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A Kickstarter tip for journalists from ProPublica: Crowdfunding is a lot of work

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Although it is still far from being a mainstream approach to financing journalism, more media companies are experimenting with crowdfunding through platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, and some are having significant success. Every project is different, however, so it’s always useful to look at some of those that have succeeded and try to learn why — which is why I’m glad that ProPublica is talking about its just-completed campaign to raise funding for an investigative feature into unpaid internships.

ProPublica launched the campaign at the end of May, and set a goal of raising $22,000 by the end of June. The campaign ends on Thursday, but as of mid-day Wednesday it had already exceeded the goal by several thousand dollars, which it had raised from more than 675 individual backers. As the Kickstarter page describes, the site plans to investigate the “emerging intern economy” in the U.S., so it decided to hire an intern to help.

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As with most Kickstarter projects, ProPublica had to come up with different tiers of rewards to offer those who donated to the campaign, so it made some T-shirts and tote bags with the icon of an “Eager Beaver” on it — a graphic that was designed specifically for the intern investigation — and added some special features to try and entice larger bids: one person donated more than $1,000 and now gets to have “a private training workshop on social media and community-building for your organization led by ProPublica’s engagement team.”

Crowdfunding takes a lot of work

That kind of effort reinforces one of the main points that ProPublica made in the blog post about its campaign: namely, that running a crowdfunding project is a lot of work — “close to a full-time job,” as Blair Hickman of the media outlet’s community team put it.

“We sent a minimum of one, if not two project updates via our social media accounts every day. We emailed all of our existing listservs, crafted project updates for our Kickstarter backers and emailed organizations with an interest in the issue asking if they might be willing to share our project with their listservs. In short: Marketing a Kickstarter is a close to full-time job, so make sure to budget the time.”


Some of ProPublica’s other tips included defining the scope of the project that you have in mind as clearly as possible, since as the company points out, one of the biggest hurdles for journalistic entities planning to use crowdfunding is that “campaigns work best for concrete, defined projects – a documentary, another season of a podcast or a new level of a video game. But investigative journalists often don’t know what their reporting will yield.” Focusing on a specific story like internships helped, it said.

Define the project as much as possible

For much the same reason, when National Public Radio decided to crowdfund a project, it picked a specific documentary it wanted to produce about tracking the production of a T-shirt all the way from the cotton fields to the storefront — and wound up raising over $300,000. Other successful journalistic projects include the 99% Invisible podcast and a longform science-writing platform called Matter that was ultimately bought by Medium.

Coming up with creative rewards is also key to getting a good response, Hickman said in her ProPublica post — and in that sense, the lessons from crowdfunding are very similar to the lessons that the company drew from its foray into crowdsourcing when it put together the “Free The Files” project during the election: in order to get as broad a response as possible, members of the crowd who participate have to feel as though they are having fun or being rewarded in some way, however small:

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

It’s probably not surprising that ProPublica and NPR are among the first media organizations to experiment with crowdfunding platforms, since donations from the audience and/or prominent supporters are the foundation of their business model already. It would be nice to see some more traditional media outlets apply some of these lessons to their own crowdfunding experiments.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Christian Scholz

4 Responses to “A Kickstarter tip for journalists from ProPublica: Crowdfunding is a lot of work”

  1. GraemeThickins

    If it’s a fulltime job for an organization trying to raise a modest $22,000, what is it for a startup trying to raise hundreds of thousands for a new product?

  2. David Cohn

    I’m obviously pro-crowdfunding. But there were a few things that bothered me about this endeavor.

    1. ProPublica allows you to make tax-deductible donations on their website. Via Kickstarter it’s not.

    2. With a little ingenuity – they could allow you to make tax-deductible donations on their website earmarked for specific reporting projects (like one about interns) but they did not use this as an opportunity to push those boundaries.

    3. Reasonably one can assume the reason they used Kickstarter was to reach out to a new audience. I have a feeling your average ProPublica reader is not your average Kickstarter user (you can fill in the stereotypes). But at what point does that gimmick get old ie: is this repeatable? (See #2 above).

    4. I think the impetus for this was a Knight Foundation matching challenge grant. That’s enough incentive to get involved in something new. But it is not necc. a genuine embrace of crowdfunding.

  3. purakaiclothing

    Great story, and absolutely true. The project better be your passion. That way it’s a labor of love. My daughter and I launched the “Seed to Organic Shirt” Kickstarter ( a little over a week ago and we’re working hard to promote it.