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Kickstarter Lessons for Journalists

We’re wrapping up our first-ever Kickstarter. Here’s a bit about what we learned.

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Twenty-nine days ago, ProPublica launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to hire an intern to help us investigate unpaid internships – an issue that has regained national attention with a flurry of new lawsuitsfollowing a key ruling against Fox Searchlight Pictures.

If our Kickstarter succeeds, our intern will spend the fall semester traveling around the country, tracking these cases and documenting interns’ stories for a microsite on the intern economy. They’ll blog about their journey, the investigative process and their learning experience as an intern — a unique opportunity for our newsroom, and this intern.

We’ll know tomorrow at 9:32 AM ET whether our campaign was a success — as of this writing, we are just over $3,000 away from meeting our goal, and per Kickstarter’s rules, we have to raise the full $22,000, or we get nothing.

Regardless of the outcome, we’ve learned a lot through our first foray into project-based crowdfunding. Here’s some of what we’ve learned:

 

Your project should be creative and well defined

ProPublica has pondered Kickstarter crowdfunding for years. One of our biggest hurdles is that Kickstarter campaigns work best for concrete, defined projects – a documentary, another season of a podcast or a new level of a video game.

But investigative journalists often don’t know what their reporting will yield. We’re sifting through more than 360 detailed tips from interns or people whose career plans changed because they couldn’t afford to take an unpaid internship, but we don’t yet know exactly what our stories will be.

We were fortunate that for this particular investigation, a substantial piece of the story is hidden in plain sight. Millions of Americans have completed internships, many of which were unpaid. We think capturing their stories and voices through an interactive microsite gives us a tangible way to define the project for our Kickstarter backers and add impact to our overall investigation.

It’s also been tough for us to pitch the internship as an all-or-nothing project — a key Kickstarter funding factor — because we are committed to reporting this story, even if we don’t get to hire our intern. But it’s a Catch-22 we can live with.

(For some other great examples of successful journalism projects, check out Roman Mars’ 99% Invisible, Decode DC and Matter.)

Creative rewards and crunching the numbers

Donor rewards are a crucial part of Kickstarter’s model, and we tried to be creative and strategic about what we offered at different levels. Think $25: get a T-shirt. $50: get early access to a podcast. $5,000: get a project-related celebrity to speak at an event. 

The best rewards make backers feel like they’ve benefited from a project they helped make possible. For journalism projects, this could include access to the editorial process, tote bags or t-shirts with custom project designs or special, real-time updates on the reporting.

But you need to make sure to figure out how you’ll pay for your rewards. Does your marketing budget cover them, or will your Kickstarter funds need to cover those costs?

Once you set your fundraising goal, make sure the cost of your rewards fit within your overall budget. If you’re going to offer a T-shirt or a postcard, figure out how much that will cost, including shipping. (We were a bit surprised at how much shipping increased the cost.)

Then compare that unit cost to income projections, and an estimated number of backers. We found it useful to compile all of this in a spreadsheet that let us tweak rewar costs until it fit our budget (we set a limit of 10 percent to be spent on rewards).

Mobilize your readers and networks

How are you going to raise awareness about your Kickstarter campaign? Our game plan included social networking, email outreach and pitching our story as widely as possible. Nearly 90 percent of our donations came from outside the Kickstarter platform, and we had articles or coverage appear in New York Magazine, The Week, Business Insider, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Wire and more.

We sent a minimum of one, if not two project updates via our social media accounts every day. We emailed all of our existing listservs, crafted project updates for our Kickstarter backers and emailed organizations with an interest in the issue asking if they might be willing to share our project with their listservs.

In short: Marketing a Kickstarter is a close to full-time job, so make sure to budget the time.

Fresh stories were also incredibly helpful for building momentum around the Kickstarter campaign. During the past month, we produced seven pieces on internships, linking to the Kickstarter and encouraging people to back the campaign in each.

In the end, our own site was the third-highest source of donations after Twitter and direct referrals.

Based on our experience, Kickstarter can be a great tool for creative, unique projects, but also tricky for those designed around story-driven projects. But if your newsroom has the time, resources and smart idea, it’s definitely worth an experiment.

A huge thank you to everyone who has donated to our Kickstarter so far. If you’ve ever known, or been, an unpaid intern, we’re sure you can appreciate its importance. And if you haven’t already, please donate in the final stretch to help us achieve our goal!

 

 

A big thanks to our Kickstarter team, which included News Apps Fellow Jeremy Merrill, Senior Engagement Editor Amanda Zamora, News Applications Director Scott Klein, ProPublica President Richard Tofel and Explainer Music.

Ethan O. Perlstein

June 27, 2013, 12:47 p.m.

I’ve been watching Project Intern with great interest as a crowdfunding aficionado. I was part of a scientific team that raised $25k last Fall for an Open Science basic pharmacology project, and now I consult for the science crowdfunding platform Microryza.

I’m curious to know what your conversion rate (CR) is overall, and for individual media coverage? I would guess overall you’re in the 1-2% range, and that your CR spiked two- or even three-fold during particular press/blog mentions.

Related question: how big in terms of order of magnitude is your email campaign? Hundreds of emails or thousands of emails? Are you planning on blogging in more detail post-campaign about the nuts and bolts of referral traffic?

Finally, do you think your campaign was so successful with media coverage because you yourselves are members of the media, and therefore you understand with clarify the opaque process whereby leads, tips become full-fledged stories?

Thanks, and enjoy the final 24-hour hockeystick finish!

I’ve explored kickstarter as an option for a journalism project and even reached out to them (via their stock contact form) to try and understand whether such a project fit with their guidelines (I never heard from them and of course they don’t have a published phone number).

You begin to address this issue in your post here, but I’d be curious to know more about how to best address it or resolve it? Truth is with the project I’m working on is the outcome is decidedly unclear and I’m not interesting in making a folk music album about it!

Thanks!

Hi Tim,

Unfortunately I can’t speak for Kickstarter, but I can say that during our review process we even had to tweak our project a bit so that it was defined enough to fit their guidelines. Backers want to know what their money is paying for.

My best guess would be to create your project, submit for review and see what they say!

Good luck.

-Blair

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Internships

Internships

The number of internships in the United States has ballooned over the past few decades. But oversight and legal protection for unpaid interns hasn't kept up.

The Story So Far

The number of internships in the United States has ballooned over the past few decades. But oversight and legal protection for interns hasn’t kept up. We’re investigating companies that may be violating labor laws by employing unpaid workers, schools’ role in the issue and how it’s affecting American workers.

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