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How Journal Media funds investigations by letting users pitch-and-pay for stories
In a nutshell
Readers submit story ideas that are shaped by editors into proposals for investigations, and published online in order to be funded by members of the public.
Journal Media is the publisher of TheJournal.ie, Ireland’s most-read online news source, and a number of other sites. It was founded in 2010 and currently employs 75 people.
TheJournal.ie has 5.5m monthly active users and is funded through advertising. Last year, it bought Ireland’s largest forum, boards.ie, which has 2.4m unique users and 9,000 posts a day.
In 2018, Journal Media received €380,000 from the Google News Initiative to create a platform to fund in-depth public interest journalism, which the team had found difficult to justify dedicating time and resources to.
Noteworthy launched in beta in April 2019 to allow people around Ireland to propose and fund stories that they believe aren’t being investigated by other outlets.
How did they do it?
In October 2018, a small team – a developer, a designer and an editor – was created in the newsroom to begin scoping what the platform would need in order to fund investigative stories. A name (Noteworthy) and branding were created.
In December, an advert was placed on boards.ie, asking readers for story ideas that they felt weren’t covered. The team received around 25 ideas, 10 of which were made into proposals by Ken Foxe, Noteworthy editor.
The Journal conducted an experiment using GoFundMe to ensure they didn’t make the same mistakes when building Noteworthy. Through this, the team found that it was difficult to manage multiple stories and that communication was hampered using a third-party site.
In April 2019, the Journal team launched a beta version of Noteworthy.ie with 10 proposals based on the ideas sent in by readers in December, each with a crowdfunding target. These included Ireland’s compensation culture (€1,250), regulation of slot machines (€2,400) and the mental health crisis among defence forces (€250).
Readers could also submit a story idea (by signing in with Google Sign-in) as well as contribute to a general fund if they wanted to give money without funding a specific story.
Once published, the proposals are promoted on TheJournal.ie and on Twitter for readers to find and fund. Readers can give as little or as much as they want. Payment processing is handled by Stripe.
Once a story is funded, either special projects and investigations editor Peter Bodkin or Noteworthy editor Ken Foxe are assigned to it. Depending on how long the story will take, Peter and Ken publish updates to the funders via email about what they’re doing. This might include news about FOI submissions, appeals for information or fresh lines of inquiry.
The story is eventually published on the Noteworthy site and is made available for other sites to publish for free.
Since the launch in April, Noteworthy has published a funded proposal every few weeks. Sometimes the general fund is used to top up or fully fund a story proposal which is not yet fully funded.
During the beta, the team has worked on making the platform easier to use (eg reducing the number of steps people take to fund a story) and switched to MailChimp to get more detailed data about the communication around proposals.
The team tracks story idea submissions per 1,000 users and funding contributions per 1,000 users to understand if their assumptions are likely to sustain this model. The early results are very encouraging if it can be scaled.
What did they learn?
Journal Media had previously applied for Google DNI funding but had been unsuccessful, before receiving funding in 2018. This was disappointing but it made them research more carefully the challenge they were trying to solve. It also allowed them to develop the focus of staff members so that they could step into roles left by those working on the project.
The team felt the biggest risk was that people wouldn’t pay for individual stories. But within two days, six of the 10 proposals were funded and raised over €8,000. So far, 14 stories have been funded and €15,000 pledged. This strengthened the idea that people are willing to fund stories that matter to them.
The biggest challenge has been the lack of suitable ideas from readers and the time it takes to shape them into proposals. This has caused funding to drop significantly since week one and the team is thinking about how to increase the flow of both ideas and proposals.
The most popular funded story was on gambling regulation in Ireland. The average contribution, when removing anything over €100, was €20 and three individuals contributed €400.
Many reader ideas deal with interesting topics but need to be broadened before they form a proposal that can be funded. For example, a story about Galway council failing to live broadcast their council meeting was broadened to look at every council in Ireland. This ended up being successfully funded.
The process of turning ideas into proposals is not a natural skill for a journalist and is something Ken and the team are refining. They have also found it hard to publish proposals that, based on their experience, don’t seem like they will be successful (even if they might be).
Editors have also worried about other news organisations using the proposals as inspiration for their own stories. This has happened once or twice. Adrian Acosta, the chief executive officer of Journal Media, is not worried about this and says it proves the platform is having an impact.
Noteworthy will come out of beta later this year. By June 2020, the team hopes to publish five proposals a week on the platform.