News Leadership 3.0

Posts tagged with: Crowdfunding

May 05, 2010

“Toxic Tour” wins SPJ award, shows creative ways to do great journalism

Where does great journalism come from? While established, mainstream news organizations continue to produce great work, the latest crop of SPJ Sigma Delta Chi award winners (announced May 3) included a surprise in the “online” category. The multimedia series Bay Area Toxic Tour: West Oakland was published by the nonprofit online news packager/distributor Newsdesk.org—and crowdfunded by through Spot.us.

How this series came together offers valuable lessons on how high-quality, hard-hitting, hard-to-do local journalism can still happen—despite a lack or resources, or despite that these stories often don’t quite fit comfortably within the traditional news model…

The reporting/editorial team for this project (which was published in several installments May-June 2009) included journalist Kwan Booth, Pulitzer prize-winning photographer Kim Komenich, and editor Josh Wilson of Newsdesk.org.

The purpose of this coverage was to convey what life is like in a city neighborhood where heavy pollution is only one of many daunting daily challenges. This series focused on West Oakland, CA—a low-income, predominantly African-American neighborhood hemmed in by one of the nation’s busiest ports and two major freeways. High asthma rates and other health problems abound due to severe local air pollution.

Special journalistic challenges

“Usually, coverage of public health and the environment in poor urban neighborhoods comes and goes, it’s event-driven,” explained Spot.us founder David Cohn. “But these issues are part of people’s lives day to day, and they need to be covered outside the context of some kind of emergency.”

Booth, who has lived in West Oakland for years, noted that doing this kind of reporting is especially challenging. Often residents of poor, marginalized neighborhoods are often profoundly distrustful of media attention—so the detached, objective approach of traditional mainstream journalism can backfire.

“You have to be very clear about who you’re trying to serve with this kind of journalism—and make sure that you’re actually going to be helpful to the people who live in the community you’re covering. Don’t just exoticize them or put them on display.” said Booth. “I’d been reporting on West Oakland for five or six years—but usually for community organizations with direct ties to that community. Every member of the project team, we all had to be vetted by the community, to prove that we had their best interests at heart.”

Being useful to the community also means going the extra mile on distribution. Realizing that many of the people interviewed for the Toxic Tour have little or no internet access, Booth personally printed the stories that ran online, copied them, and distributed them in packets to key West Oakland residents who’d assisted with the reporting.

How this project evolved

According to Wilson, the Toxic Tour concept arose about a decade earlier, when he and reporter Virgil Porter both worked at the San Francisco Chronicle. “Virgil was bored, so we decided to drive around to take pictures of something interesting. I said, ‘Hey, what about the port?’ So we developed the idea of using journalism to provide a tour of polluted places.”

Wilson added, “The trouble is, it’s very hard to raise money for that kind of ongoing coverage through traditional grantseeking, and it’s hard to get more than an occasional story like that run at a mainstream news organization. We needed a mechanism like Spot.us to be able to connect with individual donors to make this happen.”

Booth and Komenich started work on the project during the fundraising campaign. Eventually about $1800 was raised through a Spot.us pitch and a couple of small fundraiser events, from over 70 donors (mostly individuals, but some organizations).

Spot.us founder David Cohn explained that this project came together differently from other stories pitched through his journalism crowdfunding service. “It was one of our first pitches proposed as a beat, not as a one-off story,” he said. “We kind of jumped out the window and then started making our parachute.”

Wilson elaborated, “The journalists were capable and committed. They started working on this right away, as fundraising was just getting started, without knowing exactly how much they’d get paid. They put out tremendous effort and nobly sacrificed on the pay scale to make this happen. The result is an amazing, rich multimedia series.” (The series includes photos, embedded audio, photo slideshows with audio, interviews, and in-depth reporting.)

Significance of this SPJ award.

SPJ’s coveted Sigma Delta Chi awards provide national recognition and credibility. Wilson hopes to parlay this attention to extend, expand, and fund the Toxic Tour vision.

“This isn’t just a series—it’s a template we hope to replicate,” said Wilson. He, Komenich, and Booth are already hatching plans to expand the Toxic Tour initially to other parts of the Bay Area, most likely starting with the Bayview-Hunters Point section of San Francisco, or Richmond or Pittsburg (cities north of Oakland on the East Bay).

Wilson plans to use Spot.us to help fund the continuing Toxic Tour in the Bay Area, and perhaps in and other Spot.us cities (Los Angeles and Seattle). He also believes the SPJ award will make it easier to convince grantmakers to fund this work at much greater levels.

“I think award will give our existing coverage a longer shelf life, as well as raise the profile of this coverage with potential funders. They’ll see we succeeded in producing great content and having an impact,” said Wilson. “But even on Spot.us, I think that if potential individual donors for an expanded Toxic Tour see that it won a major journalism award, that will make it more appealing for them to donate to the followup.”

Booth emphasized that, especially when you’re courting multiple funding sources, it’s important to clarify the needs of the community. What kind of reporting would help community members improve their neighborhood and their lives?

“It was great that we had so many Spot.us donors, we couldn’t have done this without them. But most of those donors probably do not live in West Oakland. We had to make sure that this story was very useful to people from West Oakland, while also meeting donor expectations. I think the work we’ve produced so far will probably help us gain community trust going forward.”

Asked whether he thought the Toxic Tour award indicated anything about SPJ’s evolving mindset about where good journalism can come from, Booth replied: “I’m not sure how much that evolution is voluntary or out of necessity. I think that as new members keep coming in, SPJ may finally be starting to get past reflexive fears about advocacy and new media.”

Reporters and others who are interested in helping with the Toxic Tour beyond the Bay Area are encouraged to contact Josh Wilson at Newsdesk.org.


(Disclosure: I made a small donation to the Toxic Tour pitch on Spot.us. I also work with Kwan Booth on Oakland Local.) Spot.Us is a winner of the Knight News Challenge of the Knight Foundation, which also funds KDMC.

August 15, 2012

Ad rates, events, and crowdfunding: Community news sites get innovative about revenue

By Amy Gahran

Community news is a challenging business; which is why making money is a key theme at next month’s Block by Block Community New Summit. And there’s growing room for optimism: as Groupon’s business model crumbles, more local advertisers may now be smarter and more willing to work with community news venues.

Here’s a roundup of some ways that community news publishers have diversified their revenue streams beyond display ads and grants…

Recently on the Block by Block resource network website, Sally Duros discussed how hyperlocal sites are rethinking their approach to local online advertising.

According to Duros, some hyperlocal sites are changing how they price and position online ads.

For instance, David Boraks, founder and editor of two hyperlocal sites in North Carolina, discussed how his sites simplified their ad value proposition and pricing by selling all ads across the entire site. Previously they’d offered separate rates for section-specific runs such as ads on the front page, the inside page, the health and fitness page, etc.

“We had four dozen ad slots across the site and about as many prices. It just got so complicated,” Boraks told Duros. “Most advertisers wanted to be on the front page.”

Now Davidson.net and its sister site Cornelius.net sell ads by size and page position, not by section. According to their media kit, “Ads run on every page of the site and will rotate within like ad slots. A minimum of 30,000 impressions guaranteed per month.”

Boraks said their ad are prices are determined by working backward from how much revenue the site needs to earn each month, in order to meet operational expenses. “If we sell 60% of ads on the site then we are at break even. Everything above that is profit and below that we are in the red a little bit,” he told Duros.

Duros also discussed how the Connecticut-based site CTNewsJunkie is taking a different approach, by offering advertisers more premium options—including site takeover, a “big block” 300600 banner slot, geotargeted ads, and exclusive advertising in their e-mail blasts. But like Davidson.net, they also sell ads on a run-of-site basis.

Meanwhile, Nieman Journalism Lab recently covered how Technically Philly (a news startup covering the Philadelphia tech and startup scene) is earning substantial revenue from events and other elements in a diverse revenue strategy:

Technically Philly’s flagship event is Philly Tech Week, an eight-day conference that’s free for tech companies to participate, and for attendees. According to Nieman Journalism Lab, all revenue comes from event sponsors. In April 2012, the second Philly Tech Week drew more than 10,000 attendees—more than double the inaugural 2011 conference.

Technically Philly cofounder Brian Kirk told Nieman that he estimates this year about 40% of their revenue pie will come from events. Consulting will supply a further 40%. And advertising and grants will supply only about 10% each. In contrast, in 2011 events delivered only about 12% of Technically Philly’s revenue.

Technically Philly also partners with local institutions and organizations for this conference, such as Temple University’s new Center for Public Interest Journalism, the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Science Center (which provides lab and office space for local businesses). Several partners provided venues for conference events and other services, in addition to funding.

Technically Philly is a niche site with a geographic slant, which may position it better than more typical hyperlocal community news sites in terms of running events. However, community news publishers might consider partnering with local niche news sites on events. In most cases there’s probably enough common interests and potential mutual benefits to make it worth trying.

Crowdfunding for specific hyperlocal coverage has received mixed results, but it can be a revenue stream worth pursuing. For example, Charlottesville Tomorrow recently ran a successful Kickstarter campaign which slightly exceeded its goal to raise $7000 to fund development of 3D online models to help local residents understand the implications and impact of a planned major highway project.

But crowdfunding isn’t easy. Homicide Watch DC is a community news site that decided to turn to Kickstarter to fund a one-year student reporting lab. Editor Laura Amico recently explained on the Block-by-Block Facebook page what this sort of effort requires:

“It took us about six weeks to get from ‘let’s pitch on Kickstarter’ to having a pitch up. I think it’s a much longer, more involved process than many people realize,” she said. “It took us several rounds of edits (on rewards and the video) to get approval. We tried a Kickstarter campaign to fund our year-in-review package but couldn’t get approval for it, so I went ahead and did the package without funding.

“In short, my advice is this: plan early, plan often, submit early and be prepared to revise. We launched our new campaign at 6:30 p.m. last night and so far have raised $7,581, which is 18% of our goal.”

Mobile: the next revenue frontier. So far few community news sites have experimented with revenue from mobile ads or services, beyond running ads on their mobile sites or apps supplied by networks such as AdMob. There’s ample potential for community publishers to capitalize on the mobile market, and I am currently researching that topic to for my session on mobile monetization in at Block by Block 2012 next month. If you have ideas or examples of mobile revenue options for community publishers, please e-mail me.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The Knight Digital Media Center at USC is a partnership with the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. The Center is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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