(See also the series overview for this Hotspot on civic crowdfunding.)
It’s not news that the online press is having a hard time figuring out how to pay for itself. Although revenue from online and mobile ads is up, they generate only about a tenth of what print ads have historically brought in, and news organizations are small players in online advertising marketplaces dominated by companies like Google and Facebook. Some newspapers (about 400 out of 1,350 in the U.S.) are attempting to recreate their print subscription revenue by restricting some content behind pay walls – but such subscriber models have historically provided a relatively small fraction of a newspaper or magazine’s revenue stream, they can be circumvented, and some organizations have taken them down.
Such difficulties are part of the reason that some news organizations are experimenting with new forms of revenue beyond traditional advertising and subscription. For example:
- the Banyan Project is based on a co-op ownership model, with “readers owning local news co-ops the way shoppers own food co-ops and depositors own credit unions”;
- BuzzFeed is controversially creating advertiser-sponsored content by, it claims, transforming user generated content;
- the AP is selling sponsored tweets, printing news on restaurant receipts, leading an effort to collect licensing fees from online aggregators;
- the LA Times brands its subscription model as a “membership program” that provides “retail discounts, deals and giveaways, as well as access to digital news”;
- the New York Times gives you special access to its online content, as long as you’re connected to a Starbucks wifi network;
- some freelancers are starting to reject the idea that they should work for free in exchange for online exposure and participate in alternative marketplaces;
- and some news organizations that were once dependent on philanthropies and foundations are weaning themselves off the money.
And amidst all this experimentation, there is an emerging trend in which news organizations are using crowdfunding (a particular flavor of crowdsourced activity focused on participatory revenue generation) to pay for journalists and content. Some news organizations are using Kickstarter to fund their reporters (helped by some highly visible supporters) while others are using Kickstarter-like sites that focus on funding individual news stories and beats. The exemplar in this latter space is Spot.us (a site for journalists to pitch stories and receive funding from visitors), but there is also newer players emerging like Emphas.is (a site for crowdfunding visual journalism), and Newsfunders.org (a site focused on funding “overlooked communities and issues”).
There’s an emerging academic literature on novel forms of online news funding finding, for example, that: news readers “react negatively to paying for previously free content” (but are willing to do so if the reasons focus on notions of fairness); that foundation funding can influence the kind of innovation possible within online news; that readers see crowdfunded news as successful when the can see where their money is going and influence its distribution; and that crowdfunded journalists consider donors investors whose expectations need to be met.
Largely absent from this literature, though, are studies and critiques how visibility works in crowded funded news. What kind of marketing strategies work best in attracting attention needed for crowd-funding news? How do both donors and grantees cultivate reputations that work—or don’t work—in news crowdfunding, and how do such reputational economies differ from other crowdfunding domains? How do donors and grantees make appeals to notions of news’s democratic or public sphere functions as they garner attention for their projects and communicate their funding aims? What patterns, if any, exist in the kind of stories, beats, individuals, or organizations funded through such sites? Normatively, what rationales might motivate a redistribution of these funds toward people, ideas, and projects that might be garnering less attention? These and other questions might help us better understand the values and patterns underlying online news crowdfunding.
As news organizations continue to experiment with funding, they will continue to experiment with crowdsourcing. The challenge for journalism scholars is to critique these experiments – to understand their dynamics of visibility, and ask what meaning such crowdfunded visibility has for the press’s public functions.
<< back to the series overview for this Hotspot on civic crowdfunding