A Kickstarter for journalism enters the big leagues

Journalism is expensive. As big publishers close bureaus and slash staff, they’re leaving major areas and big issues uncovered. And crowdfunding platform Beacon has been quietly picking up some slack.

While the site — a sort of Kickstarter for journalism — has been largely focused on helping solo writers fund their projects since its launch a year ago, it has more recently entered the big leagues, with mainstream outlets like The Huffington Post and popular niche site TechDirt tapping the platform for funding.

The Huffington Post, for example, used Beacon last month to fund its ongoing coverage of Ferguson, Missouri. Thanks to donations from over 628 backers, The Huffington Post was able to raise over $40,000, which it used to hire a reporter to cover the Ferguson story as it unfolds over the next year. In a similar vein, TechDirt used Beacon to raise $70,000 for its coverage of the net neutrality debate.

“Media outlets swoop in to cover something and as the story fades, they leave,” said Huffington Post bureau chief Ryan Grim. “There is not single publisher that has a bottomless budget. Even Al Jazeera has to make these choices — and they pump money out of the ground.”

Like fellow crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, Beacon lets readers fund journalism projects, giving them a direct stake in the final product and deepening their relationship with the writers they’re paying. The site has been used to fund over 150 projects so far, covering topics ranging from climate change, space exploration and the history of the prison system.

Nearly 250 writers have signed up for the site since its launch, a big increase over the 28 it launched with. The money has been good, too: Beacon has shelled out $500,000 to its writers so far. (Beacon makes its own money by taking a share of project funds).

“We’re all about offering an alternative to the ad-supported content model,” said Beacon co-founder Dan Fletcher. “Ads support content, but only content that’s generally relevant to a very broad audience. There’s a premium put on page views, and as a result a premium put on content that generates page views.”

All of that is probably obvious to media industry observers, but Fletcher said that the real problem with ad-based content model is that it disincentives publishers to put resources into coverage that few people are likely to read, even if that coverage focuses on important topics. Publishing is still a business, and publishers tend to focus on what takes their resources the furthest.

“The media world has long been in a state of transition, and that’s going to continue for a while,” said TechDirt CEO and founder Mike Masnick. “As part of that, running business model experiments is really important, allowing different publications and sites to figure out what works the best going forward.” Masnick said that while crowdfunding won’t work for all publisher or projects, it’s still a valuable tool.

While Beacon isn’t abandoning its approach to solo writers, it’s clear that working directly with publishers is opening up some new opportunities on both sides.

“The publisher side is a new front for us,” Fletcher said. “We still have to figure out how it all works.”


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