Press Start: The first victories in a journalism crowdfunding platform

By Ana Ribeiro

After a longer gestation time than expected, Press Start is now up and running. In the first round of crowdfunding via the platform, three out of five journalists – from Macedonia, Armenia and Congo – reached their funding goals within the initial period.

The other two journalists – from Lebanon and Honduras – have an extra 13 days as of today to reach their respective goals. All five campaigns selected for participation deal with investigating and exposing abuses or shortcomings in their societies.

Press Start sets itself apart from other journalism crowdfunding platforms in that it specifically caters to journalists whose reporting is oppressed in their countries. It is the brainchild of Transitions, a news magazine publisher and journalism trainer in Central and Eastern Europe.

The team behind Press Start had engaged in a crowdfunding campaign with Kickstarter in late 2015 – crowdfunding to start their own crowdfunding platform – but did not reach their funding goal. They had to seek out an additional funding source to make their project happen.

The experience provided lessons Press Start can now impart to the people seeking crowdfunding through their own platform. In a recent interview with ECPMF, Press Start Project Leader Jaroslav Valuch highlighted the main takeaway:

The most important thing is to start getting some donors lined up days and weeks before you launch the actual campaign, who are ready to donate minutes and hours after you launch.”

“Psychologically, people are more inclined to donate once they see the project already has some funding, 25, 50 percent. Launching with zero means you waste precious time reaching this initial psychological threshold. ”

The route to crowdfunding success

From the beginning, the Press Start team knew they would probably need sources other than crowdfunding to get their ambitious international project off the ground. According to Valuch, after their unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign, they “were basically volunteering to make the project happen with the help of several unpaid interns,” until startup help from Google’s Digital News Initiative Innovation Fund came through.

Press Start was then able to launch its first crowdfunding round in July 2016. The platform works by “cultivating close working relationships with well-respected journalism organizations all over the world,” and is very selective with the journalists it decides to include, said Valuch. “These groups know better than anyone which journalists deserve support. With their help, we found the right kind of journalists to launch the site. Also, we wanted a topical, geographical, and gender mix for the first five journalists.”

These journalists’ projects have a local rather than a global focus, although their causes can have universal appeal.

One of the five journalists selected was Zaklina Hadzi-Zafirova, the founder of the Centre for Investigative Journalism SCOOP Macedonia. She entered a project into Press Start named “Putting Macedonia’s Hospitals Under a Microscope”. In her 2-minute video featured on the platform, the Skopje native says she has seen the Macedonian capital as well as journalism change “quite a bit” since she became a journalist 15 years ago.

“In my home country, the journalists get sentenced, threatened or beaten because of their critical voices,” Hadzi-Zafirova tells the camera. The 2016 World Press Freedom Index ranks Macedonia 118th out of 180 countries, compared to 34th in 2009.

A big obstacle she has faced as an investigative reporter has been that “institutions are silent about many things,” she adds. One of these things has been the state of the country’s hospitals, which remains worrisome despite ongoing reforms: “Reviled as it is, Macedonia’s hospital system has been subject to no broad investigations, only piecemeal reporting.”

Hadzi-Zafirova asked for for $560 (or about €500) to support data research and interviews for the investigative journalism project. She reached her full funding goal in the alotted time.

Although journalists get to propose their own funding goals, there are many elements to consider in determining it, Valuch explained:

“We’re asking journalists to come up with their own budgets to cover the costs of their time and other relevant expenses to do their stories, such as travel. The result will depend on the going rate for journalism in their countries, the cost of living, the type of story (i.e., investigation vs. feature, video vs. print), and a bunch of other factors. In some cases, we might check with our local partners to ensure that the proposed budget is realistic for the pitch.”

Journalists can contact Press Start individually if they would like to engaged in a crowdfunding campaign with the platform, but they will then be connected with an institutional partner corresponding to their region.

The article was originally published by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)