Why Was Planet Money’s Kickstarter Campaign So Successful?

At the time of this writing, NPR’s Planet Money has raised $524,286 on Kickstarter. The project has a day left, and is a pretty remarkable feat considering the sum is more than 10 times their initial goal of $50,000. So how did they do it?

First of all, the project has been in the works for about 3 years. Alex Blumberg, contributing editor of Planet Money, told 10,000 Words that the idea was first conceived by his colleague Adam Davidson as a way to tell the story behind the interconnected global economy. When they finally launched, it happened to coincide with the tragedy in Bangladesh. “[That tragedy] in many ways is what we want to look at with our series. Who are the people who make our T-shirts, what sort of conditions do they work in and how do they feel about that?” said Blumberg.

To make the T-shirts, the podcast is partnering with Jockey, which manufactures 25 million T-shirts a year according to Blumberg. He assured me that the partnership would in no way hamper the journalism: “We’re going to go in by ourselves, we’re going to go talk to the factories ourselves, we’re going to bring our own translators in… They’re very confident that they’re running their factories in an above board manner I think, otherwise, I can’t imagine why they would let journalists go around with them,” he said.

Since NPR and its 900 plus member stations regularly share the fruits of their fundraising with each other, the team decided to use any leftover funds for a reporting bootcamp. “What we often hear from member stations is that they want professional development opportunities,” said Blumberg. “Most member stations have a news bureau, but it’s obviously smaller than the national desk at NPR. So NPR is seen as having a little bit of expertise to share in terms of reporting… that’s the idea of the bootcamp, as a way to share the success of this project with the membership community.” At this rate, the project will have over $470,000 to go towards the bootcamp.

So why did this journalism Kickstarter campaign raise over 10 times their goal, when journalism projects have a 63 percent failure rate on the crowdfunding site? Blumberg admitted that there’s “a lot of mystery,” but had a few ideas:

A dedicated following
Each episode of the podcast has a couple hundred thousand listeners. “You could have a website that does similar traffic,” said Blumberg, “but maybe not have the same response, which I think is attributable to two things…”

The medium is the message
Blumberg believes that audio has an advantage over print when it comes to these projects. “I think when people hear your voice, they form a connection to you that they don’t necessarily form when they’re reading a story,” he said. “Listening to something on your smartphone is more intimate than reading it… We’re excited about this project and that excitement is infectious and people want to be part of it.”

‘I wanna buy that!’
“We actually have a product,” said Blumberg. “How much of this is people [who] just like Planet Money and want to support Planet Money, and how much of this is people [who] just want a T-shirt, this cool T-shirt?” He does think it’s a mix of people who want to support the journalism and people who see a T-shirt of a martini-drinking squirrel and think, ‘That’s cool, I want it!’

One of the co-founders of Kickstarter told NiemanLab that journalism projects have trouble figuring out what kind of rewards to offer their backers.

“Kickstarter is an odd fit for journalism in many ways,” said Laura Amico, co-founder of Homicide Watch, which ran a successful campaign. She told NiemanLab: “The symptom of that to me is that rewards are so problematic. Public media does tote bags. Tote bags even have nothing to do with what you’re actually producing, which is the point of Kickstarter. It doesn’t have anything to do with the product we’re offering, necessarily.”

For NPR, the T-shirt has everything to do with the product they’re offering. While Blumberg says that there are still many more things to be figured out with using crowdfunding more for public media, “I think definitely there’s a realization throughout the public radio system that we need to embrace this new world that we’re in, and we need to figure out how to get along with it and work with it. This is definitely seen as a step in the right direction.”

Update: This piece originally misstated the number of NPR member stations.