A Millennial’s plan to build a news startup, piece by piece

Asheville, The Model City. Photo by Jay Joslin.
Asheville, The Model City. Photo by Jay Joslin.

A conservative person may call the staff of Asheville Blade misfits.

There’s a political activist, a community activist-minister and a witch (known online as “Asheville’s Village Witch”). There’s also a lot of people who care about community and public discourse.

Like other local news startups, the electic group works out of their editor’s house and local coffee shops. They’ve come together to build a news startup, piece by piece.

Using the crowdfunding platform Patreon, the Asheville, NC-based news website launched last June with a goal to raise $300 a month and launch a website. Then they raised enough to support city council meeting coverage, then enough to bring in freelance contributors, commentators and photographers.

It’s a very terrifying and exciting time in media and I think there are real possibilities with crowdfunding.

The more people give and show demand, the more the Blade grows.

Asheville Blade currently brings in $1,200 a month in revenue, entirely from Patreon. Editor David Forbes, 32, is a fiercly pro-union journalist who started the website after an attempt to unionize a local newspaper and organizes the Blade’s crowdfunding campaign.

“It’s a very terrifying and exciting time in media and I think there are real possibilities with crowdfunding,” he said about publications and freelance journalists.

“I think there’s a strength to not having a middleman, to dealing directly with your audience, directly with your readers, directly with people who care about these issues, especially for local journalism, which people have said is on its way out, which I completely 100 percent do not believe.”

Asheville Blade supporters are asked to give $3 a month, an approach Forbes thinks is stronger than the traditional advertising model and the one-big-shot campaigns people launch on Kickstarter and Indiegogo.

AshevilleBladeLogoHori

His preference for the subscriber model came out of his experience of crowdfunding a book about the right-wing in science fiction on the Inkshares platform and working for NSFWCorp. His time watching different approaches in action taught him “the best way to build the independent local news outlet,” Forbes said.

You make big buys with one-time campaigns. You build a news startup with Patreon, Forbes said.

“One thing I’ve learned that I think is really important is we’re using Patreon for the recurring costs, because it’s a recurring platform,” he said. “That pays our bills, that makes sure we can keep doing this. meanwhile if we do kind of a one-time hit campaign, the intent is going to be to have that like to develop a reserve or to do a specific journalism project or deal with a major one-time expense.”

The honest and direct candor with readers he saw at NSFWCorp (purchased by Pando Daily’s parent company in 2013) made an impression on Forbes and influenced his choice to bring Asheville Blade down the subscriber route.

“They were very upfront with subscribers about ‘Look, here’s our fundraising goal. We get to this and we’re going to send someone to cover a disease outbreak or send this person overseas to cover this, etc. And I was impressed by the repoire they had and the innovations they made on that front.”

I think if someone is a journalist right now they definitely need to really look into and try to understand ways crowdfunding works. I think that it’s got a lot to offer as one potential way forward for independent journalism.

The upfront attitude seems to extend to staff who don’t hide their personal views as well as site content that explores “whose voices aren’t being heard and what aren’t people talking about?” – issues like segregation, politics, workers rights and development in Asheville.

“We try to be as loud as possible about that because I think whatever our different perspectives are of various writers and contributors here, I think we all feel like that’s the way forward,” Forbes said. “We’re the newspaper less concerned with the fancy new restaurant opening up in Asheville than how the people working there are being treated.”
Correction: In the original version of this article, in one instance David Forbes was referred to as David Foster. We regret the error.

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Khari Johnson
Khari is founder and editor of Through the Cracks: Crowdfunding in Journalism. He also writes about bots and artificial intelligence for VentureBeat. He has built news startups in the U.S. and Europe for the last decade.

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