Homicide Watch DC tries crowdfunding to pay intern
As an entrepreneur seeking help while she was going to be out of town, Laura Norton Amico turned to a funding source that is gaining ground in journalism: She asked for donations.
Karen Frantz, a graduate student in public policy journalism at American University, will cover homicide cases in the District of Columbia while Amico attends the News Entrepreneur Boot Camp at the Knight Digital Media Center at the University of Southern California.
Since launching her blog in October, Amico, a member of the TBD Community Network, "has quietly carved out a role for herself as the District's most comprehensive chronicler of the unlawful taking of human life," the Washington Post said in a January profile.
Community crowdfunding of public-interest journalism is not a new phenomenon. Public broadcasting has been raising money from donations for years, and metro news websites such as MinnPost and the St. Louis Beacon have launched in recent years on a similar model. MinnPost finished 2010 in the black for the first time.
Spot.us, a California nonprofit founded by David Cohn, has pioneered community funding for individual stories. Freelance journalists pitch story ideas and community members donate to support the story. When a story's budget is pledged, the journalist proceeds with the story.
Amico used Spot.us to raise $897.54 to develop a document library for court documents related to D.C. homicides. She also raised $241.67 for another story that didn't pan out. (Amico declined the money and donors received credits to contribute to other Spot.us pitches.)
"I decided not to go to Spot.Us this time because it was very difficult to raise funds through them here in D.C., where there didn't seem to be a built-in audience already familiar with the site and/or concept," Amico said in an email. "It was just much harder to get money through Spot.Us than I had anticipated and I think that was due to my geographic location and the community's unfamiliarity with the process. Neither story was completely funded and I did the first for much less than I had hoped to raise."
She decided to appeal directly to the community through her blog to fund the internship.
"I've promised Karen $250 of my own money (the site is not funded in any way yet, so this is coming from my savings) plus up to $250 in matching funds," Amico said. "Karen's agreed to do the 12 days of work for $250, but understands that I hope to raise up to $500. Anything we raise over that will go into a 'freelancers fund' that I use to pay a stipend when I need someone to fill in for a day that there's multiple hearings scheduled, or something like that. I have $50 in that fund already from a previous donor."
Cohn said Spot.us has raised money for stories pitched by its own interns and has funded projects like a week's work before, but has not funded an internship. "I don't know if I've seen anything like that before, but it makes total sense," Cohn said in an email. "It really depends on whether the trust people have for Laura can be translated into trust for Karen. If it does, then I think they'll be able to raise the funds."
Amico expects to reach 90,000 page views this month. "I'm hoping that I've reached a critical mass of readers who understand that there is a person doing this work and that if that person is gone, the site goes dark. In the first hour I had the pitch for funding up I raised $100 in $25 donations, so I'm hoping that that's a sign that I'm right." By this morning, she had raised. $125.
Amico and her husband, Chris, who developed the site, "are self-funding the first year while we build community and determine the ultimate direction of the site." She has not sold advertising "because I frankly haven't had any good pitches for advertising. Generally editors seem to think that they can sell funeral homes and bail bonds on the site. To me, that doesn't seem like a good idea."
The site has generated some freelance work for Amico, "but we're viewing this first year as an investment and experiment. We're just a couple weeks away from a relaunch which is really exciting and which will bring us closer to being the news site we want to be. I'm evaluating different business models and don't know what direction we will ultimately go with a business plan, although the goal is to be funded, at least partially, by the end of the year. My emphasis is on building sustainable and replicable funding. Whether that's through grants or through media partnerships, I don't know."
In seven months, she has made about $1,200 from donations and freelance work.
She hopes eventually to raise enough money to support one full-time editorial/ business staff person, one half-time editorial staff person or freelancer, and one part-time web developer.
Frantz said she learned about the internship through AU. "It sounded like a great opportunity so I jumped on it. I thought the crowd-sourcing idea seemed worthwhile and innovative, although I definitely wasn't counting on much money coming through. I'm flattered that people have already sent in money and I think it speaks highly of Laura's ability to build a community on her site."
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