A short guide to crowdfunding journalism

Seven lessons from our world record breaking campaign with De Correspondent

In the spring of 2013, we raised 1.7M dollars with a crowdfunding campaign for our Dutch journalism platform De Correspondent. Two years later, we still receive invitations from conferences, students and journalists to talk about how we did it.

We feel flattered by these requests. Yet we’re way too busy with our current challenges to honor them all. Our goal of growing our member base to 50,000 requires all our attention.

But De Correspondent wouldn’t exist without our 18,933 crowdfunding backers. That’s why we wrote this guide to journalism crowdfunding. In the hope it might even inspire you to start your own campaign.

1. Don’t ask what the crowd can do for you, ask what you can do for the crowd

‘Save journalism jobs’, ‘help us to create good journalism’, ‘the world needs great reporters’. You might recognize some of these slogans from other journalism crowdfunding projects. They’re all about the journalists’ problems.

We chose not to talk about our problems, but rather about we could solve their problems. That’s why we made a promise to our future readers. Because to be honest: hardly anyone knows what you mean by ‘good journalism’. ‘Don’t all journalists want that?’ And most people also don’t really care you need ‘more time’ to write these stories. They care about the story itself. People are much more interested in hearing how you can help them.

So we told our audience that we wanted to start a publication that would serve as their daily antidote to the hypes of the day. A publication that ignores what happens only today and focuses instead on the things that happen every day. We promised our readers that we’d help them understand the world around them better.

That’s what they signed up for. Not saving our jobs.

2. Find the right ambassadors

A ‘daily antidote to the hypes of the day’ — or any promise to your readers — can still sound abstract. That’s why it helps to find the right ambassadors for your campaign. Journalists that are known for the kind of journalism you want to provide. We asked a Dutch documentary maker — who we can best describe as the ‘Dutch Louis Theroux’ — to join us. Because people might not know what you mean with ‘good journalism’, but they do recognize good journalists. If they want to see more work that’s like your ambassador’s, they’ll back your project.

3. Start a movement, not a publication

We don’t think our backers felt like they bought a product. They joined a movement. One that doesn’t depend on the rules of the news industry. For example: we promised our readers that we’d be an advertisement-free publication. Banning ads from our site helps us to stay independent. We don’t need a travel or career section, just because advertisers like those. We don’t need to hunt for page views. We don’t have to compete with huge social networks for ad budgets. And most importantly: we don’t have to turn our members into a ‘target group’.

Readers realized we were completely dependent on their support. They also realized that we only had to answer to their needs, instead of those of advertisers. To stress this point even further, we also promised to always invest 95 percent of the revenue in the company — thus making it a worthless company for investor firms. In our movement, money is only a means to an end.

That’s also the reason why we built our own crowdfunding platform. Existing platforms focused on the money raised. We wanted a tool that highlighted the number of backers, instead of euros.

The original crowdfunding site. Notice the focus on members (the left counter). By the way, we have a new logo now.

So crowdfunding in journalism is not so much about ‘selling’ a product, but much more about ‘growing a community’. That makes it important to focus on aspects that strengthen the feeling of belonging to a movement, rather than on ‘offering the best deal’. People who back journalism projects aren’t in it for ‘a deal’; they’re in it because they want to support something they deem important.

4. Don’t worry about the final product (just yet)

When we launched the crowdfunding campaign, we had no idea what our future site would look like. We didn’t even have a full editorial staff yet. Before starting the campaign, we sometimes worried about this, but we soon found out that people didn’t mind. They believed in our ideas and trusted the ambassadors’ names and that was enough for them to invest.

The lesson here: you need to worry less about the final product than you’d expect. People back you for your mission. You should worry about delivering on that broader mission first. Questions like ‘on what CMS are we going to work?’ come later.

5. Pick perks that fit your mission

Even though he’s our creative director, Harald Dunnink didn’t want classic crowdfunding perks like t-shirts and coffee mugs to be part of our campaign. ‘Before you know it, we’re more concerned with printing shirts than with building our platform.’ Boy, was he right. After the crowdfunding campaign, we needed every minute of the day for hiring staff, finding an office and developing our site. God forbid we had also needed to run a t-shirt brand.

We offered perks that served our mission. So we gave away books of our ambassadors and access to two member events to people who donated more than the minimum of 60 euros.

One of the nights we organized for our backers. Photo: Janus van den Eijnden

6. Manage expectations from day one

During the campaign — which ran from March 18th, 2013 to April 18th, 2013, we promised to launch our publication in September 2013.

We kept our promise, we launched on September 30th.

One of the most stressful things between April and September was managing the expectations of anyone involved. Everyone couldn’t wait to launch. Every time we updated our backers about progress being made, some would say: ‘please, just launch’. And when the Snowden leaks surfaced in the news in June, all our correspondent Data and Surveillance wanted, was to cover it. But his publication wasn’t live yet. He still starts to grunt when you bring this up.

Launching earlier than September seemed next to impossible though. We had to build the platform, design the whole site, plough through 1,800 job applications and find office-space. We hardly made the September 30th deadline. Throughout the process, we kept updating our backers on our progress, just to show them we weren’t a lazy bunch of journalists.

The lesson here: be realistic about when you’ll launch and manage expectations from day one. Your motto should be: better late than sorry.

7. Think beyond the crowdfund campaign

When we reached our original goal of 15,000 backers after eight days, we were euphoric. Champagne flowed. When the campaign ended 20 days later and 18,933 people had joined the movement, we were still celebrating.

But the next morning, despite all the congratulatory messages in our inbox, we started worrying.

Our backers invested a minimum of 60 euros. In return, they’d get full access to the site for one year. We’d start counting from the day the site launched. When the year ended, we wouldn’t automatically renew their membership.

So that basically meant that after year one, we would need to convince all our backers to stick with us. This thought would trouble our minds throughout the year.

So let’s see crowdfunding for what it is: just a kickstart. An incredibly good one, sure, but before kicking off the campaign, think about how you’ll turn it into a sustainable business.

8. Keep your backers updated

All our backers have a ‘pioneer’ badge on their profiles. We have over 33,000 paying members now, but the 18,933 members of the first hour will always have a special place in our hearts.

When the first year ended, we needed to convince them to manually renew their membership. To help them making that decision, we published four year reports:

  1. Our journalistic impact, written by our editor in chief
  2. Our 50 best articles, curated by our editor in chief
  3. Our biggest mistakes and lessons learned, written by our deputy editor in chief
  4. A piece chart of how we spent the 60 euros:

Infographic designed by our co-founding partner Momkai

Before this renewal campaign, we calculated that we needed a renewal rate of 50 percent. We’re still incredibly glad (and relieved) that in the end, 60 percent renewed their membership.

Epilogue

We now have 33,000 paying members, 24 people on FT staff and still feel like we’re on an incredible and thrilling journey. A journey we owe to the crowdfunding campaign and the 18,933 pioneers who supported us. We’re eternally grateful and wish you the same crowdfunding success.

Good luck!

Did this post didn’t answer all your questions? Please reach out to me on Twitter (@ejpfauth) and I’ll add the answer to this post.

We have plans for international expansion in the coming years. Want to stay updated? Subscribe to our mailing list here.

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