When an ExxonMobile pipeline burst and doused Mayflower, Arkansas, with almost 7,000 barrels of toxic heavy crude oil in March of 2013, the Arkansas Times, an alt weekly paper, knew that they needed to look at the horrific event in depth. Unfortunately, they also knew that their staff alone – they’ve got just three editors and three reporters to cover the entire state – just wasn’t going to cut it on this one.
“It’s hard for us to devote full-time reporters to anything,” explains Lindsey Millar, editor of the Times. “And so after the oil spill happened, we knew it was something important that needed to be covered, and we just couldn’t make it work. Weeks turned into months, and it wasn’t being covered sufficiently. We finally decided to turn to crowdfunding.” They teamed up with Pulitzer-winning non-profit InsideClimate News to raise enough money to fund several months of ongoing reporting – exceeding their goal and closing out their ioby campaign at over $26,000 raised.
It was a revelation for the small paper. They’d asked their audience to help pay for the kind of critical muckraking reportage that’s harder and harder to come by in today’s media climate, and the answer they’d gotten was a resounding yes. “The stigma of asking your readers to pay for stories – it was good getting over that,” says Millar. “It erased that as a concern.”
So this March, when the Arkansas Times exposed the “rehoming” of two young girls adopted by Rep. Justin Harris – just months after their adoption, and without notifying the state, he’d sent them to live with another family, where one of the girls was then sexually abused – they knew it was time to turn to crowdfunding again. Here was another story that was too big to let go – readers were in a frenzy over it – but too big to for them to cover any further without bringing extra hands on deck.
“It’s been unlike anything we’ve done, at least since I’ve been at the paper,” explains Millar. “It’s just such a horrific story, and I think anyone with children, anyone who’s been involved with the child welfare system and adoptions and foster system just had a really visceral response to it. So we were just flooded with emails, Facebook messages, comments on the stories by people who were outraged and also people who were just like, ‘I want to do something about this.’ So it was a very obvious green light for us that we should take this to crowdfunding and take advantage of some of that momentum.”
Support flooded in; the paper now has enough funding to work the story hard for at least the next year, in the form of a series of dozens of in-depth stories. A single piece of reporting had given way to an expansive, comprehensive investigation into the state’s child welfare system. New York reporter and author Kathryn Joyce (The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption), who’s done groundbreaking work right at the intersection of adoption and extreme fundamentalist Christianity, has already been hired to tackle the story. “I can’t imagine that there’s anyone who’s more qualified or better suited for this investigation than Katherine is,” says Millar. She arrived in town to start work just today.
So is crowdfunding proving an important part of the future of investigative reporting? “I think that the future of journalism, especially small outfits like ours, is going to be a mix,” says Millar. “We’re going to continue to have to sell a lot of ads and think about sponsored content and all those tricky things. We’re going to have to do events, we’re going to have to do crowdfunding. We’re going to have to get foundation support. The only way forward for us is being open to all forms of revenue generating, and crowdfunding has been great for us. Of all of those, when you have a project where there’s the potential for your audience to get engaged or they’re already engaged, crowdfunding is the way to go.”