As one who believes in paying for good journalism, I have contributed to seven successful journalism/writing crowdfunded projects through Kickstarter and Indiegogo. I found out about three of the campaigns from my friends who ran them, but now there’s a new website that aims to write stories about effective or innovative campaigns and how a campaign fits into a larger strategy. By doing so, the website hopes to spread good ideas that other reporters and storytellers can adopt.
Through the Cracks: Crowdfunding in Journalism, the brainchild of founder and editor Khari Johnson, is a news website devoted to the coverage of reporting, storytelling and news startups made possible by crowdfunding. Johnson, an online reporter, photographer and storyteller, worked for a decade at local news startups in San Diego, Calif. He spoke with All Digitocracy Contributing Editor Benet J. Wilson about his website.
All Digitocracy: How did you come up with the idea for Through the Cracks?
Khari Johnson: Part of it came from my notebooks while working in San Diego, where I worked for a few news startups. In some instances, I ended up with stories left over or stories that ended abruptly. I was left with stories that could have been something.
Journalists can look in their notebooks and come up with long-term projects or even a start-up. Anyone who has been on a beat long enough knows what I’m talking about. The potential is there. When you stay in touch with people in your area, you have institutional knowledge when covering stories. I was in Imperial Beach in south San Diego where I made connections over the years. The Imperial Beach community had the second-highest unemployment rate in San Diego, but it’s the sort of place that deserves coverage despite a high unemployment rate and perhaps because of a high unemployment rate. Otherwise, it’s an incredible place. When I left San Diego, there were a few community news websites emerging, which was exciting.
The stories from my notebook ended abruptly because the news startups ended abruptly with sudden, unforeseen layoffs or closures. This happened in my work as a freelancer and while working for the San Diego News Network and Patch.
AD: Why did you think it was needed?
KJ: I say this with the disclaimer that I don’t assume to know everything going on. Home run crowdfunding campaigns that get a lot of ink and attention can receive up to $100,000, but there are others out there. Between 80 and 90 percent of campaigns get under $50,000, and most of those don’t get covered. If you can’t afford to start a newspaper, you can fund a project that helps others with things like paying writers or buying necessary equipment.
AD: How did you choose the staff for Through the Cracks?
KJ: Everybody was asked if they have an interest in the future of journalism and that was one of biggest questions for me. That’s the question we try and explore the most with the website. Everyone was asked that question and beyond that, it’s within personal networks. For example, editor Carlos Moreno and I worked together in Imperial Beach and he works in San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, and he did a lot of the initial recruitment.
AD: What are you looking for when deciding what projects end up on the website?
KJ: We try to look at if something is helpful, innovative, particularly unique or an example of something providing coverage to an underreported topic. We go through the latest campaigns launched on various websites and we take pitches from people who have campaigns going. We do our best to stay on top of all the platforms.
AD: How many projects a week or month do you go through before deciding which ones will appear on the website?
KJ: I would say hundreds. We go through some of the sites like Kickstarter, Indegogo and Beacon, which all tend to have quick churn. We also look at sites like Pozible in Australia and Ulule in France. We do find a lot of campaigns run by women. Some data says that campaigns run by women are more successful. Feminist campaigns are kicking butt on Kickstarter.
AD: I found this quote by Jamila Bey interesting: “It takes courage to ask for money and journalists don’t ask for enough of it.” Why do you think this happens?
KJ: Interviews were done in 2011 with reporters and donors of Spot.us campaigns. It clearly hit a nerve with journalists saying their campaigns felt like begging, shaking a tin can to get money. They felt pressure to market the campaign or they felt like they wouldn’t succeed. That interview resonates with the sort of attitudes that are prevalent in some journalists. Some of those quotes were from people between the ages of 22 and 25.
That traditional wall of church and state, making money versus making content has been drilled into us. That was a by-product of the monopolies held by newspapers and have existed for most of our lives. Both of these are being revisited today. It’s in the culture and deeply embedded, and it comes up often in our interviews. Journalists reluctant to do that marketing. But I think crowdfunding is a transition that lets writers share content and ask if readers want more. That’s not begging.
AD: How do you fund Through the Cracks?
KJ: Through the Cracks was launched as a minimally viable product — me and a Tumblr blog last August — to where we are today with about a dozen people (who began to join us in February) on staff in five countries. The current version of the site was launched in March and we’re less than a year old.
AD: What do you hope the site will look like a year from now?
KJ: If we continue to tell these stories, I’m just excited to share the uses for crowdfunding. We want to reach others who have an interest in crowdfunding projects. I want to see a positive impact for underreported stories.
I also want people to understand that there are options for entrepreneurship. We see reports that journalism is in decline, but I think there’s something to be optimistic about. When we’re not sharing stories of success for smaller start-ups, we also know about the work being done by Vice and Buzzfeed. I’m excited to see what the smaller start-ups are doing. The era of the monopolistic newspaper is over. We’re now thinking about communities that don’t have coverage. When we see what happens when they do, that’s exciting.
Editor’s note: To learn more about why Through the Cracks was created, read “Innovation, Not Donations: Why This Blog Exists.”
Benét J. Wilson is the founder and owner of Aviation Queen LLC, a freelance writing, multimedia and consulting firm. She is an aviation/travel freelance journalist and blogger who has written for publications and blogs including AirwaysNews.com, CrankyFlier.com, ACI-NA Centerlines magazine, Aviation International News, Airport World, the Airline Passenger Experience magazine, and the Runway Girl Network. She currently serves on the board of the Online News Association and is Vice Chair of Education for the National Association of Black Journalists’ Digital Journalism Task Force.