Environmental reporters are turning to crowdfunding—but their voices are becoming whispers in the noise of news
Stephen Leahy is passionate about the environment. So passionate, in fact, that the 61-year-old Canadian journalist is willing to live below the poverty line in his in-laws’ basement apartment so he can continue reporting on environmental injustices.
Those sacrifices seem worth it when Inter Press Service agrees to publish his story about the Ninth World Wilderness Congress in Mexico. It’s November 6, 2009, and Leahy has a huge scoop—a group of scientists has concluded that in order to preserve the earth’s wildlife, more than half the planet will need protection from the effects of climate change.
But Leahy soon learns that four fellow journalists tried, and failed, to sell the same story to mainstream news outlets. Never mind environmental sustainability—what about the journalistic ecosystem? As his colleagues consider careers in public relations, Leahy hatches a plan. He jots down the facts: Canadians want to stay informed about the environment, and he’s a qualified journalist with a loyal following. If traditional publishers won’t pay, then he’ll go directly to the public. Leahy calls his brainstorm “community-supported environmental journalism.”
The crowdfunding website Kickstarter launched in April 2009, about seven months before Leahy attaches a PayPal account to his website. The timing for crowdfunding appears fortunate, as journalists in this country have had to endure a string of massive budget cuts—the Canadian Media Guild reported that roughly 2,000 industry jobs were cut from January to May in 2009. At the same time, environmental reporting had started to lose its permanent home at traditional news organizations.
Some newspapers, such as the Guelph Mercury, have seldom maintained an environmental beat, while others, including The Hamilton Spectator, have seen such coverage decrease. Many newspapers publish sporadic stories from freelance writers and general assignment reporters that tend to focus on political conflicts instead of environmental consequences.
Today, almost six years after it launched, Kickstarter is no longer just a niche option for quirky indie musicians trying to record an EP; it’s a powerful method of innovation. Crowdfunding success stories include the Pebble smartwatch, which raised millions of dollars, and the Coolest, a high-tech portable cooler with more than 60,000 backers. Meanwhile, user-supported environmental reporting is still waiting for its Pebble or Coolest.
Crowdfunded journalism offers the public an opportunity to engage with the material they’re funding and make suggestions before it’s published. But the risks and challenges of journalism by donation are numerous. Can it reach the same number of people as mainstream media? Will its content remain engaging enough to sustain funding? And, finally, can it prevent longform journalism—including quality environmental stories—from getting stuck on the outskirts of the internet?
Kickstarter’s success, websites Beacon Reader and Patreon now offer subscription-based models better suited for creators who develop content on a continuing basis, rather than one-off projects.By acting as intermediaries, most crowdfunding sites take a cut of the money collected—anywhere from five to 10 percent. Or, if entrepreneurs are brave enough, they can go at it alone by integrating a PayPal account into their own website, just as Leahy did.Given that American Kickstarter celebrity Zack “Danger” Brown raised $55,492 in a month to make potato salad, crowdfunding may seem like an easy way to get slightly richer somewhat quickly. But for journalists, managing this new approach requires learning a new set of skills—things don’t always turn out the way they hope. Freelance journalist Sam Eifling was excited when his investigative project looking into the after-effects of an oil spill in Mayflower, Arkansas, was posted on crowd-resourcing platform Ioby.org. He and his team secured some donors before they put their campaign on Ioby, and were rewarded with $5,000 in pledges within a few days. But then came what Eifling calls “the big, saggy middle of it” where not much happened.Unlike many other crowdfunding projects that offer the donor an innovative product and bragging rights, journalism gives donors exclusive access and helps create a well-informed society. “What you are essentially doing is asking people to give to a public good,” Eifling explains. But, he adds, many people are surprised by what it costs to produce journalism because they are so used to reading the free, ad-supported version.DeSmog Canada, an independent, ad-free environmental news site that launched in 2013, turned to crowdfunding out of desperation. Initially, the site relied on donations from businesses or occasional grants from foundations (and, in part, it still does), but soon realized it would not make it past year one without public help. It began a month-long, all-or-nothing Kickstarter campaign in September 2014. If it didn’t reach the lofty goal of $50,000, it wouldn’t receive any of the funds, as per Kickstarter’s rules.“We cringed through the entire month,” admits Carol Linnitt, managing editor and director of research at DeSmog. “It’s not very pleasant to ask for money.” There was some push-back on the email list and Facebook page from supporters who expressed frustration with the fundraising efforts. Two weeks into the campaign, Linnitt posted a celebrity endorsement on Facebook: a photo of Naomi Klein along with a quote that read, “It is one of my most trusted sources and was an indispensable tool when writing This Changes Everything. It deserves all of your support.”One critic described the endorsement as “stroking your own ego.” Nonetheless, DeSmog Canada saw a spike in donations and surpassed its goal. What’s not clear is whether it was the quality of journalism or the endorsements from environmentalist David Suzuki, Lost star Evangeline Lilly and Klein that convinced the public to donate.Instead of soliciting through social media, Leahy sends out weekly newsletters to his 1,000 subscribers. He does this from the home office in his in-laws’ basement in Uxbridge, Ontario, surrounded by photos of his two children and copies of his first book. In these letters, he must first educate readers on how the business of journalism works—what he gets paid for a story, his annual income, his expenses—before he lays out detailed specifics on how he will use the funds. Sometimes it takes three or four pitches before people respond. Each reminder pitch he sends out needs to be different because he doesn’t want to spam his contributors with identical letters. “They take an extraordinary amount of time,” explains Leahy. “This is some of the most concise, maybe best, writing I do.”
Leahy now has 10 patrons whose donations range from $10 to $50 a month. The money makes up about 20 percent of his income (the rest comes from freelancing). Although he wouldn’t consider it at this point, Leahy might benefit from a Naomi Klein endorsement.
In the 1980s and 1990s, smog and acid rain made front-page news, and reporters didn’t have to beg for money to get those stories published. The language in those articles was also far stronger and more scientific than today. In a September 30, 1981 story in The Globe and Mail, Michael Keating reported that Canada’s federal and provincial governments were starting a campaign to get the U.S. to stop producing acid rain. That’s because researchers estimated more than half of the acid rain falling in Canada was blowing north from the U.S. After giving a brief rundown on the politics, Keating provided readers with the scientific background. Acid rain is a “chemical soup,” he explained, with ingredients ranging from sulphuric and nitric acid to poisonous metals.
Staff environmental reporters were also not afraid to make bold linkages. When smog began to cloud B.C.’s horizon in April 1995, Ross Howard wrote in the Globe that ozone, one of smog’s ingredients, was “the second-greatest cause of lung disease after smoking.” While Howard and Keating were two of Canada’s leading environment reporters, neither had environmental sciences degrees. But their articles conveyed heft and knowledge because they had access to leading scientists and the time they needed to craft compelling narratives.
While Howard and Keating chased acid rain woes, Peter Calamai, a science reporter for the Toronto Star, had his eye on another prize. He wrote with three prominent parts of the paper in mind: front page, page three and a section front in the weekend editions of the paper. “If I got anywhere else other than that,” he says, “I considered it a failure.”
Even before he started at the Star in 1998, he realized that the only way the majority of the population would read his stories was if he “shoved it down their throats.” He believes that it’s even harder for journalists today, because editors no longer push for science-related stories.
What was, until recently, considered mainstream environmental coverage may now be scorned as activism by some critics and politicians. On December 24, 2012, Mike De Souza, then a national political correspondent for Postmedia, wrote a story about the high price of the government’s new fuel efficiency standards. After combing through the fine print of the report, De Souza found that stricter fuel economy standards on new cars could increase road congestion and cost taxpayers billions of dollars. Ten days later, in a letter published in The Windsor Star, then-environment minister Peter Kent dismissed De Souza as an activist.
Being called an activist generally doesn’t bother the reporter, but it may have bothered his bosses at Postmedia. De Souza called out the federal government’s relationship with oil companies, and held the Conservatives accountable for casting doubt on climate change and allegedly muzzling scientists. Although De Souza didn’t let what he calls the “intimidation tactics” distract him from his investigations, Postmedia laid him off along with two full-time political reporters at its Ottawa bureau in February 2014. “It wasn’t explained to me,” De Souza says after a long pause. “I was told there were budget cuts, but I wasn’t ever given any official reasoning why I would be picked as opposed to other people who remained in the bureau.”
While De Souza had to deal with the pressures of the government and advertisers, not all environmental journalism is like this. So what does that look like? During question period on December 9, 2014, the Conservatives withdrew support for a carbon tax and pointed out that no other countries have regulations on their oil and gas sector. The next day, DeSmog Canada countered the prime minister’s claims with a colourful infographic titled “Carbon Regulations Around the World.”
DeSmog found that more than half of the world’s population live in countries with some form of regulation on carbon consumption and production. The piece linked to news articles and official government websites from countries such as New Zealand, India, Switzerland and Japan. Harper’s denunciation of a carbon tax came shortly after the UN climate talks in Lima, Peru, where the majority of nations agreed to eliminate the wholesale use of fossil fuel energy by 2050.
Mainstream news outlets did cover that story. Ottawa Citizen reporters Jordan Press and Jason Fekete held the government accountable for failing to regulate the gas industry. Using several quotes from Liberal and NDP opponents, they revealed that Canada is unlikely to meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.
While the crowdfunded version lacked access to government sources, the Citizen story omitted the connection between government inaction and the consequences it might have on the environment. But neither DeSmog nor the Ottawa paper offered a full picture of cause and effect.
The launch of the Tyee Solutions Society (TSS) in 2009 offered a new approach to journalism. “Solutions journalism” refers to rigorous reporting that tackles both issue and response. Using this framework, reporters such as Geoff Dembicki interview sources from oil companies, government representatives, environmentalists and academics to bring together different perspectives, opening a dialogue so opposing groups can work toward a consensus. “One of the most surprising things I found was that many of Canada’s largest oil companies actually support a price on carbon dioxide,” he says. Effective solutions journalism employs the same techniques as investigative journalism. When big companies claim they want a price on carbon, Dembicki scours through internal documents to find proof. “The result was I was able to present a story that wasn’t just taking these companies at their word,” he says, “but really looking into how they were preparing for climate change.”
Following the success of TSS, co-founder David Beers is willing to experiment with both journalism and how it’s funded. He employed this successful model when he launched the campaign to take sister site The Tyee national. By creating an in-house crowdfunding campaign called the “builder program,” the goal is to ensure that The Tyee can continue producing quality journalism. The program crowdfunded over $120,000 in 2013 and used that money to successfully establish a model that accounts for 20 percent of the site’s earnings.
In part, this crowdfunding success stems from using it as a tool for expansion, instead of simply as a means of survival. “It has made our relationship with readers that much closer,” explains Dembicki. “They can see now that by reading The Tyee, and by contributing a small amount of money, they were really able to improve the reach of a small independent publication.”
From artists looking for investors to finance their next work, to teachers seeking classroom materials, to journalists looking to fund investigative projects they believe are in the public interest, crowdfunding has helped many entrepreneurs around the world realize their visions. The global crowdfunding economy grew to over $5.1 billion in 2013. But one of the biggest problems with using this technique for journalism is that in an age of free information, readers are no longer accustomed to paying for unpleasant news.
Although Leahy asks the general public for money, his regular donors are journalists, scientists and environmentalists. But when reporters fund other reporters, there’s a concern that the work will not reach the broader public. And if journalists must spend more and more of their time on crowdfunding campaigns, they have less time to devote to researching and writing.
Crowdfunded journalists must juggle their passion for environmental journalism with the dreaded task of fundraising and hope their stories don’t get labelled as activism or pushed to the fringes of the internet. Peter Fairley, a freelance environmental reporter based in Victoria, B.C., has experience with crowdfunding through the Society of Environmental Journalists. As a volunteer board member, he watched fellow journalists rush to assist their peers when the SEJ struggled to stay afloat. But he insists crowdfunded journalism doesn’t always reach a mass audience. “It’s preaching to the choir. It’s being financed by the choir. It’s the choir financing itself.”
Howard doesn’t think the specialized approach is financially sustainable and wants to see a shake-up in mainstream reporting. Climate change is one of the biggest stories of our time, yet mainstream coverage is often reactionary or riddled with conflict. Howard believes that without a well-educated citizenry, stronger environmental regulations are unlikely. But an informed public is unlikely without bold and prominent environmental coverage in mainstream news.
Still, Howard sees a role for crowdfunding. He hopes it can strengthen reporting by paying for research that will lead to stories in mainstream publications. That’s the only way he thinks crowdfunded journalism will reach the masses. “I don’t think it will radically change anything else,” he says. “It will just strengthen these stories so that they are so good they can’t be denied.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that a September 30, 1981 article in The Globe and Mail stated Canada’s governments were petitioning the U.S. to lower its carbon emissions. The campaign was to petitioning to stop the production of acid rain. The Review regrets the error.
Amanda Panacci was the Spring 2015 online editor of the RRJ