Kickstarting Journalism and Climate Change Reporting

I never thought Veronica Mars and long form reporting on climate change had anything in common, but it turns out, they both have the same business model. You want it? You’ll have to pony up for it.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which has been reporting on nuclear weapons, power, disarmament and general military issues surrounding it since 1945, sustains itself with a combination of digital subscriptions, individual donations, and foundational philanthropy. This spring, William and Eleanor Revelle, who’ve led the clean energy cause and have supported The Bulletin with donations and insight on their editorial board, are offering a Challenge Gift. They’ll grant $50,000 and match every donation made to the Bulletin until May 31, 2013 in the hope of raising $100,000 to be used toward reporting on climate change. A week after announcing the challenge, $10,000 has already been raised and Bulletin publisher Kennette Benedict is hopeful that they’ll meet their goal.

It’s a good example of what news organizations need to do to thrive. Here’s why it works:

1) Diversity is Key

According to Benedict, donations and grants like this make her journal work. Individual donations makes up about 20% of their revenues. Ten percent is from subscriptions to digital content and the rest is from philanthropy. When the Post announced its paywall yesterday, the internet was already lamenting its ‘leaks.’

But that is sort of the point. When advertising just doesn’t work, subscription and membership models have to be dynamic. We’ll see how the Post works out this summer. But for niche news, like the Bulletin, there should be options. The Bulletin offers some content, like roundtables and short articles for free. You can buy single articles. Or you can subscribe to the full digital version, as an individual or as an organization. Since their news is, well, news-worthy, they offer free subscriptions for media personnel. So a journalist reporting on climate change or nuclear power can get research from the Bulletin experts.

2) Stay on Your Beat

But to depend on donations from readers, you have to offer good content. Veronica Mars’ Kickstarter campaign worked because they had not just a fan base, but a script ready for pre-production and the big name stars to offer. You can’t start from scratch. Likewise with news. Says Benedict:

We have been known for our coverage on nuclear weapons and disarmaments and more general military issues. We’ve occasionally published on climate change starting in 1961 but changes in the climate have become much more extreme, and we’re seeing it, and what [the Revelle’s] want is to encourage us to do more and hire a full time staff member and really enlarge that. We have a particular niche around nuclear energy and the questions about whether nuclear power will be able to deal with climate change, all the questions that are naturally there…We’ve already done a few articles on both of these topics, but the Revelles would like us to do more on it. They have provided challenge grants in the past- we met the challenge they issued a few years ago and they think we can do more.

So, for more reporting on climate change, a natural entity to do so is The Bulletin. Of course, the Bulletin is not a general news entity. They employ experts to explain really complicated policy and science to lay people. The idea that journalism can be funded by individuals and organizations can seem sinister. But it’s not the viewpoint that’s being funded: it’s just the reporting. Benedict likens the Bulletin’s model to public radio, which she says, has ‘perfected the model’ of donation based journalism. She explains:

We always want to have a wall between donations and the perspectives we take. In this case, they are not asking us to take a particular perspective on climate change. And we’ve expressed to Bill, who’s on our board, that we’d like to do more [reporting on climate change]. He’s saying that we need a robust discussion and the Bulletin has a particular area of interest to do that.

3) You Get What You Pay For

Especially in light of the Pew State of the Media report that was released this week, donation models for publications seems to make more sense than ever, if only because it guarantees that readers can  be sure they can get what they need. The Pew study’s most shocking discovery was that the people most likely to pay for news — wealthier, highly educated users, were walking away from publications because the information wasn’t useful or as in-depth as they wanted it to be.

“I think there are ways to tap into that frustration,” says Benedict. “You want more of this, you’re going to have to pay for it. It’s that community spirit that can help.”  She continues:

 We’re going to have to learn that news organizations can’t depend on advertising and maybe thats a good thing. Maybe we’ll get better reporting, it is a very dynamic time. People are finally going to have to get the message that if they want really credible reporting, they’re going to have to pay for it and it’s worth it.

Will all publications have to rely on the goodwill of citizens to survive? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a valid option for small or niche organizations. And if it means just one more full time staff member in a newsroom, then  so be it.  It’s also true that not all new organizations will be able to make subscriptions work. But it’s better than holding your breath for mobile advertising innovation.