September 15, 2014

Texas Tribune jumps on Beacon to crowdfund ‘The Shale Life’ project

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This month, the Texas Tribune launched a crowdfunding campaign to pay for a new series of in-depth stories about the state’s energy boom and its impact on small towns.

The Tribune’s “Shale Life Project” campaign aims to raise at least $5,000 by Oct. 11 through Beacon, a journalism crowdfunding alternative to Kickstarter. The project promises to take a closer look at “overworked emergency responders, explore the man camps of the Eagle Ford Shale and dig into the data behind the region’s skyrocketing wealth.”

Kickstarter and Beacon allow individuals to financially support projects of their liking. But unlike Kickstarter, which crowdfunds a wide variety of projects outside of journalism, Beacon is aimed at funding the work of writers and news organizations like the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Huffington Post.

Beacon also allows donors to fund the project with monthly (or one-time) contributions of anywhere between $5 and $250. And in the spirit of transparency, Tribune editor Emily Ramshaw writes that anyone who gives $250 will be listed on the crowdfunding site. No anonymous donations are accepted, Ramshaw adds.

While it is not the first time the Tribune has turned to crowdfunding to support its newsroom projects, publisher and COO Tim Griggs told Journo.biz a little about this campaign and why it chose Beacon over Kickstarter.

What made this particular project—the Shale Life Project—a good candidate for this Beacon crowdfunding campaign?

Griggs: The Shale Life project was a good fit for a few reasons: 1) it’s a subject of interest to people across the state and right in our wheelhouse, mission-wise; 2) because it’s focused on people affected by the shale boom, it’s not likely to be as inflammatory or as inherently political as some of other coverage, and therefore more likely to attract contributions from both sides of the aisle; and 3) it was fortuitous timing with the Huffington Post’s Ferguson project unveiled on Beacon right before we were set to launch.

The Texas Tribune's first Kickstarter campaign one year ago.

The Texas Tribune\’s first Kickstarter campaign one year ago.

Why did the Tribune go with Beacon for this project as opposed to going back to Kickstarter where it did so great?

Griggs: We definitely didn’t see this as a Kickstarter vs. Beacon decision. We’ve been wanting to test the idea of crowdfunding for a specific series anyway and had followed Beacon for awhile as an interesting platform to test. We think Beacon is the right fit for this one. We’ll see how well it works. But regardless of the outcome, we’ll learn a lot from it.

What lessons has the Tribune taken from its previous Kickstarter campaign and applied them to this Beacon campaign?

Griggs: There are a lot of differences between the two initiatives, but in both cases it was important to make sure someone “owns” it. In the Kickstarter case, it was our Chief Innovation Officer, Rodney Gibbs. In the Beacon case, it’s our (relatively new) consumer marketing director, Allison Netzer. They’re both phenomenal leaders and so incredibly innovative in what they do. In both experiments our editor, Emily Ramshaw, has been an absolute rock star.

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If your newsroom is considering pursuit of crowdfunding support for a project, you can check out these lessons learned by the Texas Tribune back when it ran its Kickstarter campaign. Five tips courtesy of Jake Batsell, a former fellow at the Texas Tribune:

  1. Pre-launch prep is vital. [Tribune CIO Rodney] Gibbs brainstormed with colleagues about what type of project to pitch. He reached out to friends (both journalists and nonjournalists) who had found success with Kickstarter. He studied and heeded Kickstarter’s own advice, including the importance of creating a video and making sure the proposed project has a finite end. And even with all that preparation, Kickstarter still sent back the initial project proposal, asking for more specifics.
  2. Craft a clear, succinct call to action. In the Tribune’s case, the appeal basically boiled down to eight words: Help us livestream the 2014 Texas governor’s race. “It’s kind of that proverbial elevator pitch,” Gibbs said. When making your fuller case, though, craft pitches catered to specific audiences, whether that means complete newcomers, fellow employees or die-hard supporters. For example, Gibbs’ blog post announcing the Kickstarter campaign safely assumed that most Tribune readers were familiar with the Wendy Davis filibuster coverage that inspired the livestreaming project, whereas the Tribune’s complete pitch on Kickstarter had more background information.
  3. Rally co-workers and make it easy for them to share. “A lot of people here want to help,” Gibbs said. “They’re just busy with their beat or their department.” So Gibbs made it easier for his colleagues to participate by sending out emails containing pre-written text for tweets and Facebook posts, as well as images to promote the campaign. “That helped people leverage their own communities,” he said. It also created internal momentum that pushed the Tribune through the mid-campaign “trough,” when interest typically wanes. (And it built a sense of office camaraderie that led to some hilarious but spooky rejected Kickstarter promos.)
  4. Aggressively spread the word — online and in person. The Tribune launched the Kickstarter campaign on the opening day of its annual public policy festival, where staffers talked it up in person. Two weeks later, an email blast to the Tribune’s membership list drew more than 300 clicks to the project’s Kickstarter page. And throughout the campaign, Tribune reporters and editors sent out constant reminders on Facebook and Twitter, creating enough buzz to draw tweets of support from the likes of national political bloggers Chris Cillizza and Ana Marie Cox.
  5. Adjust as you go along. “It’s not like you’re just casting it in stone and praying,” Gibbs said. “You can adapt, based on what you’re seeing in the campaign.” For example, as a post-launch incentive aimed to help reach the Knight Foundation’s challenge of 1,000 individual backers, the Tribune offered a button as a reward for anyone who contributed at least a dollar. Also, based on requests in response to the campaign, the Tribune committed to host a three-part webinar series to teach participants how to livestream.