Matter: How A Sci/Tech Investigative Reporting Startup Raised $140,000 on Kickstarter

Published on
April 5, 2012

Jim Giles and Bobbie Johnson raised $50,000 in just over two days to start Matter, a website for investigative reporting on science and technology. How did their Kickstarter proposal get so much support behind it? This week in Career GPS, Giles discusses the ins and outs of raising money from individuals online.

First, here's how the proposal evolved: Giles and Johnson posted their idea on Kickstarter, a platform that allows individuals to fund creative projects, on February 21. They created a goal of $50,000 to be raised by March 24. But in 38 hours, they had already reached that goal, which meant that Kickstarter would release the funds to them. By February 26, they had $75,000 and they hit the $100,000 mark on March 2. By their March 24 closing date, they raised $140,201 from 2,566 backers.

Giles and Johnson had been thinking about this problem for a year: In their view, there isn't a good model for supporting investigative journalism online and there is a lack of good writing and investigations about science and technology. They both work in the field of science and technology journalism, Johnson as the European editor of the tech site GigaOM and Giles as a full-time freelance journalist. So by the time they came to Kickstarter, they had a really well developed plan. Part of their success comes from a strong message: they knew what exactly they were pitching.

They also were led by example. Giles says they were inspired by other successful publishing pitches. The Classical raised over $50,000 last year to publish smart writing on sports. The video games website Venus Patrol raised more than $100,000, double its goal, last fall. Both pitches have strong voices and extol the creators' prior successes. Giles and Johnson also were inspired by the proposal of Double Fine, which raised $3.3 million to create a "classic point-and-click adventure game." That project reached its $400,000 goal in eight hours. "Their video is superb," says Giles.

Kickstarter says that 50 percent of proposals with videos are funded, compared to the 30 percent funding rate of proposals without videos. So it was clear to Giles that on Kickstarter, video is crucial. He and Johnson hired filmmaker H.P. Mendoza to help deliver their message. "A well-executed video is a wonderful way of capturing the more intangible emotional aspects of a proposal," Giles says, so it is worth the initial investment.

"Like a lot of startups, you just put in your own money and are not taking anything out," Giles says. But he added that making a proposal on Kickstarter does not have to be daunting.

"Certainly the startup costs are quite manageable. The biggest challenge is to find time," he says. "You have to spend a lot of time promoting it. Not many people are going to stumble across it."

Many projects on Kickstarter don't make money, so Giles and Johnson did everything they could to get the word out about Matter. They tweeted, told their friends, and focused on "getting under the noses of people who care about this stuff, who might want to write about it."

But making proposals public opens your project up to comments, both good and bad. BoingBoing wrote about the proposal early on. Felix Salmon, finance blogger for Reuters, got behind Matter in many posts and discussions about funding journalism through Kickstarter. The journalist Stephen Robert Morse did not support Matter, calling the proposal a "scam" and an unsustainable model for investigative journalism. But the debate between Morse and Salmon, even if it included some harsh criticisms, likely generated extra traffic to the proposal.

Giles says that $21,000 was pledged by backers who were referred to their Kickstarter page via Twitter. (Johnson has almost 12,000 followers there.) Most journalists have many contacts and Giles says it's important to recognize that strength and let people know about what you're doing.

"You are putting a lot of trust in the person you donate to on Kickstarter," says Giles. "The flipside of that is we're putting our reputation on the line to say, 'We can do this.'"

Giles and Johnson, who are keeping their current jobs and employers, will use the funds they've raised to publish one longform story per month. They are following the models of The Atavist and Byliner, which publish less often but focus on pieces with great depth that they can sell individually for small amounts. Matter also sold sponsorship slots as part of their Kickstarter proposal, but Giles says that their priority in the beginning will be to sell single articles.

With that in mind and $140,000 in hand, Matter is looking for pitches ahead of its spring 2012 launch.

There are a few things essential in a Matter story, Giles says. There needs to be a strong narrative. "There needs to be a character, journey or debate -- something at the heart of the story that can be told in a narrative fashion," he explains. As a news outfit, Matter also wants pieces on newsworthy topics, with exclusive information or insight and timeliness. Keep in mind, that pitches should be for longform pieces, 5,000 words and up.

In the arena of health, Giles is open to a broad array of subjects: they can be related to social issues, culture, policy-making, medicine or anything else that would fall under the very broad category of science and technology.

To pitch, send Matter a few paragraphs outlining your idea and one paragraph explaining where else you've been published. While you need not have a byline in the New Yorker, Giles says they are looking for experienced and proven reporters. On rates, Giles wouldn't give a number but says, "We are going to be asking reporters to do a lot of work. They'll be compensated properly."

Send your pitches to hello [at] readmatter [dot] com.


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