Audrey Cooper, the editor in chief of the San Francisco Chronicle, has been thinking a lot about H-1B visas. The visa type allows companies to hire foreign workers in specialty occupations like engineering, and it is especially relevant to the tech-heavy business population of Silicon Valley. But Cooper’s job is to tell the story of Northern California, and sending reporters abroad to talk with would-be immigrants and their families doesn’t quite fall into the priority list. “I could take it out of my budget,” she says, “but it would mean we are not going to follow our sports teams to the Olympics next year, or not going to cover a wildfire.”
Cooper initially couldn’t justify the cost of doing the story, but then she came across an unconventional alternative potential source of funding.
Earlier this month, The Chronicle launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise the $15,000 budget for multimedia reporting on H-1B visas. The campaign is part of an experiment, run by a platform called Beacon, that will match up to $3 million of crowdfunded contributions for reporting projects about immigration.
This is not Beacon’s first idea for funding journalism. The startup launched in 2013 as a way for readers to back individual journalists and, in exchange for funding them, receive access to their work.
But readers weren’t terribly interested in the paywall approach. “Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I’m not getting enough news articles in my face,’” says Beacon cofounder Adrian Sanders. “[But] I think people are waking up and realizing they don’t feel connected to the content and journalism out there. It’s not that there’s not enough stuff out there, it’s that there’s not enough about what they’re interested in particularly.”
Instead of backing individuals, Beacon started thinking about organizing content around topics, and allowing people to back publications that everyone—not just backers—could read. A partnership with the Institute for Nonprofit News launched in March successfully funded six projects from local publications.
Further exploring the idea that people wanted to fund reporting about topics that mattered to them, but weren’t necessarily clicky enough to be profitable under many media companies’ current business models, they launched a concept called “bounties” that allowed readers to set up campaigns to fund journalism around a topic of their choice. Once the goal was funded, Beacon would find a journalist to report the story. The problem with that, however, was that people weren’t necessarily great at articulating what they wanted news about. Some topics were overly broad (i.e., “You want stories about climate change, but what about climate change?”), and guiding them would require more editorial resources from Beacon.
For the immigration project under which The Chronicle‘s campaign falls, Beacon rearranged the bounties idea by allowing journalists and publications, rather than readers, to propose projects around an important topic. It also added a potent new motivator: more money. The startup raised a fund that would match the amount any successful campaign raised, up to $3 million across all projects.
Asking individuals and companies to fund journalism is an ethical minefield. In order to prevent becoming a PR firm, Beacon offered contributors to its fund an unusual deal. The people who contributed to the fund wouldn’t have any influence over which projects it went to, and they couldn’t pick the topic. They should give, Beacon argued, to increase the general quality of journalism around a broad issue they care about. “Even with stuff that gets produced that you’re not excited about, or against, in general the quality of journalism about immigration will go up if there’s $3 million available to journalists,” Sanders says. “You kind of just have to have faith in humanity that good stuff will be created.”
Asking wealthy people and organizations to fund projects over which they have no influence, based on faith in humanity, sounds overly idealistic, but Beacon raised the money (from whom it will not say, though publications will disclose donors when they publish the work).
The Chronicle was the first newspaper to launch this type of project on Beacon. It has raised about 50% of its $15,000 goal (including matched funds). The Nation has raised about 35% of its $56,000 campaign, which aims to send a reporter on the campaign trail to cover immigrant communities. Fatal Encounters, a nonprofit that is building a database of people killed during interactions with police officers, wants to raise $125,000 to introduce data in Spanish that focuses on undocumented immigrants. It has raised about 25% of its goal.
Beacon hopes to continue the project with funds to match crowdfunding around topics like education and women’s health. But there are a lot of questions to consider before it opens up these matching opportunities to any journalist or publication. What happens when, say, 9/11 truthers submit a project, crowdfund their goal, and receive a portion of the matching funds raised in the name of better-quality journalism? How can Beacon filter projects without being accused of cherrypicking projects to suit its donors’ agendas? How can that process avoid turning Beacon into a grant platform?
For now, Cooper is just happy to have a promising source of funding for an important story.
“Oftentimes these questions are more academic than actual issues,” she says. “If you’ve ever tried to get a reporter to do anything they don’t want to do, it’s pretty hard. I have no concern that the money we receive will influence reporting at all, except insofar as it will allow us to do it.”