Part 2 What Works for Crowdfunding Local News
How one local newsroom used crowdfunding to connect with their community and expand their reach.
When it comes to crowdfunding it is usually the record breakers that make news. The largest number of donations, for example, and the highest amount raised. Yet every week hundreds of small projects launch crowdfunding campaigns, and there is much we can learn from their successes and failures too.
That’s why I was excited to talk with the journalism crowdfunding platform Beacon about experimenting to make crowdfunding work for small local news organizations. Local news organizations present unique challenges — their audience is much more limited than national publications, they often can’t tap into national interest in a niche topic, and the smallest organizations don’t have dedicated marketing or outreach staff to run campaigns.
One of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation partner sites, New Brunswick Today, successfully completed its Beacon campaign, raising $15,000 in one month. New Brunswick Today is an amazing five-year-old digital news start-up that publishes in English and Spanish and prints a monthly newspaper. It specializes in great watchdog reporting focused on local government and civic institutions and has built up a loyal community following. As part of its journalism sustainability project, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, offered $5,000 in matching funds and spent $2,000 to hire Beacon staff to coach the New Brunswick Today team on managing the campaign.
Local Passions vs. National Topics
Prior to this campaign, many projects funded on Beacon covered broad topics of national concern, like climate change and net neutrality. Those issues benefit from a large base of passionate advocates and concerned citizens. However, in my interview with Beacon’s Catherine Hollander after the New Brunswick Today campaign, she commented on the deep passion of people for their local news outlet. Hollander usually encourages groups to focus their campaigns on a specific, tangible project, but New Brunswick Today’s team focused their pitch mostly on general support of their reporting. With that funding, they hoped to hire more translators and expand their use of video. Those themes, however, were secondary to a more general appeal for support. Hollander said that the response New Brunswick Today received was a testament to its cultivation of a very loyal community.
Crowdfunding Forces You to Find Your Voice
Like many journalists, staff of New Brunswick Today weren’t used to talking about themselves and promoting their work. But the campaign forced them to explain what they do and why they do it. New Brunswick Today Editor Charlie Kratovil told me, “We needed the crowdfunding campaign to help us find our voice.”
By the end of the campaign, you could see a shift in how staff described their work. “We are working to empower the New Brunswick community to have a voice in the important decisions that affect their lives,” wrote Sean Monahan, the publisher of New Brunswick Today, in an email to Chris Daggett, the president and CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. “Without critical coverage over the activities of decision makers and the powerful, every person feels like an island trapped alone in a raging river. But when we shed light on a story, we can help those islands unite and ultimately change the course of that river.”
Asked if there was one thing they would have done differently, Hollander said that they would have encouraged New Brunswick Today staff to put more of their voice into the fundraising appeals. “The advice I’d give going forward is that news organizations should inject their news personality and voice into the outreach they do during a funding campaign,” Hollander wrote in a follow up email. “One way to do that is to highlight recent coverage or talk about past successes you’re proud of, and to personalize the outreach you do so readers feel like they’re getting to know you — and the people who work in your newsroom — even better during your campaign.”
One way New Brunswick Today did weave the staff’s voice into the campaign was by doing profiles of its freelancers and contributors on Facebook as a way of keeping the crowdfunding campaign front and center.
Six More Lessons for Local Journalism Crowdfunding
- Local Journalists Should Mine Facebook During Crowdfunding Campaigns. Facebook obviously plays an important role in outreach for any crowdfunding campaign. Hollander told me in an email, “The fact that it was so important here was less a surprise than the degree to which it was important. In the case of New Brunswick Today, the conversion rate from Facebook was much higher than average, suggesting that there’s an even larger role for Facebook to play in local campaigns.”
- Two Bursts and a Long Haul. The pace of the New Brunswick Today campaign was typical of many crowdfunding efforts. There was a spike in donations at the start and end of the campaign with a lull in weeks two and three. But those middle weeks are critical for outreach and momentum building. Editor Charlie Kratovil told me “Most of the money comes at that beginning and the end, but a lot of the hard work happens in the middle.”
- Design Your Campaign for Many Funding Levels. When we think of crowdfunding, we often think of lots of little donations. But Beacon staff told me that New Brunswick Today had a bit more high-level donations than many other campaigns. Other news organizations include higher funding levels for local businesses too.
- Pick Up the Phone. New Brunswick Today reached out to people via email, Twitter, Facebook, and more, but both Beacon and New Brunswick Today spoke about the value of phone calls. For New Brunswick Today staff, it was a chance to listen to their community and talk about their work, as well as solicit donations. It also helped motivate people who had already given to spread the word. After the campaign, staff called many of the donors to thank them. (When you don’t have a phone number, other kinds of one-to-one outreach — Facebook chats, for example, and Twitter messages — can be important.)
- Put Your Campaign Everywhere. New Brunswick Today had a prominent box on all its websites, with a strong call to action linking to the crowdfunding campaign for the entire month. Beacon staff said that it was one of the better performing calls to action they had seen, attributing this to its front-and-center position on the website throughout the course of the campaign. It was impossible to visit New Brunswick Today’s website without seeing it.
- Don’t Worry About Over Asking. Don’t be afraid to frequently Tweet, Facebook, and email your fans about the campaign. Crowdfunding is part of our online lives today, and people recognize that campaigns are short and intense. Most successful campaigns share information about the campaigns multiple times a day and send out regular emails. New Brunswick Today saw nearly zero unsubscribes from its email list due to campaign-related appeals. In fact, the editor said that people liked getting the updates about how the campaign was going — they were excited to be supporting the journalism of New Brunswick Today.
There is a final point that Catherine Hollander really drove home to me. “Your readers want to hear from you, and they want to support you,” she said. “But they also want to feel inspired to support you and reminded about why that support is so important.”
The journalists at New Brunswick Today are doing great work, and their crowdfunding campaign helped them expand their reach, hone their marketing, and encourage deeper investment from their community. They grew their subscriber base, people who they stay in touch with on a monthly basis, and have used events to further engage their donors. They also launched Hearken — a community engagement tool — on their site to give the community new ways to participate in the reporting process.
One year after its first crowdfunding campaign, New Brunswick Today launched a new, smaller crowdfunding effort to support bilingual immigration reporting before the 2016 presidential election. The campaign was successful, with many repeat donors who came back to support the organization the second time around.