Kickstarter Creators on the Future of Independent Journalism
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A home for citizen-run investigations. A platform for community storytelling. A podcast network created to revolutionize the medium.
Since Kickstarter launched eight years ago, writers, photographers, and podcasters have used it to forge their own paths in journalism. And a community of readers and listeners has followed: as of this month, over $10 million has been pledged to Journalism projects on Kickstarter.
To mark the milestone, we spoke with the creators behind three memorable Kickstarter-funded journalism projects. They shared their thoughts on the future of independent journalism and the potential for journalists — by teaming up with the Kickstarter community — to transform the field.
Meet the panel
Carroll Bogert: President of The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that reports on and amplifies the voices of those within the U.S. criminal justice system.
Paul Salopek: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist behind Out of Eden, a seven-year, 21,000-mile trek following the ancient pathways of human migration.
Julia Calagiovanni: Managing editor of Off Assignment, a home for the untold stories that never make it into print.
Who benefits from independent journalism?
Carroll Bogert: All citizens can benefit from good, reliable information. The Marshall Project in particular serves a large community of people who care about the criminal justice system. Our stories have gotten cameras installed in prisons, helped sensitize first responders to sexual assault, launched federal probes into private industries, and given a voice to incarcerated people and others trapped inside the criminal justice system. Our goal is to make more Americans care about criminal justice.
Paul Salopek: In my book, all good journalism is independent. Everyone benefits from it. And the more diverse the independent news sources, the better. When only a few big media outlets dominate the news coverage, certain voices don’t get heard. That said, whether the reporting is generated by legacy companies or independent journalists, the mission should be the same: to report without fear or favor, uninfluenced by powerful political, commercial, or other special interests.
Julia Calagiovanni: Everyone. Independent writers and content producers have a unique opportunity to go beyond the conventions and limitations of more traditional media outlets. There’s often more latitude to work on topics that matter to you. And readers can hear from voices that might not have a seat at the table otherwise.
What is your advice for aspiring journalists?
Julia Calagiovanni: Mistakes hurt, but you’ll live. Learn from it.
Paul Salopek: In today’s saturated marketplace, it’s more important than ever for young colleagues to make their unique voices stand out. You can specialize in a single topic and own it. Or you can be an early adopter of new technology. Or — as in my case — you can go to parts of the world where crucial events are unfolding under the global radar. Go to Africa, which now has more than a billion people and is undergoing both a green and a digital revolution simultaneously. You won’t bump into too many other competitors there.
Carroll Bogert: Get really deep into a subject that is important. Know more about it than anybody. Be less concerned about the flash and the profile and the followers and the flourish of your writing.
When did you first realize that community funding could impact independent journalism?
Paul Salopek: I realized it in the first year of the Out of Eden walk out of pure necessity. I have several wonderful partners working with me on the project, but we still need our readers’ help to keep the storytelling going. I learned that when it comes to journalism, crowdfunding offers a double-barreled benefit: above and beyond raising money, it helps build a loyal, participatory audience. That’s important for a ten-year–long narrative like ours.
Carroll Bogert: In the summer of 2016, we used Kickstarter to fund our weekly column called Life Inside. We raised more than twice as much as we had originally hoped. The experience was very heartening — it was our first indication of how much our readers actually supported us.
Julia Calagiovanni: It’s been great to see so many publications — Matter, Narratively — really succeed in the crowdfunding arena. That inspired us to bring our own publication to Kickstarter. Crowdfunding is so powerful in that it not only raises money, it also corrals many other important resources: visibility, enthusiasm, a supporter base that wants you to succeed and believes that you can.
Where do you see independent journalism headed in the next five years?
Carroll Bogert: I think this sector will grow. Ever since the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, Americans are consuming more media than ever. But the commercial media can’t do everything. The kind of long-form investigative reporting that The Marshall Project does is very difficult to sustain commercially. So I think nonprofits will constitute a growing portion of the media landscape.
Paul Salopek: I can only hope it is more robust. Democracies need accurate, fearless, unbiased, independent reporting to survive. I’d like to think we’re headed for a shake-out phase where the worst of the web’s excesses are palling on the public and quality independent news platforms will thrive. It’s tough, given how the Information Age preys on our human impulse to seek shallow distraction and echo chambers. But we’ve got to keep battling.
Julia Calagiovanni: Larger media outlets will always have an important place in the landscape, but small-but-mighty indies will remain important. I hope that independent print, audio, and video journalism — and maybe some other formats we haven’t even thought of yet — will complement, challenge, and strengthen what’s already out there.
Why is independent journalism important to you personally?
Carroll Bogert: I believe that good information is the starting point of social change. No big problem ever got solved without someone shining a bright light on it.
Paul Salopek: I have devoted most of my career to covering people who live far from the global centers of power. Any reporting that shares the bullhorn has my blessing.
Julia Calagiovanni: In college, I worked with a variety of small student-run publications rather than the main campus newspaper. Working on an online feminist magazine, a print alt-weekly, and a print long-form magazine, each with its own particular ethos and mission, presented me with different challenges and opportunities. In that smaller setting, our teams were able to work really closely together. I see those same strengths in “grown-up” independent journalism.
How can readers improve their own media literacy?
Carroll Bogert: Keep reading. Check the byline, and the source. It’s easy to skip over that stuff when you’re scanning quickly on social media, but not all journalism is equally trustworthy.
Julia Calagiovanni: Read critically. Seek out a variety of voices from writers of varying ages, backgrounds, races, and genders. Go beyond Twitter — it’s fun and it’s fast, but there’s so much more to be said on basically any topic. Stepping away from the screen gives you some really important mental space.
Paul Salopek: To be news-literate today you have to think like a reporter. You have to be intellectually active, to explore. You have to be skeptical. (“If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”) Once a week, access your information from a radically different news source. Foreign correspondents in places with polarized press environments have to read six or seven newspapers — each partisan — every day, just to suss out a median understanding of what’s really going on. Welcome to that club, ordinary readers.