With failure comes curiosity

Mar 26 2015

After my team’s venture to find a sustainable solution to fund a media production team that investigates energy issues (Powering a Nation) faltered, I can’t stop myself from analyzing how other media projects are funded.

How do energy news outlets support themselves? How do environmental documentaries find their funding? How do typical news outlets reach out to a younger audience?

A few tips on getting inspiration: sign up for newsletters from outlets like Nieman Lab and Pew Research Center.

One conclusion I can draw from all this research is that most news outlets are trying to diversify their revenue streams (like we are), and they’re trying to work through social media (like we are, too). It’s interesting to ponder why their plans worked and ours didn’t.

Here are a few examples I came across that I found rather interesting:

1. The Skimm

  • Desirability: Written in a witty tone, the daily email newsletter summarizes the news into short paragraphs. It serves the need of millennials perfectly — we want to be in the loop, but we want to get it in one go, fast and simple.
  • Viability: It is no wonder then that the founders managed to secure millions of dollars in sponsorship and investment. It is also a perfect opportunity for advertising as they drop names and offer deals in the emails without the baggage of flashy and distracting advertisements.

2. POLITICO Morning Energy

  • Desirability: POLITICO, known as the politics insider, sends a morning newsletter called “Morning Energy” to its subscribers that explains all energy-related activities going on in Congress. It is an attractive service for journalists, lobbyists and anyone with a stake in the field.
  • Viability: POLITICO gets most of its funding from advertising, but it also gets a substantial amount of income from subscription services and holding events. The niche is that the company has information that no one else has.

3. Crowdfunding (Kickstarter, Beacon, De Correspondent)

  • Desirability: You pay for the journalism you want. The concept is that simple. The Vancouver Observer did a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter for a project about Tar Sands; Beacon is a website wholly dedicated to funding journalists or specific stories that you’d like to see covered. De Correspondent is a Dutch paper that was founded based on crowdfunding.
  • Viability: Can crowdfunding sustain a news outlet? Beacon offers monthly subscriptions, so you may be able to continue supporting a writer or project. De Correspondent claims that it has managed to convert many of its initial supporters into long-term subscribers. It’s interesting how they treat the supporters less as readers and more as members or partners, often holding “conversations” instead of leaving comment threads.

4.  I F****** Love Science

  • Desirability: Who said science has to be serious? Founder Elise Andrew’s presentation of fascinating scientific facts has gathered more than 7 million likes on Facebook and crashed NASA’s website after one of the posts linked to it. Also, who said you need a website? Facebook is fine (although they DO have a website now).
  • Viability: According to an article from The Guardian, Andrew gets revenue from selling merchandise.

5. Nowthis

  • Desirability: It’s the era of short videos now. Nowthis offers videos, under a minute, aggregated from other news websites and distributes it primarily through social media as well as a mobile app. Instead of stretching resources, they rely on partners to provide information. The company’s target audience: People scrolling through their phones while in the elevator or waiting in line.
  • Viability: Nowthis started with high-profile names and good investment. But it also found a cash cow in partnering with companies to produce branded content videos.

6. Switch Energy Film and Documentary Project

  • Desirability: A documentary about energy can be dry and boring. I reserve my comments on how this particular documentary did, but it is interesting to note how the project managed to secure partnerships and funding.
  • Viability: The project has a lot of support from various foundations, which is pretty typical for a documentary of this genre. But I thought it was interesting that they offer educational videos, efficiency tips and screening events. With more of these materials, it would be easier to attract partners and, subsequently, subscribers.

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