A plea for help: Student publications try to raise money online

When the University of Redlands student government put the student newspaper on a “temporary hiatus” after it ran an article critical of the criteria for a new scholarship, the publication’s co-editors argued the suspension was nothing more than an attempt to chill the paper’s reporting.

“We felt like they had us held hostage until we did what they wanted,” Co-Editor Morgan York said. “We decided to go indie.”

Creating an independent, online-only news organization gave York and her staff newfound editorial freedom. Abandoning the Bulldog Weekly, the student government-funded student newspaper, meant they also had to operate without the $40,000 budget the university previously provided to cover printing costs and the student journalists’ salaries.

Enter an online fundraising campaign, launched in February and asking for $4,300 to get The Bulldog’s new, financially independent website off the ground.

In the last year, student newspapers have increasingly turned to online crowdfunding websites to keep their publications afloat. While the University of Redlands students used crowdfunding to launch a new publication in the wake of adversity, other students have used the method to help pay off years of accumulated debt.

Although some crowdfunding campaigns exceed their goals, bringing in tens of thousands in donations, the student journalists say the method isn’t sustainable and have wrestled to find profitable revenue streams after their campaign ends.

Crowdfunding saves the day

As the news industry shifts from print to web-based models, student papers have struggled to supplement waning advertising revenue. Some student newspapers looking for ways to smooth the transition away from traditional news models have found that crowdsourcing campaigns rally far-flung members of their college communities.

Through donations from professors, alumni and staff members’ friends and family, The Bulldog’s campaign exceeded its goal, raising $4,400 to cover the monthly fee for the paper’s new online home and a semester of staff salaries.

The campaign wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without the online element, which “got the word out to people who can afford donations,” York said.

Although breaking away from the university helped The Bulldog maintain editorial independence, York said there have been some challenges that donations couldn’t fix. The crowdfunding campaign helped get the paper off the ground, but as next semester’s reserve begins to dry up, the staff will need to develop a sustainable business model.

York, who graduated in April, said she isn’t sure exactly what this plan will look like, but she expects advertising will play a role.

Another hurdle is the elimination of The Bulldog advisor’s position. Without the university’s financial support, The Bulldog can’t afford to pay advisor Erin Aubry Kaplan’s salary. Redlands paid Aubry Kaplan until the end of the spring semester, and she’s offered to work on a volunteer basis in the fall, York said.

After that, York said, The Bulldog will have to find another volunteer to take over the advising position, and York, who plans to be in the area, said she might step up.

Redlands isn’t the only university whose student newspaper launched a crowdfunding campaign after losing university funding. The student newspaper at The University of Missouri at St. Louis started a crowdfunding campaign in April after the student government chose not to renew the paper’s funding for the fall of 2014, citing debt the paper amassed between 2009 and 2011.

The university chose to forgive the debt, and although The Current generates some revenue from advertisement sales, last year’s operations relied on a $20,000 donation from UMSL’s IT department.

But the paper’s leadership doesn’t think it can survive another academic year without outside help.

The paper, which used to receive about $40,000 from the university, has launched a multi-faceted fundraising effort. In addition to the crowdfunding campaign’s eventual $30,000 goal, staff planned fundraising events on campus, selling tickets to a trivia night and passing out copies of the paper to spread awareness.

“We cover the campus and wider community from the perspective of students and give the students of our diverse urban campus a voice,” Anna Glushko, The Current’s editor in chief, said in an article the newspaper published about its fundraising efforts. “Without support from alumni and the community, those voices will be silenced.”

Fighting debt

While The Bulldog’s campaign helped the newspaper break away from censorship, other student papers, like The Daily Free Press, the student newspaper at Boston University, have used crowdfunding as a last-ditch effort after years of declining advertising revenue.

The Free Press launched a GoFundMe campaign in November 2014, asking for help paying off nearly $70,000 of printing debt. The paper’s printer had given The Free Press staff until December 31 to pay, or it would close the paper’s account, said Kyle Plantz, fall 2014 editor in chief.

The newspaper had made adjustments in order to cut spending, Plantz said, notably switching from printing daily to printing weekly and publishing daily online. But the paper’s declining advertising revenue couldn’t cover expenses, and the paper slid further into debt.

Because the paper isn’t university-funded, it had to raise the money itself, and reaching out to the community for donations seemed like the best option, Plantz said.

“It reaches its maximum potential that way,” Plantz said. “People who haven’t even heard of us or aren’t even in journalism can still donate if they think it’s a worthy cause.”

As soon as the paper’s campaign went live, donations flowed in, including two large gifts from high-profile alumni Bill O’Reilly and Ernie Boch, Jr. The campaign exceeded its goal, raising $82,409.

The digital crowdfunding campaign allowed for a huge social media push, Plantz said, and he believes spreading the word through Facebook and Twitter contributed to the campaign’s success.

“We got the word out to our alumni and they passed it on to alumni that we didn’t know, and they passed it on to their colleagues who are in journalism and so on,” he said. “Some of these people are working for big media outlets now and many of them said that they got their start in journalism from the FreeP.”

The Free Press also incentivized donations with prizes, Plantz said, something crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe encourage users to do. Rewards ranged from a shoutout from Plantz at the $5 level to a $10,000-level in-person thank you: “We’ll drive to your home, buy you dinner and sing you an a capella version of your favorite American classic.”

“We knew that there would be FreeP alumni, parents, current students, faculty, and other people who just love student journalism, that would want to support us,” Plantz said.

Like The Free Press, University of Delaware’s financially independent newspaper, The Review, which receives office space from the university, but no other funding, turned to crowdfunding, asking for $9,980 in donations as costs increase and ad sales fall.

“Since our founding we have been a catalyst for change and a forum for public discussion,” according to The Review’s crowdfunding page. “From covering students advocating for university divestment during South African apartheid to interviewing Nobel Prize winners, our reporters have written on issues that matter.”

A bigger phenomenon 

Harnessing crowdsourcing for funding isn’t unique to student journalists. Professional journalists realize its value too, starting crowdfunding campaigns to help promote freelance work and personal projects. As readers become more willing to donate money to fund reporting projects, some journalists are developing donor-funded newsrooms, like ProPublica. Others are turning to journalism-specific crowdfunding platforms like Beacon Reader to fund projects and build their brand.

As newsrooms across the country cut funding for investigative work in an effort to keep up with rising production expenses, investigative journalists search for other outlets to fund in-depth projects.

ProPublica, a nonprofit, aims to produce quality in-depth journalism, relying on donations to fund projects.

“Investigative journalism is at risk. Many news organizations have increasingly come to see it as a luxury,” according to ProPublica’s website. “Today’s investigative reporters lack resources: Time and budget constraints are curbing the ability of journalists not specifically designated ‘investigative’ to do this kind of reporting in addition to their regular beats.”

Beacon Reader, a crowdfunding platform designed specifically for journalists, allows readers to subscribe and donate to specific journalists whose projects they would like to see through to completion.

Catherine Hollander, Beacon’s editorial director, said as major news outlets’ project funding dwindles, freelance journalists are looking elsewhere for funding, and Beacon helps them build a following of readers interested in what they have to offer.

Beacon allows journalists the freedom to design their own projects while building their personal brands, Hollander said. Journalists can focus on specific projects or beats, and readers can subscribe to the writers whose work interests them most, creating a unique digital connection with audiences and individual reporters.

The site started out as a sort of “Netflix for news,” she said, and the ad-free site has since grown to allow writers to customize their specific crowdfunding efforts and build audiences. Readers can pledge at different price points for increasing degrees of engagement with the writer.

Traditional news outlets recognize the value of independently-funded news, Hollander said, and the Texas Tribune, Huffington Post and Pacific Standard have all used Beacon as a platform for funding long-term projects and boosting reader engagement.

Journalists at ProPublica have also partnered with major print publications, teaming up with the Los Angeles Times to produce “When Caregivers Harm,” a series exploring the lack of oversight for California’s nurses.

Hollander said she sees college students and recent graduates create profiles on Beacon in order to build their personal brands, Hollander said. Beacon’s model, which allows readers to subscribe and fund the projects they’re most interested in, is especially helpful for young journalists looking for exposure.

Hollander said recent graduates like Tyrel Bernardini, are also likely to turn to Beacon for help funding travel journalism projects. Bernardini’s “Hitchhiking to Africa” project has raised $8,540 for him to hitchhike from California to Africa.

Focus on creativity

The trend of student newspapers looking for alternative funding methods may have to do with traditional sources of revenue, like student fees and advertising proceeds, not increasing as quickly as other costs, said Rachele Kanigel, president of the College Media Association.

Working for their student newspaper stands out to many alumni as “the most important thing they do in college,” Kanigel said, and crowdfunding campaigns help tap a sense of affection and nostalgia.

Although the excitement of a crowdfunding campaign can help newspapers fund one initiative, she doesn’t see it as a sustainable business model, said Kanigel, who advises the San Francisco State Golden Gate Xpress.

Kanigel said said her students launched a crowdfunding campaign in September 2014 in order to attend the CMA conference in Philadelphia, where they were nominated for several awards.

Her students came in about $3,500 short of their $5,000 goal, but the college found a way to fund their flight to the conference, she said.

Kanigel said students need to focus on coming up with creative ways to market their newspapers to online advertisers, although many student newspapers don’t have the personnel or business experience to make this a reality yet.

She said she’s seen college newspapers find creative ways to supplement advertising revenue, selling photos their photographers take at sporting events, printing campus directories and freshman guides.

More importantly, Kanigel said, crowdfunding campaigns “give students a chance to connect with alumni” that they may not have had otherwise.