Crowdfunding the News: Will Readers Open Their Wallets to Support Watchdog Journalism?

Boise Weekly changed things up last month when it launched BW Watchdogs, a crowd-funded investigative reporting segment of the paper. The 22-year-old alt-weekly is asking for monetary contributions from readers to alleviate the costs associated with long-form journalism. The paper says this will allow its reporters to pursue important stories over extended periods of time — ideally, to produce longer and more in-depth coverage of a particular event than other news sources.

To kick off the new crowdfunding effort, Boise Weekly ran an article by news editor George Prentice that examined the death of 19-year-old Idaho native Kelsey Anderson, who was found dead of a gunshot wound at an Air Force base in Guam five months into her Air Force assignment. Anderson’s parents were told that she committed suicide, but after a two-year attempt to uncover the details of her death was met with resistance from the government, they decided to sue the federal government for answers.

The idea for BW Watchdogs “has been brewing for years,” said Sally Freeman, the paper’s publisher. “I wanted to do something more effective to reach those people who have a philosophical belief in what we do.”

Freeman said it became difficult to put out in-depth investigative stories at such a small paper without financial support from the community. Initially, she sent an e-mail to about 45 people in Boise who worked for or supported the paper and pitched the idea. The response was enormous, and the program was launched around a month later.

Fellow AAN paper Arkansas Times also joined the crowdfunding trend in June when it announced a joint campaign with InsideClimateNews to report on the Mayflower oil spill. The following month, the paper unveiled a digital membership plan.

Under the digital membership plan, readers receive 10 blog views per month for free, after which they are asked to pay $9.99 per month for full access to blog content. Editor Lindsey Millar said that the plan was launched only after a University of Missouri survey determined Arkansas Times readers would be willing to pay a monthly fee between $9.99 and $10.99 for access to its digital content.

Like Boise Weekly, the Arkansas Times said it will use some portion of the money to fuel in-depth reporting projects and more comprehensive coverage.

Freeman said that the BW Watchdog money is being added to the general editorial budget and will be used for costs deemed necessary as they arise. Though the readers are now shelling out the cash at both alts, they do not have a say as to what stories their donations fund. As far as the BW Watchdogs is concerned, Freeman said she believes that leaving it up to the paper to allocate the money preserves the integrity of the program.

“Those people [giving money] shouldn’t know what we’re writing about, because then it becomes a conflict of interest,” Freeman said. “I made that clear from the start. And I think they really do get it.”

Zach Hagadone, the editor-in-chief of Boise Weekly, was similarly confident in the structure of the program. “I think anybody who is willing to put money into a fund for investigative journalism is willing to read things they may not agree with,” he said.

As the Nieman Journalism Lab pointed out, the Arkansas Times may be uniquely positioned for success because, as an alternative liberal newspaper in a conservative state, it boasts a highly loyal crop of readers who depend on it for a specific type of content.

Hagadone agreed that crowdfunding may be particularly useful for alternative news outlets.

“It’s really well-suited to the alternative newspaper model,” Hagadone said. “A lot of our readers consider us to be a cause. They are willing to contribute at a higher level than they might at a somewhat faceless media firm.”

Staff at both papers are optimistic about the new crowdfunding ventures. In an e-mail, Millar said the Arkansas Times successfully raised its goal of $27,000 for the Mayflower oil spill project and received an additional $8,000 from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Freeman and Hagadone said they have already received enough funding to run a second Watchdogs feature within the next month. The story will look at an issue at a plant in Twin Falls Idaho that manufactures Greek yogurt. Hagadone said the issue tackled is a national one, and that most of the money used for this project is funding travel.

“If I can do a piece a month and I get enough money to offset those costs, that’s a great success,” Freeman said. “I feel optimistic and like the message is effective. This allows us to tie into our readers on the most important thing we do, which is storytelling and long-form investigative journalism.”

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