Is crowdfunding adding a twist to the newsroom relationship with its backers?

(This case study was written by Luis Gomez in 2014.)

Success stories in journalism crowdfunding offer a telling sign that more and more newsrooms will turn to individual donors as a source of revenue, especially when other sources dry up.

It makes sense, why not ask your audience to chip in? A successful campaign not only raises funds, but helps an audience feel like they really have a stake in a particular organization or story.

Dutch outlet De Correspondent, for example, gives crowdfunding donors exclusive access to its site and it offers them the opportunity to act as expert sources on a specific topic—in essence, value for their money. Last year (2013) it set a journalism crowdfunding record when it raised $1.7 million from 15,000 people.

This departure from the traditional reader-publication relationship raises a question worth considering: How does crowdfunding change the relationship between a journalism organization and its money-backing audience?

When environmental journalism nonprofit The Daily Climate took to Kickstarter to crowdfund its climate change project, the nonprofit encouraged donors to share photos of their surrounding environment using the hashtag #climatedoorstep.

The goal was to get readers to join journalists and scientists in a virtual town square to discuss climate change. Daily Climate Assistant Editor Dana Dugan says inviting people to participate in the content-creation process creates an incentive to financially back up the operation.

“We want people to feel as though they can change the paradigm, so journalism is more than just reporters saying what the news is,” Dugan says.

The Texas Tribune has also taken to crowdfunding on two occasions, but COO Tim Griggs says its relationship with its backers is no different its regular members.

People give money because they believe in the cause, he said. “And with that comes the responsibility to deliver on our promises.”

In both of its crowdfunding experiments, Griggs says the Texas Tribune has offered donor perks such as tours of the newsroom and a Q&A with its journalists. However, he says there isn’t enough evidence to prove such perks motivate people to pitch in.

“We don’t have any data to know whether the act of asking readers to contribute for a particular cause changes engagement, brand value, loyalty, etc.,” he says. “But we do know that it can unlock a couple useful relationships.”

Crowdfunding campaigns allows the Texas Tribune to solicit contributions from folks who would otherwise have less interest in general support, similar to the way universities raise funds for specific capital campaigns or for particular academic/athletic programs.

Additionally, he says such campaigns serve as a pipeline for future contributions. Many of those who backed its livestreaming campaign have come back later for general support, attended live events, and become sustaining members.

Griggs says the challenge at the Tribune is to optimize three different types of consumer financial support and the three motivators behind each: one-time contributors who want to support a cause but may or may not be heavily engaged; members who want to be part of the club and share some ideology with the brand; and subscribers who value content enough to pay for it, often because it helps them do their jobs (or live their lives) better.