Posted on October 16, 2013 in Archive

How to get funded as an investigative journalist


Investigative journalism requires deep pockets. Months of researching, tracking down reliable sources and then travelling to interview the previously mentioned sources means that it’s not only time consuming, but expensive, too. So how are freelance journalists and startup publications supposed to make money from such a living?

This article lists ten ways in which four investigative journalism startups made money in the last two years. Some are great ideas, some are… less practical for others, shall we say. If you aren’t interested in clicking on the link provided above, then never fear – we are going to provide you with our own critical commentary of these methods for your reading enjoyment. And don’t worry, unlike this similar, but less positive article, there will be no cat GIFs mentioned.

1. Reader funding
The Muckraker Report, the Northern Irish publication of 23-year-old Lyra McKee, is entirely reader-funded, because McKee wants to avoid the potential conflict that some advertisers bring with them. Almost all independent publications rely upon a combination of methods to receive funding, but McKee’s method allows her more freedom as a publisher, editor and writer. Reader-funding is almost certainly the most common method of fundraising, both in the not-for-profit and commercial circuits. What you charge depends on what kind of writing you aim to publish, and how often your publication releases new content, whether it be a website or a digital publication. Subscriptions are also a viable option.

2. Crowd funding
Initiatives such as Kickstarter are helping a lot of people to gain funding from all over the world. Matter, a startup investigative journalism project, raised $140,000 this way. Assurance contracts are used, which means that the project only receives the money raised if they reach their target, so fundraising for scams or fraudulent activities can be minimised. No Nigerian princes allowed. Way to keep us honest, Kickstarter.

3. Ad funding
This method made sense in the Ye Olde world of print newspapers, when certain proportions of each printed page could be reserved for print advertisement and the newspaper could basically set their own prices. In the world of digital journalism however, it’s difficult to make “keeping us afloat” kind of money with banners and buttons adorning every spare inch of your website.

Liquid State - investigative journalist - cartoon of man looking through key hole

Paywalls: basically the same, but so much more annoying than subscriptions.

4. Paywalls
In theory, this is the same as reader funding – money is charged for content. But as a reader, there is something inherently annoying about the concept of a paywall, especially a “soft paywall” that allows a certain amount of content to be viewed before the wall is raised. It’s even worse when you aren’t expecting one to pop up. Reader funded subscriptions are, in my view, totally different – the reader isn’t led to believe they are about to spend a few enjoyable minutes reading a long-form news article, only to have that comfort ripped away from them unless they provide credit card details. How absolutely tragic. (In case you can’t tell from my bias, I may have been caught out by a paywall or two in my time.)

5. Conferences
This is actually a great idea, and an even better way of getting your publication’s name out there than simple advertising. ThaiPublica, a non-profit publication that focuses on business investigations in Thailand, uses this method as their main income stream. Roughly three times a year, ThaiPublica holds a sponsored conference with speakers and reporters, who in turn give media attention in hopes of attracting more sponsors. Founder Sarinee Achavantakul claims the conferences are about “important topics that are in the public interest” in Thailand.

6. Syndication
Selling editorial content certainly isn’t a new concept, and according to Exaro CEO Mark Watts, it isn’t the best. “Syndication does not raise enough revenue to cover the costs of what is expensive journalism, but it makes a significant contribution to it”. This accounts for why short news stories and press releases are so easily and readily distributed through to small newspapers for reprinting – low costs and easy profits through syndication. This might not be suited to those writing long-form journalism.

7. Data services
This is a very specific way of making money, and not everyone will be able to profit from it. As an example, the company Exaro collects and tracks underlying data, and then offers add-on data services to City businesses. Like I said, it’s not a moneymaker for everyone.

8. Grant funding
Grants are a good way to receive a bulk payment towards funding your investigative project. However, it often comes down to whether the administrator of the grant likes your idea, or a popularity contest – surely the winner of this grant is determined purely by how many friends (or Facebook acquaintances) you can get to click for you, since it’s by popular vote.

9. Philanthropy
Philanthropy is, as I’m sure you know, typically related to charity work, and is only a good idea if you are a baby-sized startup company or are planning on retaining a ‘not-for-profit’ status. The important thing to remember (and make sure that prospective patrons are aware of this as well) is that people who give you money under this idea are not investors. They should expect nothing in return but a fuzzy feeling when the publication is off and running.

10. Acquisition
Otherwise known as conquest. Acquisition sounds like a nice idea, but not great if you want to, you know, own your own publication. Or present yourself as an independent publication. Matter was recently acquired by Medium, and they claim it allows them more freedom, and to plan for the future more. So it works for them, which is great. Being acquired as a freelance journalist has a different name – it’s known as getting a fulltime office job. Not to everyone’s taste.