(This case study was written by Luis Gomez in 2015.)
When you ask for just $5,000 to crowdfund your journalism project but end up getting more than $13,000, you’re definitely doing something right.
And that’s what happened last month, when the nonprofit TucsonSentinel.com raised $13,648 from 215 backers in a Kickstarter campaign to photograph the entire Arizona-Mexico border. Two challenge goals resulting in $3,000 in matching donations helped the news nonprofit reach that goal.
In fact, the sum is much higher than that, all thanks to a $1,000 donation from a donor outside Kickstarter.
Under Kickstarter’s all-or-nothing policy, campaigns must hit 100 percent of their goals by a given deadline or they receive nothing. Impressively, the site reached 100 percent of its $5,000 goal in the first two weeks, said editor and publisher Dylan Smith.
While much of its support came from Tucson residents and people directly concerned about border issues, the “magic of the Internet has led people from all over to back us: the UK, Australia, etc.,” Smith said.
Given that the news nonprofit managed to score more than double its asking amount, the lessons it learned in pulling it off could prove valuable to those looking to fund their own journalism ventures.
For one thing, TucsonSentinel.com’s secret ingredient was simplicity. Its project boiled down to this: Take at least one photo of every single mile of the Arizona-Mexico border.
“We worked to focus it just on this particular project—not that it won’t have benefits for the rest of our work,” Smith said. Just asking people to “give us money so we can go report on the border and stuff” would be too vague to catch people’s interest.”
“We’ve had this project in the works for a long time,” he said, “and it seemed to be a great peg for a Kickstarter campaign. It’s finite and focused, has broad appeal, generates concrete rewards that are directly related—we’re not offering stickers or T-shirts—and is something that only we are crazy enough to tackle.”
Even then, it didn’t come easy. It took a lot of hard work—and some mistakes.
The Kickstarter project required more than a year of planning and some preparatory reporting, Smith said. Much of that was supported by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
“Our biggest mistake was launching with a long title—your URL on Kickstarter is generated from that on launch, so we’ve got an unwieldy address,” he said.
But while URLs can’t be changed, titles can. For anyone who wants to try it out, he advises launching a campaign with a short, punchy title, so you get a concise URL. Then immediately change the title (not the URL) to anything you want, with particular emphasis on keywords.
If you feel brave enough to launch a Kickstarter campaign for your journalism project, Smith has the following advice:
Having a Kickstarter is by no means a “set it and forget it” prospect. “It’s work and requires a steady stream of promotion, responding to potential backers who have questions, and keeping the Kickstarter page updated.”
Do not put all eggs in one basket. Nearly three-fourths of the support for the project thus far has come from backers who found it in places other than the Kickstarter site itself, he said. “Counting on people to just run across you on that website won’t cut it—you’ve got to get out and promote the project and have enough of an existing base which you can draw from.”
Offer tangible rewards. “TucsonSentinel.com plans to publish both paperback and hardback copies of a book stemming from their work, as well as offering photographs from the project,” he said. “Many of the rewards offer an experience, rather than something you can hold in your hand. Some backers will have dinner with the reporting team, others can play “editor for the day” while having input on which photos make the cut for publication, and three high-level backers will have the opportunity to fly along as the border is documented from the air.”
Even with a low ask, prepare to go big. “While many of those who contributed would likely have supported the project regardless, having a compelling case to make for a higher level of donations was helpful,” he said. “We explained how we’d be able to expand the project, and spurred more backers with matches for hitting a monetary goal and a donor count — along with sweetening the rewards a bit for nearly everyone.
One final note. The project was originally backed with a $3,500 grant by the Fund for Investigative Journalism, and Smith said “support from a respected funder may have prompted more people to back the Kickstarter, or to do it at a higher level.”
“Rather than being a completely unknown startup, having a track record and having other reputable organizations backing the project couldn’t have hurt, at least,” he added.
All of the reporting for the project will be made available for free on TucsonSentinel.com’s website.