What are the ingredients of a successful crowdfunding campaign? It could be the combination of transparency and boldness, according to the Italian newspaper Il Giornale which funds international investigations through reader donations.
Launched both in print and online this month, InsideOver is the newspaper's latest collaborative project, with more than 150 high-profile experts, from professors to former CIA agents, sharing their insights and analysis of international news stories.
But launching in two languages and on two mediums has come at great expense, said Laura Lesèvre, project manager, Il Giornale online. The website has sections for ltalian- and English-speaking audiences, while the print magazine features articles in both languages side-by-side. Why go to the trouble?
"We understand this is crazy, it’s a bold initiative. But we also think this is the only way you can survive in the journalism media landscape and to start with something new. It’s quite innovative for a European newspaper, especially for an Italian newspaper," said Lesèvre.
"Italian journalism is not really focused on foreign topics. When we started The Eyes of War, we focused on international war reporting specifically. We were told that people were not interested."
Yet the title went on to pick up awards for its work. While readers had their initial doubts, they were soon happy to put their hand in their pocket to support the vision of the newspaper.
"I sometimes even get phone calls from people giving me their credit card details, wanting to pay and support us. But I tell them I can’t process it," she said.
Readers can donate at any time they like, but InsideOver is not always in campaign mode. For every investigation the publisher wants to conduct, it turns to its readers to make it a reality.
"Let’s say we have a reporter who pitches an idea to go to Congo. They might need €7,000 to go there, so we basically start a crowdfunding campaign for that amount of money," Lesèvre explained.
The focus and location can have a huge impact on how well that story pitch is supported though, she adds.
"Italian audiences are not really interested in South America for example, the crowdfunding for Brazil did not meet the budget.
"But we understood they were interested in the topic of Christian persecution, especially in the Middle East. So we started a big crowdfunding campaign in 2013 which raised around €38,000.
"Libya is another interesting topic and so is Afghanistan, historically."
But as the publication looks to expand, she said it will be interesting to see how new international audiences will come to shape the reporting through the campaigns which are supported.
Being reader-reliant comes at the cost of difficulty forecasting ahead. What happens if the team does not meet the target, like in Brazil? There is a safety net in place. Essentially, they can turn to Il Giornale for help.
The newspaper set up a non-profit organisation called the Association to Promote Journalism. When readers donate, the money goes to the association, not the publisher. In the event reader donations are not enough, the newspaper can make up the shortfall. But this has only happened on two occasions.
"As we really want to produce reports, we find a way to do it. When we started crowdfunding, this was just a way to get results. We send people abroad to get on the ground, and report what they see,” she added.
"It could have been done some other way, like through sponsorships, but we wanted to invest in ourselves. It worked, this is how our adventure started. Even if crowdfunding is just a way to make it possible, it’s an incredible experience because people really trust us."
This is the upside of a strategy wrought with financial uncertainty: the ability to create more meaningful relationships with readers and count on their support.
"It’s crazy because when we started we would have never thought people are so attached to our newspaper, but I think this is also because we met them. We organised meetings and events, so they can meet us. They know that behind the screen, there is Laura. These are people they know and trust," Lesèvre explained.
Other organisations have cited events as a key method to gain readers' trust before expecting donations. It does not stop there either, as they go to considerable lengths to make their work accountable.
The Trasparenza (transparency) section of the Italian website publishes all of the expenses of the reporters, as to remain totally above board.
"The readers gave us their money so we have to be honest, we are not going on holiday and we always try to get the least expensive fixers and hotels," she explained.
"Sometimes reporters come back with leftover money they didn’t use. Any excess money goes back into the association, nothing goes to Il Giornale."
The reverse is also true, that the association can be a lifeline if the reporters need additional or emergency funds.
As for now, the print magazine remains a one-off publication, but Lesèvre says they may reconsider this. She is looking for more collaborators, both international journalists and newspapers around the world to share in their reporting.
"We are an open newsroom and we’re open to reader ideas and new proposals from journalists. Our attitude is being open and to have many points of view," she concluded.
"There are no Italian writers in the magazine, that was decided on purpose. We wanted to start an international adventure saying that we want to grow bigger and go beyond Italy."
Get to grips with a framework for planning audience growth at Newsrewired on 27 November at Reuters, London. Head to newsrewired.com for the full agenda and tickets
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