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April 10 2011

17:36

Collective, Non-Profit Investigative Journalism Takes Spotlight at Logan

BERKELEY, CALIF. -- I am back at Day 2 at the 5th Annual Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium, a gathering of the top investigative journalists and thinkers at University of California at Berkeley. Day 1 coverage is here, including an appearance by Skype by Julian Assange. Day 2 is shorter, but more focused on new models of journalism, including "collective work" and non-profit journalism.

Collective Work

Carrie Lovano, UC Berkeley: We are in a huge period of transition. The Guardian wants to do stories that will engage readers and make them take action. We wanted to get a technologist in here to talk about these things. Matt McAlister is an early adopter of social media, and will talk about what the Guardian is doing with open technology

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Matt McAlister, head of technology at Guardian, former Yahoo and Industry Standard: It's about the network and the platform. I'm going to talk about business stuff, which is unusual for this event. I have trouble separating content from business and they all have to move toward a common purpose. Everyone understands that an open, collaborative approach is how we all should go.

What we've failed to do is make the open, connected model of journalism work. In that space, there's new thinking like Google Android, Twitter, Facebook and even Wikipedia. The Daily will feel even further behind.

We've been doing live blogs for awhile, and they've been hugely successful for us. The sports guys really worked this out, telling stories minute-by-minute -- we call them "Minute-By-Minutes" not live blogs. They do it in a Twitter-like way but Twitter has limits to it, and our website doesn't have limits. The protests in the Middle East were perfect for this. We realized it had to be in Arabic too, so we took people away from their jobs to translate for us, and we got some translation services. Collaboration was necessary for us to do our job.

If all of this was behind the pay wall, how could we have the same effect?

Slide shows comparison of Rupert Murdoch and The Daily as being closed, with Ev Williams of Twitter being open:

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For the Times UK, they had very British experts on their site, and for the Times, that's OK, because those are the people who are paying for their site.

Q: Your correspondent mentioned that the advantage you had was being open and in Arabic, but how did you verify things?

McAlister: I wish I knew, I didn't have insight into the editorial process for that.

Q: Were you translating Arabic into English too, so both audiences could understand? Not just text, but video too?

McAlister: Yes, we translated both ways, and we did translate Twitter feeds, or we would post on our live-blog a Twitter feed in Arabic and translate it into English. They would do a screen capture of a tweet and put it in the live blog and the translator would translate that in a caption.

Q: How do you manage your Twitter feeds?

McAlister: We use Twitter much much more than Facebook, but our structure is very loose. Our reporters might use Twitter in very imaginative ways. We have guidelines for using Twitter but we don't have a commitment to using it one way or the other. The downside is that people don't always do the same thing, but it lets people invent new ways of using them.

During the G-20 protests in London, a newsstand worker was pushed down to the ground by the police and had a heart attack. The police report seemed unsatisfactory, and Paul Lewis our reporter put out a call asking if anyone was there. Someone had taken a video of it, and found out we were looking for it via Twitter, and sent it to us in a secure way. It's a fantastic story about how you can pull in sources with social media.

Another case, there was a man who died on a plane and he asked for photos or images, and he got a plane list of passengers and started tweeting them, and found people who were on the plane. He started a network of people, and someone was killed on the plane, and the police covered it up.

More Examples at Guardian

McAlister: The MP expense reports from UK Parliament - There are different ways to tell that story. The Telegraph did their analysis of this big pile of data. We took PDFs and put them on the website, we're talking hundreds of thousands of documents. We made a game of it, asking people to find things and let us know. There were buttons to say something was interesting or not. It happened again for a second year.

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Some lessons from it: The problem with the first one was our progress bar showing all the documents people had looked at. People wondered what happened to all the other documents, plus it was just too much, overwhelming. So we broke down the data, so people could find expenses relevant to your own MP.

Your user name was ranked, among all the other readers. You could compare and contrast. Another case was when the Dept. of Treasury spending was put online. We had our engineers work on it, and asked other software/journalist types to come to our office to work it out. We used open source tools to build something dead simple to find things. We spent 3 or 4 days with eight developers total to build this database. Anyone could put it into Excel, and it took about 5 minutes before people found things. It was fascinating.

One person asked why we spend 100,000 pounds on flag waving? We immediately put that out and asked the question -- we got an unsatisfying answer, but at least we got an answer.

We publish things on Google Docs without licensing it at all. We set up a group on Flickr and sent out a tweet about it and have all these people doing storytelling around our data projects.

Another big initiative is our Open Platform at the Guardian. There are a million or so articles that you can post in full using this toolset. It's been great for building mobile apps, but the intent was for partners to use our stuff. One example is that we got this Wordpress plug-in, a Guardian plug-in that looks like a news feed right in your Wordpress blog. And you see an ad in the article as it's syndicated.

We also created a timeline of social media reactions during a World Cup game, so you could relive the game in a different way.

Q: What about the trust at the Guardian?

McAlister: It's hugely helpful for letting us experiment, and it's there in perpetuity. Collaboration with other partners who have these tools is step one. There are hack days out there. If you have a developer, you might get more out of them from hack days than having them finish whatever they're working on it.

The State of Non-Profit Investigative Journalism

Moderator: Charles Lewis, Investigative Reporting Workshop

Panel: Robert Rosenthal, Raney Aronson-Rath, Calvin Sims, Richard Tofel, Mc Nelly Torres, Gary Bostwick, Margaret Drain.

Charles Lewis: About a third of newspaper newsrooms have disappeared and the number of PR people doubled. This is not good. In a social revolution, many journalists started non-profit outfits, by rank and file reporters. Many were frustrated with the owners of their news organizations. This group, who never ran anything, became entrepreneurs, which is astonishing.

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We looked at 60 groups, some new some not so new. OpenSecrets, TRACK, sites that were never considered investigative reporting sites, but should be. We created a database with all these sites. Of these sites, 40 started in the past few years. And there are many outside the U.S. and we'll be looking at them as well. Total operating budget was $85 million, and half of them won awards.

One thing we must bear in mind is that non-profit journalism is not new. The Associated Press did work more than a century ago, and NPR has been around since 1970 and it's the only news organization to double its audience in the past 10 years. We all know about the Guardian, which has done more innovative work than any other newspaper in the world. The non-profits have more time to do more serious work, and that's why ProPublica has won awards recently, and the Center for Public Integrity won IRE awards, too.

My Investigative Reporting Workshop is the biggest one at a university. We did Bank Tracker, putting all the data online with MSNBC, and there have been millions of page views, a lot of traffic. Using technology, multimedia, and Kat Aaron is the project editor for a 40-year look at what's happened with employment and workers in America, with a special website. It's a multi-million-dollar project.

It's getting blurry out there. For-profits are asking for memberships and donations, and ProPublica has ads. The non-profit space is changing basically every hour.

Q: Is there hope for PBS?

Margaret Drain of WGBH: We don't have a trust, but should have a trust. When I first came to PBS, I came to WGBH, which is the largest producer of content for PBS. I have quite a large portfolio of projects and shows. Early on, I found out we had to do fundraising, to raise several million dollars, because PBS didn't give us enough money. We had to produce content and do fundraising.

We get between 20% to 100% funding from PBS for our shows. It's generally about 40% for each show.

I was not very optimistic about the future of PBS, and then I got an email from someone at Capitol Hill and heard we weren't going to get cut for fiscal 2011, but there's still 2012. The problem that PBS faces is the blurring between commercial and non-commercial broadcasting. I think we need to protect the non-commercial part of broadcasting. And it's all in the perception. We do take ads on our websites because monetization is an issue, but we don't want commercialization to foul our nest.

Why have PBS? Everyone's got out of investigative journalism. It's very difficult to get my head around this. We need help from big donors, but where we're going to forming trusts based around genres. We've started the Frontline Investigative Journalism Trust. The other is a documentary film fund and another is for science and "Nova." And we'd like to recruit donors who have interest.

We also have the digital side to fund, and curation to do. We are dependent on the kindness of Congress but can't depend on that.

Robert Rosenthal, Center for Investigative Reporting: We are charging for our content. We put out a series this week, On Shaky Ground, and I estimate the audience we will reach in California will be 8 million to 10 million people. Distribution with ethnic media, broadcast, radio, newspapers and even 100+ Patch.com websites, as well as PBS Newshour and KQED. It's a tremendous audience and the feedback we've had from the audience is remarkable.

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That cost us, as a 19-month investigation that cost $750,000, and our revenue is about $40,000 to $50,000. Some of our funders have great rapport with us others don't talk much to us. We have advertising on our site but our goal isn't to be a destination website. It's incredibly complicated to measure distribution. We put out a children's coloring book. It wasn't my idea but it's been very successful. We're not charging for it. We are at the center of innovation and collaboration but I can't sit here and say it's sustainable.

Sharon Tiller came back to do video for us at CIR. There's also a mobile app to find fault lines in California.

Raney Aronson-Rath, Frontline: We don't see corporate funding as being a big part of our funding. We are in a huge period of reinvention, just went to a full-year of programming. We got a big grant from the Logans, so we want to thank them. We're a legacy series, we have a look and feel and do investigative reporting. We're increasingly looking at going to more multimedia and doing more on the iPad -- and not just to put video there. What we want to do is have a more vibrant offering in the digital space.

We hired Andrew Golis from Yahoo and before that TPM. We want to add more materials on our website, more addendum material. We want to do things in that space that are as strong editorially as on broadcast. It's a big transition for us. We're focused less on our website and more on our tablet and digital spaces. So people can hold the iPad in their hands and have more of a multimedia experience.

So what does collaboration look like right now? It's getting hard-hitting investigative work in all our reports. So we have to rely on more people, because we only have a handful of producers. So we work with ProPublica and CIR and others. It's an exciting era now for us. We hired a new managing editor who comes from a big-time newspaper and believes in narrative journalism.

Calvin Sims, Ford Foundation: We have historically been big funders of investigative reporting, and we'll continue in that space. We are a social justice organization, and things that affect minorities and poor all over the world. We don't fund advocacy journalism because we think the public that supports strong journalism will take action. How do we decide what to fund?

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We just announced a $50 million initiative for documentary funds, and we'll continue to fund the sector of public media and journalism, but we want to think more like a venture capital fund. We're looking for big influence and impact. More importantly we want to know if your content advances the public discussion on a topic, are you reaching an influential audience and how do you quantify that impact?

We want to bet on people who are going to still be around.

Richard Tofel, ProPublica: We're making enormous progress in sustainability. Ads and sponsorships are part of it, money from partners is part of it. We've had some interesting experiences with Kindle Singles, but philanthropy is how these non-profits are sustained. Smaller donors can be a very important part too. But do people see the need? That's why I'm optimistic. There's been a market failure in producing high value journalism that's crucial to democratic governments. They need to be funded as public good.

I'm very optimistic and think we've made enormous progress in 4 years since we launched at ProPulica.

Mc Nelly Torres, Florida Center for Investigative Reporting: We are doing OK. We decided to focus on Florida for fundraising. There are a lot of groups, but we don't want to have to reinvent the wheel. There are so many groups competing for funds from national groups like the Ford Foundation. We don't have a person dedicated to raise money. I'm raising money, and I also write stories. We just won our first national award. [applause]

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Our website is growing, we are getting 60% more traffic on our site each month. All the mainstream newspapers are all my clients, you have to think that way. You need to have many sources of revenue, and think about ways to experiment with it. But the sky is the limit. The passion here is investigative journalism an we are providing something that has virtually disappeared from mainstream outlets. I'd rather spend my time in Florida and raise money there than waste my time and energy elsewhere where I'm competing with ProPublicas and others.

Gary Bostwick, Bostwick & Jassy LLP, part of legal support network for non-profit outlets: I was here a few years ago talking about this, it's amazing to see Chuck Lewis detail all the people doing it now. I am thrilled to hear everything from people on the panel, including CIR and everyone else. You're not going to be different in who will attack you as if you were a mainstream news organization. We are trained as lawyers to look out for issues. We want you to get your content on the air, but we won't always say yes, and we don't always say no. We usually say, "yes, but..." You are not in a risk-free environment.

I give constant education to clients who don't have a strong journalism background.

So why not get a group policy to cover CIR, ProPublica and all these groups for libel lawsuits? I just started thinking about that. I planted a small land mine out in the courtyard, but the chances of you stepping on it are small. I am trying to avoid the small risk of a cataclysmic disaster. We all do it because we believe in you and we want this to succeed.

**Q: Is there an issue with undercutting the price of doing commercial journalism?

Rosenthal: I think it's something we think about, many people in commercial journalism are now working in non-profit journalism. But we're talking about investigative journalism, and there's so much less of that now, and I think we have to keep it going. I wish it wasn't that way, but I've seen downsizing in commercial journalism. Our sustainability is whether we are having an effect on society, that's what fuels us.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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February 22 2011

14:00

Help Spot.Us Find a Path to Financial Sustainability

Spot.Us recently launched a new design, so this is an opportune time to write a "State of the Spot" post -- something we haven't done since the website was six months old. I hope to lay out how far we've come and what's on our plate and make a call to arms to the Spot.Us community and anyone else interested in the future of journalism.

In the two years since our site has launched, we've funded over 160 projects with the help of 5,000 contributors, a fifth of whom contributed more than once. We've done this in collaboration with 95 organizations, and our reporting projects have won eight journalism awards.

In short, we're making a difference. Whether it's funding FOIA requests, exposing the lies of a sheriff, or providing a deeper understanding of those less fortunate in our society, the stories we fund make a difference.

I earnestly believe in the power of an informed democracy. The guiding principle at Spot.Us is to make the process of journalism more transparent and participatory -- not merely to inform but to engage. Our site is a testament to the notion that people can take ownership over their information needs if there is a platform to support it.

Partnerships make our impact bigger. Take Oakland Local, for example, which has invested $700 into Spot.Us pitches and received $7,000 worth of reporting in return. Whether it's Mother Jones, The UpTake, WitnessLA or the myriad news organizations (many of them non-profit or community-based) we've collaborated with, our collective efforts allow stories to gain a wider audience, and we empower partnering organizations to do the fearless reporting that our communities need.

Room for Improvement

With all that said, I'm not satisfied. As Clay Shirky noted, our communities can become rife with "casual endemic corruption" if we don't figure out how to keep the public informed and engaged. The Spot.Us platform can and will improve to continue this fight.

Our redesign is an example of forward momentum, and now it's time to tackle the next hurdle: How can Spot.Us become a fully sustainable organization and increase the number of stories we support? Although 2011 looks to be promising, I'm already taking time to look to 2012 and beyond.

Running a startup organization means making choices. This is my attempt to explain to the Spot.Us community, journalists, and others who follow us what choices I'm debating, what obstacles we're facing, and to ask for your advice.

One of the biggest Spot.Us. opportunities is its unique sponsorship model. I've written about this at length before -- from announcing the idea to launching it to seeing early success. As far as I know, we are the only media organization experimenting with the idea of letting the public manage our advertising budget. It's our budget, but your decision. In many ways, this idea is as revolutionary as Spot.Us itself. Community members can fund a story without spending any of their own funds. Meanwhile, sponsors get meaningful engagement from community members, which can turn into tangible return on investment. Our advertising is transparent, participatory and therefore jibes with the mission of Spot.Us to get the public involved in the process of journalism. We are just acknowledging that advertising is part of that process.

Our sponsorship feature has created an important revenue stream for Spot.Us. At the moment, however, it doesn't offset our burn rate. The challenge is getting enough sponsors when we have no sales team (my spare time doesn't really count). We also need to find the right sponsorships which will engage community members so they continue to come back. This is compounded because our model is unique. I haven't found a media planning and buying agency to take it on, even though I'm offering a higher-than-normal commission.

How You Can Help

Tackling this challenge is one of the things I'm working on during a good chunk of my remaining time at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. Any help from a community member on the below action items would be greatly appreciated:

  1. Join Spot.Us and try our latest sponsored survey (free credits) and give me feedback on the experience. Take the challenge of doing the next three sponsorships we have planned (the next one will be sponsored by us to get feedback on how to better sell these).
  2. Help create the sales material for our sponsorship model -- maybe even find an individual or agency to take on the process of selling for a commission.

  3. Draft a long-term business plan with a road map for how Spot.Us would have to scale to become sustainable.
  4. Write a handbook for community-funded reporting, which would be a gift to the larger journalism community.
  5. And finally -- an A.P.I. with PRX, ASAP.

The Nitty Gritty

Allow me to elaborate. First, in regards to the material to sell sponsorships, our current sponsorship page doesn't do the concept justice. I can talk almost anyone's ear off about this model. We have some data about our users, but it hasn't been presented in any kind of media kit. Hopefully, a media planning/buying agency or an independent ad-sales person could use this material. I'm comfortable sharing a healthy commission, but we should provide them with the best sales material possible.

If you are an ad salesperson interested in working on an innovative project, let me know. If you want to contribute some pro-bono time to help us create the material, your karma will increase 13.6 points!

Up next is a business plan that shows a path to sustainability. I've played with some numbers and believe it's wholly possible if Spot.Us can grow its sponsorship model. It's a bit of a supply-demand issue. If we get more sponsorships (supply), I believe we can support more pitches and increase the number of surveys taken (demand). If either side falls short, we fail. At the moment, our demand is much higher than the supply. If somehow tomorrow we got our ideal number of sponsorships, I am not sure if we could hit the demand numbers, but I do believe these numbers are possible by 2012 with the right messaging and if the sponsorships are coming in regularly. The supply-demand conundrum is a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario. If one side doesn't come through, the circle of life won't continue, and Spot.Us lets one side down.

The business plan I intend to lay out will show what numbers we'd need to hit on both sides to reach a sustainable equilibrium, one that funds stories, provides sponsors with an appropriate amount of engagement and leaves Spot.Us as a strong forward-leaning non-profit.

The community-funded reporting handbook is being led by Jonathan Peters, under my supervision. The handbook will be informed by Spot.Us experiences, but my hope is that it becomes a resource for anyone, regardless of a relationship to Spot.Us.

In regards to the application programing interface, it's important to remember that Spot.Us is not a news site but a news platform. In that same vein, we don't have to be a destination site. If partnering sites can use our back-end to fundraise for projects on their sites, then more power to them. But first we have a few technical hurdles to overcome.

Luckily, PRX is a willing guinea pig I mean, partner. ;) If we are able to create a seamless A.P.I. that integrates into a site, we can scale up the number of pitches (demand) Spot.Us has in its stables whenever we get a new sponsor. In some respects, this turns Spot.Us into a 21st-century advertising network in addition to inviting the public to support journalism.

So what now?

Obviously, we don't have a shortage of things to do. I remain encouraged both by the journalism community that supports our work and the public at large that has shown it supports quality reporting -- stories that need to be told, stories that can make a difference in the lives of individuals and the communities we live in.

Although that is exciting, I remain humbled and don't want to lose sight of what is at risk.

In the 1985 film "Brewster's Millions," Richard Pryor's character spends millions of dollars designing a room he could "die in." The designer goes through various iterations, each time getting closer and closer to the goal but never hitting the nail on the head. Eventually, the designer gets it right. This happens just as we find out the main character is broke, and an army of movers come to collect all the furnishings.

Aside from being one of my favorite comedians, Pryor, with the tip of his hat, touches on one of my biggest fears with Spot.Us. This new redesign leaves the site looking awesome. All the pieces are on the table, and the puzzle is coming together and beginning to show a beautiful image of a community-powered site. If Spot.Us isn't able to reach this dream, it would pain my heart, but I feel I could tip my hat in just the same way. Still, I feel we have a dragon by the tail and the tools in hand to bring it down.

Why I'm Sharing This

  1. Spot.Us as an experiment has always been about openness. As the journalism industry rants and raves about experimentation, I still don't see it happening, at least not at the level I think is possible. The more I can show what I'm doing -- the success, challenges, failures, and fears -- the more I hope others will follow, even if it's not "the industry" but rather lone and brave individuals. The water is fine, and I truly believe it is what we need.

  2. Somewhat selfishly, I think there are ways the Spot.Us community can help push us forward, especially with finding sponsors. Our current sales material is all here (it'll get better, promise), and we do offer a commission to anyone who lands a sponsor. I'm happy to give anyone the talking points.

  3. A similar plea is for any folks who want to dive into the numbers with me and come up with a long-term business plan and a proposal for funding. How I feel about the foundation world is a post in itself. Suffice it to say, it takes money to make money, and any funding we seek would have to abide by the old proverb of teaching people how to fish rather than giving them free meals. Again, we have a tangible revenue stream, but we need to shore up. As a non-profit, we can't get VC funding -- unless it's the kind the Texas Tribune gets), so we'd have to look to philanthropists.

I certainly can't predict what will happen. I never could. But that's what makes this an exciting ride and what I believe empowers the Spot.Us community. We've come this far only because you see value in our efforts. Together, we've funded meaningful stories in partnership with nearly 100 publications. I'm happy to say that I've seen many of them make a real impact in how our communities function.

I'm excited to tackle the future. I hope you'll be there with me


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.

October 25 2010

18:25

5 Ways to Improve the Non-Profit Journalism Hub

The Voice of San Diego, one of the oldest of the new guard of non-profit news orgs that have been popping up, has teamed up with some academics from San Diego State University to launch The Hub, a handy database of information about non-profit community news organizations. If you're looking to start your own non-profit news org or want to learn more about what's already out there, this is the place to start. 

Megan Garber over at NiemanLab has a detailed rundown on the who's and what's involved.


I'm a big fan of things that solve problems, and The Hub clearly does that. Voice of San Diego CEO Scott Lewis told Garber the site was created in response to "many, many occasions in which VOSD execs and editors found themselves fielding requests for consulting and advice from people hoping to start their own non-profit news sites."

I spent some time cruising around and think it shows a lot of promise. I've also got five ideas for how it could be made even better and more useful.

Inside The Hub

The piece that I'm most interested in is the simple directory of existing non-profit news orgs that The Hub has put into motion. This is a great idea. Structured directories are almost always awesome. The Hub's directory is pretty simple, currently listing just 13 organizations that qualify as non-profit, community-based news organizations. All the big players you usually read about in stories are there: New Haven Independent, Texas Tribune, Bay Citizen, etc. Each profile page includes a quick rundown on the org's background and then a short Q and A with someone from the organization answering basic questions about its goals and origins.

It might not sound like much, but this is really useful stuff for people looking to learn more about this area. That said, there are a few ways these profiles could be improved on to make the site as a whole much more useful:

  1. More structured data -- I'd love to see The Hub focus more on structured data over narrative. The interviews I read were fairly interesting, but the ability to take in all the important details about an organization at a glance is more valuable than the ability to read a Q & A that may or may not contain the same information. What I'd love to see would be for The Hub to borrow a page from CrunchBase in how all the data is structured and links to clickable search results. An emphasis on getting more structured data would be a bigger win than getting more narrative info on these profile pages.
  2. Funding information -- The biggest piece of structured data missing is the funding for each organization. As a reader, I want to know how much funding each news org has received so far and what the source of it is. From my own reading, I know that there's a vast disparity in funding levels between some of these organizations. Visitors need to be able to see this at a glance so they can put the rest of the information into the proper context.
  3. Rundown on key personnel -- Similarly, the structured data for each news org should include the names of the top editors and the publisher of each organization. These pages could link to "people" pages on The Hub, or they could just link out to LinkedIn profiles or Twitter accounts. Either way, people will want to know who's in charge at these news orgs so they can get a better sense of what they're doing and how they're doing it.
  4. Subscriber/follower counts for social media accounts -- The Hub's profile pages helpfully link out to the social media accounts for each news organization. What they don't tell you, however, is how many followers that news organization has right now. This might seem like a small thing, but it could actually be very useful information if acquired automatically. It would be great to be able to rank non-profit news orgs based on how many followers they have on Twitter, or by number of fans on Facebook, for example.
  5. Info on how freelancers can pitch them and how interested parties can support them -- My final suggestion would be for The Hub's profile pages to prominently include information aimed at freelancers looking to learn more about how to pitch non-profit news organizations and for fans and avid readers looking for how to support these new enterprises and their work. These are two use cases I think will be pretty common among visitors to The Hub and they don't appear to be addressed specifically on the profile pages.

The Hub is a useful project off to a great start. People working on the edges of journalism need more projects like these that give shape and voice to what's happening in the field. I look forward to seeing how this develops.

June 07 2010

23:36

Barnett: Advocacy, Membership Groups to Push Non-Profit News

The erosion of the traditional business model for news has led many to go down the non-profit path. The result is a slew of new non-profit news websites. The Bay Citizen, which launched at the end of May, is the newest and joins the likes of ProPublica, MinnPost, and the Texas Tribune, to name just a few. But as the closing of the non-profit Chi-Town Daily News last year indicates, running a non-profit isn't easy.

Perhaps no one understands this as well as Jim Barnett. After almost two decades as a newspaper reporter, Barnett threw his efforts into launching his own non-profit news service in 2005. Managing a non-profit proved to be a major challenge and Barnett realized he'd need some new skills in order to be successful in this space. These days, he's pursuing a masters in non-profit management at George Washington University, working as an in-house adviser to AARP's publications group and doing some editing for the Washington Post News Service at night. He's also been expanding on his academic work on his blog, The Nonprofit Road, and more recently on Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab blog.

I spoke with Barnett to examine the outlook for non-profit journalism, the government's role in the future of news, quality indicators for good non-profit news sources, and more.

Q&A

You've been blogging about non-profit journalism since 2009. You're pursuing a non-profit management degree at GW and you even tried to launch your own journalism non-profit. It's fair to say you're pretty invested in the model. Are you concerned that the activity in the non-profit journalism space will slow down at all because of the drop in newspaper layoffs? How do you think non-profit journalism will evolve over the next five years?

Jim Barnett: While it is true that the bloodletting of the past couple of years has created a huge talent pool for non-profit startups, I think the model really is riding its own trajectory. What now seems like a flurry of interest I think is actually the result of a longer-term trend that I think will continue as the economy recovers and the newspaper industry stabilizes.

I think the recent uptick of interest in the non-profit model can be traced to events in 2004, as it was becoming painfully apparent to many in the news business that the newspaper model would not translate simply or easily into the digital age.

One was Louisiana State University's March 2004 symposium, "News in the Public Interest: A Free and Subsidized Press," which attracted thought leaders. The non-profit model was a major topic of discussion, and it soon began gaining traction within journalism circles.

In November 2004, Columbia Journalism Review published an essay by Phil Meyer of UNC-Chapel Hill entitled "Saving Journalism." In it, Meyer talked about the non-profit model as a way 'to keep the spirit and tradition of socially responsible journalism alive until it finds a home in some new media form whose nature we can only guess at today.'

After a lot of talk that year, things really started taking off. In 2005, the Voice of San Diego was launched. Two years later came ProPublica and MinnPost. Today, there are many more, small and large. And now, other non-profits that do advocacy and education are exploring how they can use the tools of journalism to help fill the void.

How will the non-profit model evolve over the next five years? I don't think anybody can say with any degree of certainty. We're in a period of great experimentation, and much will be up to luck and circumstance. But when you think about how much has happened since 2004, I do think it is clear that the sector has achieved a critical mass that will carry it for years to come.

I will risk two general predictions. I think you'll see a lot more advocacy non-profits (think Human Rights Watch or American Red Cross) doing more to fill the void in traditional journalism. And I think you'll see more journalism sponsored by membership groups (think Council on Foreign Relations) and online communities (Spot.Us) that function like membership groups in many ways.

You're no stranger to criticism of non-profit journalism. Do you believe the model has its limits or is it journalism's silver bullet?

Barnett: It's by no means a silver bullet. I'm always very careful to say that the non-profit model is an answer, not the answer. But the non-profit model is especially useful in certain areas, such as public affairs reporting from D.C. and state capitals that have been abandoned by many newspapers but that we need to function as a society.

This is not a new revelation. I like to remind people that the non-profit sector in journalism dates to 1846 when a group of New York newspapers formed a cooperative to cover the Mexican-American War. That cooperative serves us now as the non-profit Associated Press, and the economic forces that made it a good idea then remain in force today.

Is there anything non-profit journalism does better than traditional newspaper journalism in its heyday?

Barnett: That remains to be seen. But I do think the non-profit model does as good a job as any of matching newspapers' ability to take risks, throwing reporters and resources at a story without any promise of financial return. In most for-profit models of the digital age, news stories must serve two masters: Each must meet the standards of journalistic inquiry and each must carry some share of the freight by generating online advertising revenue. In the non-profit model, the case for philanthropy can be built around the pursuit of objective journalism without the same pressure to generate immediate readership and revenue.

You've written about the Newspaper Revitalization Act and the FCC's Future of Media project. What role should the government play in the future of journalism?


Barnett: First, we need to separate the concepts of journalism and the media -- in this case, newspapers -- that deliver it. I'm not a huge fan of the Cardin bill because it attempts to give newspapers -- not necessarily journalism -- a special place in line for government help. I think government creates problems in any industry when it starts picking favorites, no matter how noble the cause. If newspaper publishers really want to operate under non-profit status, they can do so under existing law. But the real problem is the economics: Publishers must serve shareholders first, and they generally do better by continuing to cut costs (read: news staff) even if they lose circulation and quality. The Cardin bill does nothing to reverse the newspaper death spiral.

Do you think public subsidies, such as the ones suggested by Robert McChesney and journalist John Nichols, are a good idea?


Barnett: Whether one thinks subsidies are good or bad, they are a fact of life for any major media enterprise. Earlier this year, David Westphal and Geoffrey Cowan at USC released a masterful report showing the pervasiveness of government subsidies to news media of all kinds, and they argued that this is exactly how the Founding Fathers intended it. I think their report enlightens the debate immensely. To oppose subsidies on principle is a bit like the health care reform protestor last July demanding, "Keep your government hands off my Medicare!" But what level or what form any subsidy should take is way beyond my little realm of expertise.

With so many different journalism non-profits sprouting up, earlier this year you blogged about the need for a 'Good Housekeeping seal of approval' for non-profit journalism and outlined some ideas for criteria. You said you'd be doing additional research on this and that it would be a topic of discussion at the We Media conference. So we're following up, any new insights?


Barnett: I've wrapped up my research and am working on a post for the Nieman Journalism Lab that I hope to publish soon. The question I tried to tackle was this: 'What steps can non-profits take if they want to be legitimate news providers?' There are some great examples out there, and not all come directly from within boundaries of traditional journalism. Some advocacy non-profits such as Human Rights Watch establish legitimacy as fact-finders and align their case for philanthropy with that mission. Other non-profits such as the American Red Cross use the tools of journalism as a means of accountability and transparency to donors. Stay tuned, my post should go live this week.

What's next for you? Any plans to expand your role in the non-profit journalism world?

Barnett: One thing's for sure -- I'll be wrapping up my academic career next year when I get my master's from GW. Beyond that, I hope to apply some of the things I've learned to my day job as a strategic analyst at AARP. We put out some high-quality publications, and I think we have a lot to contribute at a time of great change in the news business.

*****

What role do you see non-profit news organizations playing in the future of the press? Share your thoughts in the comments.

A writer, reporter and media consultant, Jaclyn Schiff is up at the crack of dawn to tackle the headlines of the day for her job at the non-profit Kaiser Health News. When she should be catching up on sleep, she can usually be found updating her Twitter feed or Tumblr blog, MEDIA Schiff (pun intended). Schiff covers non-profit news for MediaShift.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

May 12 2010

15:36

Columbia Journalism Review: Can the new non-profits last?

Columbia Journalism Review has an insightful feature up on the United States’ burgeoning non-profit journalism industry. Writer Jill Drew looks at the unusual practices that separate organisations like California Watch from traditional newsrooms, and whether the philanthropic donations and other smaller revenue streams on which they rely can sustain the groundbreaking work being done.

The editors agreed; this was big. But then the conversation veered in a direction unfamiliar to traditional newsrooms. Instead of planning how to get the story published before word of it leaked, the excited editors started throwing out ideas for how they could share Johnson’s reporting with a large array of competitive news outlets across the state and around the country. No one would get a scoop; rather, every outlet would run the story at around the same time, customized to resonate with its audience, be they newspaper subscribers, Web readers, television viewers, or radio listeners.

Full story at this link…

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April 30 2010

16:34

Donors, non-profit journalism and new investigative models

The second session at the New Journalism, New Ethics? conference at UW Madison looked at the ethical issues in creating and operating non-profit investigative newsrooms.

The session was based on a report, “Ethics for the New Investigative Newsroom” (PDF). The report looked at issues such as who is an acceptable donor and how to safeguard editorial independence.

The director for Center for Journalism Ethics at UW-Madison, Stephen Ward, introduced the session by providing a broad overview of the challenges, such as the relationships with donors.

“The take-home message was that you have to defend the integrity of the journalism,” he stressed. While these issues have existed for years, Ward said they are forming in new and different ways.

Andy Hall followed up with his experience as executive director and reporter at non-profit start-up Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

So far, most of its $350,000 funding has come from large, out of state groups. But Hall questioned about what issues might arise when seeking funds from local donors, who might also be the focus of investigations.

The Center already lists the identity of its donors and will be posting its fund-raising policy on its website.

Hall said the Center had decided not to accept money from political officials or parties, or from people whose reputation could harm it integrity.

Transparency and credibility

Brant Houston of the Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois followed up by stressing the importance of transparency on funding and spending.

This was key to the credibility of a journalism non-profit.

Houston talked about being transparent not just about where the money was coming from, but also what you were spending your money on.

He also raised the issue of government funding, noting that many media organisations outside the US take official funding and yet feel able to criticise the government.

View from foundations

Carol Toussaint,  foundation executive and member of non-profit boards, Madison, Wisconsin, offered a different perspective.

She looked at it from the viewpoint of foundations, explaining how funders have been providing funds for years and have their own best practices.

Foundations see themselves as change agents, said Toussaint, similar to journalism non-profits. She urged journalists to talk to foundations and get to know them.

But she cautioned about taking too much from one donor.

Back to credibility

The view from the journalism practitioner came from Martin Kaiser, editor and senior vice president, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Kaiser recalled how when he started in journalism, it was a one-way street. He talked about how the news landscape had become increasingly fractured and politicised.

He also stressed the importance of credibility.

“The credibility of the news room and what we’re putting out have never been more important,” he said.

April 24 2010

17:26

Insight into non-profit journalism in the US

The wealth of knowledge at the International Symposium on Online Journalism continued with a session on non-profit journalism, with examples from across the US.

First up, Scott Lewis, CEO of Voice of San Diego. He started by talking about the bundled model of the newspaper, which obviously changed with the internet.

But, said Lewis, the unbundling of information meant you have to go to it, rather than have it come to you.

The relevance for Voice of San Diego is producing something that people want to include in their online bundle of information.

Lewis said they realised early on that they cannot duplicate and be something that somebody else is already doing. This thinking applied to story decisions, and making choices about not covering a story unless they can do it better.

Initially, its mission focused on producing investigative journalism for San Diego. But now, said Lewis, they are transitioning to the second part of their mission – to increase civic participation by giving people the knowledge they need to be involved in society.

The site is a non-profit but still needs to raise funding. This comes from donations from loyal users, philanthropists, corporate memberships and for profit distribution of content.

The site currently has 1,080 people who have given money and it hopes to convert 10,000 users to donors by 2013.

Lewis cited recently launched initiatives in partnership with NBC on issues in San Diego. This helps market the site, but also bring in revenue

And mostly important, said Lewis, they try to keep down costs by not inventing technology, but incorporating existing technology.

Filling the gap in Chicago

Jim O’Shea, co-founder and editor, Chicago News Cooperative explained the site was set up to fill the news gap in the city. It currently has a full-time staff of six reporters and freelancers, with a basic website for now.

To launch, the site received $500,000 from the MacArthur Foundation and a contract with the New York Times for providing news from Chicago.

The business model for the non-profit is based on providing journalistic services, philanthropy and sponsorship, some ad revenue and, most importantly, said O’Shea, membership fees. The site asks members to pay $2 a week and get a range of services.

But O’Shea acknowledged that getting between 30,000 to 40,000 members to make the site self-sustaining can be a challenge.

“Money is, and remains, our major challenge to stability,” he said.

Saving public journalism

Another local start-up is Texas Tribune, launched last November because “public service journalism needed saving,” said Evan Smith, CEO and editor.

The site raised $4m dollars in 2009, and so far this year has raised more than $720,000. The average donation from its 1,600 members is $96, with more than 60 major donors.

The budget for the site is just above $2m a year.

The aim is to address a decline in the coverage of statewide issues in Texas. The problems in Texas are bigger, said Smith.

The start-up also aims to tackle a decline in political engagement, particularly among the young. And, said Smith, the media is becoming an echo chamber of partisan politics.

Above all, the profit model “will not pay for public interest journalism,” he stressed.

25 weeks since launch, the site has had more than 3.8 million page views, more than 1 million visits, with 40% of the traffic from outside of Texas. The site hit a million page views in March.

In terms of Texan traffic, a third come from Austin, a third from other large Texan cities and a third from the rest of Texas.

The most popular section are the data pages, getting two and a half time the traffic of the story pages.

Smith said the site’s success was due to:

  • hiring veteran and experienced journalists
  • focusing on data as journalism
  • organising events supported by corporate partners
  • take revenue from a variety of sources
  • content partnerships to distribute the journalism
  • tight focus, in the Tribune’s case, public policy in Texas

The three sites are strong examples of the non-profit wave in the US. What was not addressed in this panel is whether this is very much a US model and whether it could be adopted in countries which do not have the same philanthropic tradition.

Perhaps a discussion for next year’s symposium?

April 20 2010

16:05

WikiLeaks, Bay Citizen, and Lessons from the Logan Symposium

Over the past two days, I had the pleasure of attending the 4th Annual Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium. If you want a blow-by-blow account, check out the live blogs from Day 1 and Day 2.

Now that I've had a chance to catch my breath, I want to reflect on what I heard (and what I didn't hear).

For the most part, the gathering was flat out inspiring. The folks here are doing the hardcore, courageous investigative journalism that takes on powerful interests, asks vital questions, and in many cases puts their finances, their safety, and their health on the line.

This is also the stuff that's most at risk as business models collapse, as newsrooms cut staff, and audiences fragment. At times, as I listened to many of the elder statesmen of journalism recount war stories, I felt like I was being taken in a time machine back to a recent age that has long since ended. If you saw the movie "State of Play," which was in fact the theme of the symposium this year, then you might have some sense of what I mean.

And yet, here were many of these same folks gamely trying to chart a new course. There wasn't much hand-wringing about the problems (as in past Logan Symposiums). But there also wasn't much consensus on how to move things forward.

Non-Profits Sustainable?

On a Saturday panel about collaboration, everyone agreed that there should be more. And thanks to organizations like ProPublica, there is. Throughout the weekend, there was a heavy representation of non-profit news organizations that didn't exist even a year or two earlier. Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of these models, I take it as a positive sign that people are moving past the talking phase and into the doing phase.

Jonathan Weber, the new editor of the Bay Citizen, the non-profit news organization being developed in San Francisco, said the reason people like him (who had previously been critical of the non-profit model) were coming around to this model was simple: There is no private capital available from investors to fund organizations that will primarily pay journalists. There's money for things like aggregation, but not journalism.

But as well as ProPublica has done so far, it's still never going to plug all the holes at the national level, and it doesn't pretend it will. What concerns me more is the lack of resources at the local level. In theory, organizations like Bay Citizen will start to plug some holes there, but what I heard from that corner left me more concerned about the direction of the nascent organization.

We heard from two representatives from Bay Citizen: Weber on Sunday, and CEO Lisa Frazier on Saturday. For all the time they had on stage, I still couldn't tell you exactly what it is, or what it aims to be. And for the most part, Weber and Frazier either couldn't, or wouldn't, say. For an organization that at some point is going to be asking for public support and donations, I expected more transparency in order to build confidence and trust.

Frazier, facing some tough questions from Slate's Jack Shafer, couldn't say anything about what the organization's strategy was for grassroots fundraising, or why Weber had changed his mind about non-profits. ("You can ask him tomorrow. He'll be here tomorrow morning," she said to Shafer.) And when Shafer asked why he should donate money to the Bay Citizen, she rattled off some statistics about the number of journalism jobs lost and reduction in content. But there was no sense of what the organization's core mission was. She still sounded more like a McKinsey consultant rather than a visionary leader of a revolutionary news organization.

Weber shed a bit more light on things Sunday -- but only just a little. They won't be using students from the Graduate School of Journalism at UC-Berkeley as slave labor. There will be some paid internships. They will develop some investigative projects and innovative journalism projects through classes at the school. And of course, the Bay Citizen will produce two days of local content for the New York Times.

But what stories will they cover with their 15 employees? How will they be presented beyond the New York Times? Weber said we'll just have to wait and see once they get started. I found that attitude a bit baffling. If he were building a for-profit enterprise, sure, keep your secrets. But as a non-profit that will be seeking collaborations and donations, it would seem wise to be sharing the process and communicating a vision and purpose as soon as possible. Or perhaps the vision hasn't been clarified yet.

WikiLeaks Founder: A Journalism Anarchist

If there was one big surprise for me, it came on Day 2 with the appearance of Julian Assange of WikiLeaks. Assange took us behind the operations of WikiLeaks. He was tough and passionate. I didn't necessarily agree with everything he said. And there will no doubt be times in the coming months and years, as WikiLeaks pushes the boundaries, that they will do things that will cause wide-ranging discussions about ethics in this new age.

But meeting Assange left me assured that WikiLeaks is being led by someone who is thoughtful, visionary, and yes, a journalist. "Leaking information is an act of anarchy," Assange said.

The good news is that Assange is taking a measured and responsible approach, rather than coming off as a zealot. For instance, he acknowledged that at first he hoped that by putting everything they got online, the crowd would help filter things, discover what was legit or not. "It's bullshit," he said. Now, WikiLeaks employees and volunteers vet information and sources before posting information.

WikiLeaks has structured its organization and its technology to be located in many jurisdictions so it can dodge the worst legal threats. Essentially, WikiLeaks is trying to use the tricks multi-national corporations use to avoid taxes and regulation to protect themselves.

"We built the organization from the ground up to be un-sue-able," he said.

It was a good way to end the weekend, hearing from a thoughtful journalism anarchist. It left us with a taste of the way new technology could in fact be a catalyst for new and powerful forms of investigative journalism.

Chris O'Brien is a business and technology columnist at the San Jose Mercury News where he has covered Silicon Valley for 10 years. He was also a recipient of a Knight Foundation News Challenge Grant in 2007 to research and design the newsroom of the future.

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March 25 2010

15:15

Nieman Journalism Lab: For-profit model can’t support investigative journalism, says Len Downie

From Nieman, former Washington Post executive editor and Centre for Investigative Reporting board member Len Downie claims that the for-profit model can no longer support the kinds of investigative journalism that society needs. Journalists must instead embrace a variety of new economic models, he says. Downie also questions the sustainability of the non-profit organisations that have launched in recent years:

That leads to the other big question of sustainability: it’s not clear that all the non-profits that have launched in recent years will survive. “How many will succeed and for how long?” Downie wondered. A related question: how will the collaborative model settle out, and where will non-profits find productive niches?

Full post at this link…

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December 18 2009

21:00

Activist-Journalists Bring Citizen, Pro Media Together at COP15

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK -- This past Saturday, on a crisp afternoon in Copenhagen, Jacob Wheeler and Rick Fuentes, two amateur journalists with the non-profit media start-up the UpTake, walked alongside a mostly peacefully stream of demonstrators. Roughly half of the total police force in Denmark followed in step. Conspicuous among the crowd were the hundreds of ad hoc reporters with serious-looking digital SLRs slung around their necks.

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The demonstration was for COP15, the United Nations climate change talks in Copenhagen the past two weeks. For 10 days, more than 3,000 accredited media and countless numbers of unaccredited bloggers and NGO delegates have gathered in Denmark to report on the event.

After pushing through the thousands of people packed into the main square, Wheeler and Fuentes emerged at the head of the march. Holding a tiny Canon high-definition camera and microphone in his ungloved hands, Wheeler was cheerfully ready for anything. Though he's a professional writer, camera work was new for him.

"When I write I have to be specific," he said. "Today I'm not being specific. I just want a panoramic of what's happening." Wheeler, who lived in Denmark at one point, ended up providing an informed perspective about what was going on in the streets.

A couple hours into the march, Wheeler passed a woman with bleached blonde hair, orange snowpants and a bouquet of fake flowers who was cruising along on roller-skates. She turned out to be a kind of citizen journalist herself, producing video footage for her "TV station," which turned out to be a YouTube channel she operated with her boyfriend. Their video camera was secured on a small black bicycle trailer and pulled by a friend.

Wheeler shot several minutes of tape as the woman spoke in English mixed with Spanish and Danish about covering refugee camps. "Those are nice flowers," he told her at one point. The woman smiled and showed a microphone hidden in the bouquet.

"That was great!" Wheeler said after breaking away to find his next interview subject.

The UpTake Takes Off

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The UpTake rose to prominence 16 months ago during the Republican National Convention. Protestors clashed with the police in the streets of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and the UpTake's camera-wielding reporters were there to broadcast in real time.

"When things started happening on the streets, which no one fully expected, we were ready to go live with it," said Jason Barnett, the UpTake's founder and executive director. The UpTake was founded because, as Barnett explained, there was an opportunity to provide footage that no one else would have.

It was citizen journalism at its newest and rawest -- a classic example of a nimble group of camera-wielding documentarians infiltrating areas traditional media either couldn't access or didn't have the resources to cover.

Today, the UpTake illustrates how multi-platform groups are redefining relationships between traditional news, citizen journalist groups and a more nebulous, broader and influential group of what you might call activist-journalists. Most are liberal -- and proud of it. As Barnett says of the UpTake, "We've never tried to hide our progressive background."

Unique Alliances

COP15 helped inspire unique alliances between NGOs, citizen journalist groups like the UpTake, and established publications such as the Nation, Grist and Mother Jones. Now these journalists are working with the groups they once reported on. These partnerships are as intertwined and intricate as a circuit board on the UN-issued Sony Ericsson phones so many of the press and delegates were loaned for the 10 days in Denmark. The UpTake, for instance, is part of the U.S.-based the Media Consortium, a coalition that includes Salon, Mother Jones and the Nation.

Conservative groups tend to try to control the message of independents more, some suggest, which makes guerilla-style reporting difficult. Though Barnett points out that, as a non-partisan organization, the UpTake's training is open to anyone.

These alliances are mutually beneficial. News outlets don't have the resources they once did, especially for international and investigative reporting. Then there are independent journalists who find themselves as lone correspondents with no editorial backup or multimedia support. NGOs, meanwhile, have the mass mobilization ability to spread large amounts of information quickly.

The UpTake only received a third of the funding it wanted from non-profit foundations in order to cover the story, so could only send four people to Copenhagen: its executive director, executive producer, a writer-turned-impromptu videographer, and a one-time CBS reporter now working at a public relations firm.

When it came to COP15, "the idea was to go in with a unified voice [in collaboration] with traditional media," said Barnett. If the Nation needs a video to post on its site, the UpTake's got its back. If writer Naomi Klein needs a transcript from an interview, the UpTake will email it. And if the UpTake needs access to big names, they can call on their accredited partners. As the Nation noted in its December 21 issue, the goal was to create wall-to-wall coverage" of the event.

Hear the UpTake's Jason Barnett talk about media biases and his agenda -- or lack thereof:

Press Center for the Unofficial Press

For their part, traditional media -- Reuters, BBC and Agence France-Presse, for starters -- were cloistered in rented white offices at the Bella Center. Groups such as the UpTake, meanwhile, formed their own headquarters. Tcktcktck, an NGO, commandeered The Huset, an expansive bunker-style café, as a home for independent media and bloggers. Dubbed the Fresh Air Center, organizers described it as a "rapid response digital media hub." (This story was partly written from The Huset.)

One omnipresent figure there was Richard Graves, a 20-something television producer who founded Fired Up Media and Project Survival Media, a citizen journalist program that trains environmental campaigners to tell local stories about climate change. He was hired by Tcktcktck to lead its media offerings. (His official title is blogger and online campaigner.)

Hear Tcktcktck's online campaigner Richard Graves talk about how many journalists became activists:

Working 18-hour days and already looking exhausted by Day 3 of the convention, Graves performed his activist duties (a term he dislikes) to cross-post Tcktcktck pieces on Huffington Post. Then, switching into his journalist role, he wrote a feature for Grist.

"It was created for people who wanted to get involved, who care about the issue, but are sometimes locked out of process," Graves said of the Fresh Air Center. "You need professional accreditation from an NGO even to get in the door [at COP15]. We wanted to give a way for independent journalists [to participate] who might not be recognized by UN, which has incredibly stringent rules for online journalists."

Hear Graves on how activists are filling the investigative shoes that some traditional media have stepped out of:

Back on the streets of Copenhagen during Saturday's demonstration, the UpTake's Wheeler pushed on into the night after Fuentes headed back to a rented apartment to upload footage from the first few hours.

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At one point, Wheeler chased down a rumor that Danish fashion model Helena Christensen was participating in the demonstration. When he finally packed it in, Wheeler had hours of footage of an event that was dominating world media. He headed back to his own apartment to upload the footage for all of the UpTake's media partners -- Mother Jones, the Nation, Tcktcktck -- so they could distribute it out via the networks buzzing throughout the city and beyond.

Photos of the protests are by niOS via Flickr.

Craille Maguire Gillies is an award-winning writer. A former editor at the travel magazine enRoute and the online magazine Unlimited, her work has appeared in the Globe And Mail and Canadian Geographic. Follow her on Twitter at @Craille.

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11:53

‘A non-profit is a business as well,’ says mySociety’s senior developer

Francis Irving, senior developer at mySociety – an organisation that runs some of the biggest democracy projects in the UK – has shared some of his thoughts about online transparency and citizen collaboration in a Q&A for Journalism.co.uk’s news:rewired site.

What advice would he give to people going down the non-profit publishing route, we asked. Irving answers:

A non-profit is a business as well – it still has to make a surplus, it is just that that surplus is used to do more of the charitable work, rather than as personal profit.

I would advise people to go one of two ways – either have some good ideas for business models from the start (take a look at Patient Opinion for an example) or work out how to run it entirely on philanthropic donations and volunteer work.

It’s going to be as hard to start a sustainably funded non-profit as it is to start a successful for-profit business.

Francis Irving will be talking at Journalism.co.uk’s digital journalism event news:rewired, 14 January 2010.

Tickets still available at this link…

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December 01 2009

15:54

The Challenge for Non-Profit News Organizations

Non-profit status is often cited as an exciting new option for struggling local news outlets. ProPublica, MinnPost, and the Voice of San Diego are inspiring examples of non-profit startups, while the Christian Science Monitor, NPR and other organizations are all long-standing examples. It's not difficult to see that old and young non-profit platforms alike are among the leaders in news innovation.

I agree that there are many upsides to the non-profit path, but it also carries significant management risk. The business environment of non-profits is often deeply misunderstood, even by the managers of tax-exempt companies themselves. More worrisome, boards are frequently ill-equipped to understand the strategic or operational specifics of non-profits, or even unable to read the peculiarities of their balance sheets. (Board Source is a great place to go for those looking to help their boards through some of these challenges.)

For news outlets, non-profit status would eliminate some of the negative pressures of shareholders looking for high margins at the expense of the essential role of news as social glue in a community. But while they don't have a mandate to generate shareholder value, non-profits do have a mandate to deliver measurable social value. Non-profit status is not a pass on the imperative to innovate, no matter how noble your cause, nor how deep your moral certitude.

To fulfill the responsibility that comes with their tax-free status, non-profit news outlets must fight to prove their measurable worth to society. If they fail, and many will, the creative destruction of the social market should sweep them away to make room for new rising social entrepreneurs to take their place.

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