Why The New York Times teamed up with Kickstarter

The New York Times greeted visitors to its site homepage on Tuesday with “Strike,” a brief documentary about amateur bowler Bill Fong shooting for three consecutive perfect games. But the video didn’t come from the NYT’s in-house video team; instead, it was the work of Joey Daoud, a 27-year-old documentary filmmaker whom the Times found through crowdfunding site Kickstarter.

Expect more the same. Earlier this week, the Times announced a partnership with Kickstarter, which is providing the media company access to its community of filmmakers. The Times already has posted six short documentaries to its new “Made With Kickstarter” video section, with plans to feature one film on its homepage and YouTube channel each week. The content alliance represents a strategic shift for the Times, as it opens itself further to outside contributors in an effort to drive video viewership and grow its audience.

“The idea came about when we were kicking around ways to bring some outside voices to the Times, specifically to Times video, in a way that is scalable and high-quality,” said Kareem Ahmed, growth strategy editor for video at The New York Times. “When we said Kickstarter, it really sounded like a perfect collaborator, because they have an audience that is extremely passionate about Kickstarter, highly intellectual and curious, and really open to new ideas.”

The partnership will continue beyond this first slate of films, which includes documentaries on Ecuadorian ice merchants, a 690-mile yard sale, and a Harlem mother who lost her son to gun violence and is working toward safer streets. All six films in the first round are under 30 minutes. For two, the Times deal represents an online debut.

“There are so many talented filmmakers out there that just bring a unique voice and a different perspective to content,” said Ahmed. “These are stories that people are passionate about that they have decided to pursue on their own. … And they get our global audience watching their films.”

The Times isn’t paying Kickstarter or the filmmakers for access to their documentaries, according to Ahmed, but the paper is serving pre-roll ads against the content from advertisers including Acura, Cartier and Bank of America. The films will remain on the New York Times site in perpetuity, according to a company spokesperson, though the filmmakers retain full ownership of their work. They can upload or sell the films anywhere they please.

“Not getting a licensing fee or ad share was my biggest hesitation to agreeing to the project,” said Daoud, director of “Strike.” “But I didn’t make a short documentary to make money. Its primary goal was to showcase my work as a filmmaker, so the Times deal was a no-brainer.”

Both The Times and Kickstarter will promote the “Made With Kickstarter” docs on Twitter and Facebook, according to Ahmed. The New York Times has 15.7 million Twitter followers and 9.4 million Facebook likes on its primary social accounts; Kickstarter has nearly a million Twitter followers and 1.1 million Facebook likes.

Since each documentary has been funded (at least in part) on Kickstarter, they all have passionate backers who liked them enough to open up their wallets. In other words, these films have been market tested.

“Both The New York Times and Kickstarter understand that the real value of a crowdfunding campaign isn’t in its ability to raise money for a cause but to build a dedicated movement of adoring fans and early adopters,” said Dan Pacheco, chair of journalism innovation at Syracuse University.

For the Times, the Kickstarter pact is “a smart move, opening the funnel of creative content without sacrificing editorial oversight,” said Bernard Gershon, president of media consultancy GershonMedia. “It may not drive huge traffic but it’s high-quality [content] that should command premium CPMs.”

Kickstarter benefits, too, by associating itself with a renowned media brand. The crowdfunding site already has a partnership in place with Apple’s iTunes, which has a section for Kickstarter-funded films, but exposure on the Times is particularly valuable marketing, given the affluence and demographic makeup of its audience.

“The Times audience is ready to engage and potentially Kickstart things,” said Rebecca Lieb, a media analyst at The Altimeter Group.

While deal represents an expanded editorial scope for the Times, which is allowing content from outside producers on its site, the process is still controlled. In The Times’ opinion pages, the Op-Docs video series, and now the “Made With Kickstarter” series, the media organization retains a tight curatorial grip, carefully sifting through potential entries for both quality and length. The New York Times is not about to become the next Vimeo.

“We’ve seen other brands like Forbes become a blogging platform, open to hordes of people, and really lose a lot of its luster and prestige,” said Lieb. “Forbes has very seriously damaged their brand. I don’t think the Times is going to let that happen.”

Main image courtesy of Andrew Burton / Getty Images News