Krautreporter: Crowdfunding journalism is a movement

krautreporter

Last June, Krautreporter raised $1.38 million to launch an ad-free online magazine. In an interview shortly after the campaign ended, founder Sebastian Esser said he didn’t know if the venture would last a year.

Now Krautreporter is announcing plans to launch a crowdfunding platform called Write That Down.

“So we want to be a service provider for international crowdfunding projects and really add to this European movement of crowdfunding that we see at the moment,” said Krautreporter Head of Audience Engagement Frederik Fischer Friday to an audience at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. “We can add to this movement and keep the momentum and just provide more alternatives to the media that’s out there already and is dysfunctional to a huge extent.”

Unlike the longform magazine that is entirely in German, Write That Down will aim for an international audience of reporters and storytellers to use the platform. Write That Down will launch later this month or in May, Fischer said.

Direkt36 was Write That Down’s first client. Through the Cracks reported that the news startup for investigative journalism in Hungary raised more than €10,000 in its first 24 hours.

Before diving into details of what Krautreporter has learned during and since their crowdfunding campaign, Fischer looked back at recent history that leads up to “a bigger movement, a European crowdfunding movement that is really, especially in the last months, booming.”

david-cohnThe first slide in his presentation was a photo of David Cohn, who Fischer referred to as “the godfather of crowdfunding journalism.” Cohn’s Spot.us was the first crowdfunding platform for journalism and grew most rapidly between 2008 and 2011 but shut down earlier this year.

The next big step in the movement according to Fischer was the Dutch news startup De Correspondent, which brought in $1.7 million in 2013.

Then Krautreporter in 2014 and earlier this year El Español, who raised more than €3 million euros to set a new world record.

Other recent news startups like Direkt36, Stundin in Iceland and others also others looked to the crowd for seed money. Last month The Blank Spot Project in Sweden raised €122,000.

Many of these approaches may not have been possible a year or two ago. To find out what works, assumptions must be challenged, Fischer said.

“Especially at this point in time in journalism, there are no rules. There’s just assumptions and those assumptions have to be tested and tested and tested all over again because sometimes you will find that assumptions that were true yesterday are not true today,” Fischer said.

Even though things went wrong during Krautreporter’s crowdfunding campaign they still managed to raise one million euros. That should make people hopeful, Fischer said.

“I mean everyone can do this. We definitely did not have a perfect campaign and we managed to pull this off. And I think everyone can do this if you really have passion for this,” he said.

Find the pain

One thing Fischer believes they got right was identifying an unmet need for a news outlet whose coverage wasn’t ruled by ads or the need to produce clickbait in order to hit a page views target. If there’s no demand for your independent or alternative media venture, your idea is less likely to work.

You really have to be careful which news environment you place this,” he said. “You have to be aware that you are actually solving a problem for the people out there, for your audience.”

Think big

Krautreporter is known as an online magazine but in 2013 it began as a crowdfunding platform, one that provided €200,000 for independent journalism and had a 70 percent project funding success rate.

The lesson learned from making their own platform was that a platform dependent on one-off projects that raise a few thousand euros isn’t a sustainable business model. An analysis of Spot.us released earlier this year reached the same conclusion.

You will grow but you will never grow fast enough to kind of maintain a proper team,” Fischer said. “That’s a lesson that a lot of people understood. Now they’re not running just for small projects but they really run for enough funding to sustain a whole newsroom operation for a year or even longer. And I think that’s the way to go.”

The need to campaign for each story or project did not seem to make project creators happy either, Fischer said.

“In many cases it’s not satisfying, the outcome, because everyone who is doing crowdfunding is underestimating the time it takes to successfully pull this off. Like the amount of communication you have to invest is just insane,” he said.

“These are not any longer small projects. These are full, outgrown alternatives to the existing media landscape. It’s not about just funding research or a trip or whatever. It’s really enabling a whole newsroom to operate for like a long time, to really establish a new news brand. And I think it’s amazing that this works, not only works but actually works better than those smaller projects.”

Plan ahead

The APM-commissioned study of Spot.us data laid out a rough guide for how to carry out and plan a crowdfunding campaign for journalism. 

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With the exception of a 30-day campaign, Krautreporter didn’t follow any of the report’s planning recommendations.

The lack of time to plan had an ongoing impact on Krautreporter well after the end of the campaign.

“It really would have taken us at least another month to have an agreement on what’s the vision? What’s actually what we want to achieve as a group, not as individuals?” he said.

A lack of time also impacted the quality of Krautreporter’s self-made content management system. Krautreporter’s CMS is good, but it could have been better if time there was more time and planning, Fischer said.

Valley of Death

Virtually every project will enter what Fischer called “the valley of death,” the lull in funding that occurs after the start and before the end of a campaign.

Krautreporter reached the valley “dangerously early,” Fischer said.

What should you do during the low period?

“So in the time in between, this valley of death, the only thing you can really do is keep relevant and just repeatedly address the people so the people realize you’re there, you’re making progress, you’re good people, you really try hard and work hard and then at the end they don’t want to make this a failure and then they promote and donate,” Fischer said.

It’s tough to build a news startup with freelancers

Inspired by the idea of Krautreporter and perhaps seeing themselves as part of the project, freelancers played a role in the promotion of the Krautreporter crowdfunding campaign, but a reliance on freelancers hurt Krautreporter’s ability to develop a clear editorial vision, according to Fischer.

“It was a huge problem to get everyone around the table so it was really hard to make progress when it comes to the editorial concept or the concept of the whole thing,” he said.

The longform magazine was originally organized to run with contributions from freelancers but the decision was ultimately made to work with more full-time staff who can work in a common office, Fischer said.

A service provider mentality is crucial… and time consuming

A couple devoted people might be able to pull off a campaign like the kind Krautreporter did but at that size (17,000 funders paid an annual €60 fee), one person needs to be devoted to communicating with funders and nothing else. The taste you leave in readers mouths after interacting with you, that relationship, will have much to do with whether or not they return to give the following year.

“You try to get money again through crowdfunding you want to have the reputation that you really take care of the crowd and hold them here. So this reputation is really important,” he said.

This can sometimes be challenging. Fischer said the attention that made the campaign a one million euro success seemed to feed scrutiny and criticism after the campaign ended, particularly in a “nation of critics” like Germany.

“During the campaign that helps a lot but after the campaign to be honest you wish that it would all just go away and they’d let you work but that’s just not how it works,” he said.

Survey your crowd and look to them as sources

“One example because that’s working phenomenally that’s a game changer for me and I hope you can implement it as well because it’s very beneficial we asked every new member five questions when they register,” Fischer said.

1. What do they study?
2. What’s your field of expertise?
3. Where do you live?
4. Where do you have people you can contact, in which countries?
5. How old are you?

This information can be visited when it fits a particular story. It’s a great way to stay in touch and to deepen your relationship with readers.

Models of reader engagement carried out by De Correspndent are also a great inspiration and worth emulating.

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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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