster, book author, polemicist, graphic novelist, mischief-maker, and Pulitzer finalist posted a project proposal on Kickstarter, the community-funding site, in its journalism section: “Comix Journalism: Send Ted Rall Back to Afghanistan to Get the Real Story.”

Rall had been to Afghanistan before (a trip that resulted in, among other things, a graphic travelogue); he wanted to return, he wrote in the project’s pitch, “to see what has changed and how life is going for Afghans, especially those in the remote provinces in the southwest where Western reporters never venture.”

Or, as Rall put it to Andy Baio, Kickstarter’s CTO, in a February podcast: “This is about filling in a lot of gaps.”

The project started with funding momentum, then ebbed a bit — as of Monday, several weeks after its funding effort launched and one week before its April 5 funding deadline, the project had received $15,000 of its $25,000 goal — toward the end of this week, picked up speed. (“Like cartoonists, civilians love a deadline!” Rall told me.) As of yesterday afternoon, the project had received $21,660 from 179 different backers — with 52 people pledging between $50 and $100, 42 pledging $100-$500, 8 pledging between $500 and $1,000…and one generous soul pledging an amount in the $5,000-$10,000 range.

Yesterday afternoon, Rall sent an e-mail to his network:

Issue Number 4 – April 2010
Ted Rall Newsletter

AFGHANISTAN TRIP DOWN TO THE WIRE

Here’s the latest on my attempt to raise travel expenses for a return trip to Afghanistan.

Needed: $25,000
Raised: $21,600 from 178 backers
Shortfall: $3,400
Days To Go: 3

To pledge support for my trip, please click:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/tedrall/comix-journalism-send-ted-rall-back-to-afghanista-0/comments

I will only receive the funds, and your credit card will only be charged, if I raise the whole amount of $25,000. Bear in mind; I will contribute some $10,000-$15,000 from my personal money in addition to the $25,000 to make this trip possible.

This is down to the wire, and could go either way. I’d say the odds are 50-50 of pulling this off.

The down-to-the-wire element seems to have worked in Rall’s favor: By this morning, the project had met its goal. Over 200 backers have donated $25,175 to pay for Rall’s reporting trip.

“Good luck Ted, I was really happy to see you undertaking this kind of thing, happy to pitch in on it,” one supporter (delightful handle: “lunchbreath”) wrote in after making a pledge. “i supported you for a hundred dollars i barely had because i believe so much in what you’re doing,” another put it. “thank you for having the guts to explore the dark terrain.”

I spoke with Rall before “Comix Journalism” was fully funded — when Rall was still “on pins and needles” about the pitch’s outcome — about the project, the journalism he hopes to produce with it, and his thoughts on crowdfunding. The conversation’s transcript is below; I’ve edited it for length.

What was the $25,000 number based on — your previous trip to Afghanistan?

Ted Rall: Yeah. And believe it or not, that’s a low-ball. It’s kind of funny how people have responded to that. Most people get it, because they’ve heard how much war correspondency costs. But some people are like, ‘What, were are you staying, four-star hotels or something?’ Far from it, trust me. I’m not going anyplace where there is a hotel — of any sort. I thought it would be easier to raise less money, so I put it as low as I could and still do it.

What you’re paying for mostly is passage through territories. Because Afghanistan’s not a contiguous nation-state — ironically, as it was under the Taliban — now, you have to pay warlords and sub-warlords and local commanders past checkpoints, one after the other. And everything you buy costs you a lot of money. When I was there, eggs were going for five bucks each. If you want to hire a truck to take you over the mountains for a day, that’s maybe a thousand bucks. So I’m going to put up at least $10,000 or $15,000 of my own money on top of the $25,000, assuming I get the $25,000. The $25,000 won’t cover everything.

I got laid off by United Features Syndicate, as an editor, last year. This is the kind of thing that I might have funded myself before that happened. The thing is, I also have a book offer — if I do this — from Farrar, Strauss. But the problem is, they don’t shell out the money quickly enough: Taxes and your agent take half, if you live in New York, then it takes months to get the check, and you only get the first half — so it’s not enough.

The main thing is to just go and see what happens. One thing that’s frustrating about war corresponsdency is editors always want to know what you’re going to do, and what you’re going to see, and what stores you’re going to bring back. And the truth is, you just don’t know. Things are going to happen while you’re there, right before you’re there, and you’re just going to have to chase the leads as they happen. Still, I like to have a plan, even if it’s a plan that I deviate from.

What will that plan entail?

So there are basically three goals here. One is to go back to northeastern Afghanistan, near the Tajik and Uzbek borders, where I was in the fall of 2001. There’s a town there that’s sometimes in the control of the Taliban, and sometimes of the central government. I’m going there to meet my old fixer and his family, to see how they’re doing. I want to bring them some stuff, some money. I want to just talk to them about how the last nine years have been. They’re a Tajik family, and the Tajiks were very oppressed by the Taliban, so they were very happy to see them go — and I want to see how they’re doing, and how the town looks, and how things have changed both for better and for worse since then.

There’s also the oil pipeline story, which I think is one of the most underreported stories. There’s an oil and gas pipeline that’s being built, right now, north of Herat. And as far as I know, nobody has gone there to talk to the workers, take photos and see the people who are building it — and the people who are trying to blow it up.

Why do you think that is?

Mostly I think it’s the big problem of there just not being very many foreign correspondents anymore — that’s probably 95 percent of it. And then of the people who are there, there’s this weird obsession with US military operations. It’s easier to pitch front-line coverage. I could get funding to go do that. I could go as an embedded reporter for that. Things that blow up are exciting. People like uniforms and bombs. It is exciting, and I’ve done that, but the truth is, it’s not really the big story in Afghanistan anymore. And it kind of never was, and it kind of never will be. This is a guerilla war like Vietnam. It doesn’t have a front line. The enemy just lives all around you.

And as far as the pipeline goes, it’s an interesting story, because it was dismissed by the right as basically a paranoid conspiracy on the left — kind of the equivalent of the 9/11 truthers. And so the argument was, ‘This doesn’t exist.’ And, you know, it does exist. So just to be able to go and show that is an interesting story.

So that’s part two. And then part three of the plan is to go to parts of the country that no one ever goes to, just because no one ever goes there. Reporters spend a lot of time wherever military operations are happening — so, these days, in Helmand Province, and since the beginning of the war, in the east along the border with Pakistan. But they really don’t spend any time in a lot of the country. So I’m going to go spend a lot of time on the border with Iran, north of Helmand, south of Herat. It’s an interesting part of the country because it’s so remote that in many ways it hasn’t really been affected by the American occupation. So it’ll be interesting to see how we’re viewed, and how life has changed — or not — since then.

Do you have any ideas about what you’ll find?

Absolutely none. Except that it’s not going to be a very pleasant place to stay. It’s going to be brutally hot — it’ll be August or September, and it’ll be 120, 130 degrees in the shade. And it’s going to be dusty, and dirt-poor — by Afghan standards — so it’s just going to be a miserable place to live for a few weeks. But those people live there all the time, so I can put up with it for a few weeks.

Finances aside (to the extent we can put them aside): Why Kickstarter? Are there other benefits to a self-financed trip, as opposed to a news-outlet-financed one?

I’m really, militantly, opposed to embedded journalism. I think it’s actually really irresponsible for anybody to participate in that program. It endangers all reporters. No one should do it. Imagine if your country were occupied, and you saw European reporters riding around on trucks with occupation troops — and they’re not talking to you, there’s only talking to those soldiers — and they’re going to their press conferences, and you see their reporters on TV, and they’re completely skewed toward the occupiers. You would say, ‘These people are part of the occupation forces.’ And that’s exactly what we’re doing there.

So even people who think they can remain independent — they can’t. When you’re riding around with people, and you’re being shot at, and your life depends on them shooting back successfully, there’s no way you can remain objective.

So the pitch here is: Whether you love me or hate me, I go in with my own mind, and I’m not beholden to anyone. Except the fine supporters of Kickstarter.

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