Could crowdfunding – yes, crowdfunding – save journalism in partly free societies?

After the Cold War, our attempts to encourage independent media in transition states didn't have the success we hoped. Could crowdfunding be part of the answer?

Barbara Frye
9 August 2016


Hromadske TV, a crowdfunded digital media platform set up in Ukraine in late 2013, is a landmark in crowdfunding initiatives. Credit: Hromadske.tv.For decades, journalists and activists have tried to break the stranglehold that repressive governments or plutocrats hold on media around the globe.

During the Cold War, outlets such as Radio Free Europe, Radio Marti and Voice of America elbowed their way into the airless media environments of the Eastern bloc, Cuba and elsewhere to report on events censored in those countries and to offer an alternative view of the west. 

With the end (mostly) of the Cold War-era practices of signal-jamming and the expulsion of foreign journalists, free press groups changed their approach. They started training reporters in countries where newly free people and markets, and a newly accountable political class, were expected to lead to a robust, independent media scene.

We all know how this story ends. In some cases, especially in Eastern Europe, the influx of foreign investors into the media market instead led to the appearance of collusion between the new media owners and the government (a sell-out hardly worth making for many, who ended up losing money and fleeing those markets a few years later). Many media properties that stayed in local hands fared even worse, bought up and reduced to hand-puppets by well-connected business people. 

A few independent outlets soldier on, but even under the best circumstances — that is, where their reporters are not beaten or threatened, their property not torched — the financial pressures on them are enormous. Many media markets in undemocratic, or nominally democratic, countries are fragmented, with audiences and advertising revenue cannibalised by too many marginal players that exist only because they serve someone’s interest. In places with less-developed private sectors, governments use their position as the major source of advertising funds to starve media properties that displease them. 

Meanwhile, the foundations and NGOs continue to train reporters who for financial reasons are hard-pressed to use their newfound skills and ethics. Western-funded media-sustainability grants will only ever meet a fraction of the demand that’s out there.

There won’t be any white knight, but to these efforts we should add the burgeoning crowdfunding movement, which is under-used in developing countries and young democracies, and offers benefits that the democracy-promoters could not hope to match. 

For starters, individual reporters or independent media outlets in poorer countries often do not need considerable sums — and those sums are within reach of many people in developing countries, which overlap significantly with undemocratic ones. According to a 2013 World Bank report, “up to 344 million households in the developing world [are] able to make small crowdfund investments in community businesses.” 

Offering journalists a way to collect many small donations from domestic contributors while, for the first time, linking them up with sympathetic foreigners or members of a diaspora could be powerful. And crowdfunding would offer ordinary people — many of them disgusted by the distortions of their state- or oligarch-controlled media — a source of information they could trust and feel some investment in. This could literally be the case where media opt to raise loans or offer equity via crowdfunding, as many businesses do, instead of relying solely on the charity model.

Second, in countries where it has worked, crowdfunding relies heavily on social media. Journalists and their circles, in whatever countries, tend to be naturals on social media, and — as the early experience of Press Start, a new journalism crowdfunding effort, is showing — reporters’ Facebook posts are often key to ginning up interest and donations.

It is true, of course, that social media lags behind in some developing countries, held back by low internet penetration. But the World Bank researchers concluded that, based on the current rate of adoption of “feature phones” in Africa, “it is possible that 40 percent of people living in Africa will have access to a smartphone within five years.” 

Third, while there are many worthy organisations making grants to feisty independent media in repressive countries, that relationship makes those media vulnerable to cynical charges that they are manipulated by nefarious “outside interests” or “foreign agents.” Crowdfunding’s transparency helps to shut down such arguments, while allowing the funded outlets to refuse donations from those with an eye to coopting them.

Still, before crowdfunding can really take off in many developing countries, it will need to establish a foundation of trust and to have a few prominent champions (early contributions are powerful psychological incentives for others to kick in). Governments will likely need to create regulations to ensure that crowdfunding campaigns are legitimate and that funded outlets are accountable to donors when they hit their goals.

And if crowdfunding is to succeed, all those grant-making foundations could still have a crucial role in training media outlets to do it, helping them to hone their pitches to contributors, hooking them up to networks of potential donors, and sharing best practices. 

It’s obviously too early to know if crowdfunding for media can take root in these countries, but it’s also obvious that we need a new approach to supporting independent media — one that not only helps fund beleaguered journalists, but also helps to forge a new relationship between media outlets and their distrustful societies. Of all the tools at our disposal right now, crowdfunding seems the best suited for that job. 

Want to know more? Find out how you can support independent journalists with Press Start here

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