Can Patreon’s crowdfunding platform help journalists go direct? Jesse Brown is going to find out

We’ve seen a number of attempts to crowdfund a journalistic enterprise — including Andrew Sullivan’s reader-funded Daily Dish, the Kickstarter-powered launch of investigative blogger Eliot Higgins’ Bellingcat website, and the group model that Beacon Reader uses. The decision to go direct to readers (or potential readers) is an interesting one, so when a Canadian journalist who does a media podcast turned to the crowdfunding site Patreon for support recently, I asked him to tell me why.

Jesse Brown — who, in the interests of full disclosure, is a long-time friend — has worked for a number of different media outlets over the years, including writing a column for Canada’s national newsmagazine, as well as doing a technology-focused radio show/podcast called Search Engine for the public broadcaster, the CBC.

After leaving the CBC, Brown did what many freelance journalists do, which is a little of everything — reporting, writing, blogging, consulting and paid speaking. But he also started a media-focused podcast called Canadaland, because he believed that Canada lacked the kind of critical analysis that the United States and other countries have. Soon, this side project became almost a full-time job.

Sustainable, dependable income

Although podcasting is relatively low-cost in this day and age, with cheap hosting and easy-to-use tools for audio editing, there are still costs involved — especially when you are a father of two young children. And despite the relative success of his podcast, affiliate advertising wasn’t really paying the bills. So Brown says he decided to see if his listeners would be willing to support him directly.

Jesse Brown Patreon

Other journalists like Higgins and Canadian blogger Joey Coleman (who I wrote about earlier) have used Kickstarter or Indiegogo to fund their projects, but Brown said he didn’t want to get just one lump of funding all at once. He wanted to find a way of generating an on-going stream of income for the show, which isn’t something that other crowdfunding platforms are really set up to do.

I didn’t want to feel like I was setting some arbitrary stopwatch where if we don’t get this amount by a specific time then I kill the podcast — I didn’t want this to be some kind of a shakedown. I needed a source of sustainable, dependable income for the show.

Patreon, which was co-founded by Jack Conte of the band Pomplamoose, has found a big following with creators of various kinds, including YouTube users, cartoonists and comic artists, but it hasn’t been used much for journalism — or at least not what most would consider mainstream journalism. There is a community of game reviewers and writers who use the platform (something that has led to some controversy) and one or two doing local or comic-related journalism.

A direct relationship with listeners

Brown says taking the crowdfunding step was nerve-wracking, since he didn’t really know how much support there actually was among his listeners. But the campaign reached its first goal — $1,000 a month to pay for minimal costs and overhead — within a matter of hours, and within a few days had grown to more than twice that amount, with over 500 individual donors. Some have given as much as $80 a month.

Jesse Brown Patreon1

The second goal for the campaign is $4,000 a month, which Brown said would pay for his costs plus a modest salary. He said part of the reason for the Patreon experiment was that the show had started to become such a commitment in terms of time and money that he couldn’t justify doing it for free any longer.

By every metric by which you could gauge success — the growing listenership, the coverage I was getting, the guests I was able to get, the stories I was breaking — it was successful. So on the one hand wouldn’t dream of stopping it, but there was this one ugly detail — I need to make a living. I’ve got two kids and a mortgage. I just wasn’t able to justify it any more, so it got to a point where it was like, is this a job or isn’t it?

An intense feeling of responsibility

Other journalists who have gone the crowdfunded route, such as Daily Dish blogger Andrew Sullivan, have talked about how the direct route is much more pure — ethically speaking — than any other form of compensation, especially advertising, because being paid by your audience ensures that your only interest is in serving them. Brown said this kind of funding appealed to him because it was similar to the approach that public broadcasting takes.

“I come from a public broadcasting background, where the ethic is the public pays us to do this, so we owe them good journalism,” Brown said. “But that was always kind of an abstract concept, because they couldn’t really fire us. My public can fire me… so it’s definitely more of a direct relationship now. What I love about this is it draws me closer to them, it creates this intense feeling of responsibility. I have my marching orders.”

Brown admitted that there’s a chance that kind of direct relationship could cause problems in the future, if his editorializing on the show ever conflicts with the interests of a large group of his listeners, but he said he was willing to take that risk. And if he does reach his highest goal — $10,000 a month — he plans to create a podcasting network with multiple shows on topics such as politics and technology.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Thinkstock / marc Debnam