The homepage of Ricochet, announcing Christopher Curtis is launching a newsletter with them.

Here’s how journalists are building crowdfunded newsletters

Christopher Curtis left a Postmedia paper to start a reader-supported newsletter

John Loeppky  - September 25, 2020

Christopher Curtis had been, until recently, a reporter at Postmedia’s Montreal Gazette — when he became tired of the nine-year grind of meeting the daily demands of a newsroom amidst the backdrop of a shrinking media industry. 

“(I thought) if I could be free from the constraints of constantly having to do like, a night shift, where I just call the cops or match a story written by someone else’s outlet… then I’d start producing stuff that I think is really good,” he says.

That’s why Curtis left his job and started, alongside fellow independent venture Ricochet Media, The Rover, a reader-supported newsletter that aims to tell stories in communities that are underrepresented. 

Curtis is one of many independent journalists across the globe who are turning to a crowdfunding model to support their own work. 

Simon Owens is a journalist and freelance content strategist who covers the media. Owens’ own Substack has what he says is “a few thousand free subscribers and a few hundred paid subscribers,” but his audience has been growing since he started on TinyLetter in 2014. However, he didn’t monetize that portion of his work until 2020. 

“Patreon was a really first big mover in the space, but now we’ve had several others dedicated to different mediums from podcasting, to YouTube, to now writing with Substack and Medium. There are a lot of these tools coming to the market that instead (of presenting more barriers) are making it a lot easier for these writers to access (their audiences).

Owens advises those looking to start a newsletter to create a free product first, and not to expect a paid newsletter to become your full-time gig right away. 

“You don’t want to even launch a paid version right away. You need to figure out what your voice is,  what the direction of the newsletter is . . . and only then after you’ve built up a solid six to 12 months of time building a subscriber base, then start maybe talking to some of your most loyal subscribers about what would they value enough to actually pay for — then design an offering around that.”

Sarah Krichel's Patreon page, displaying the levels at which people can join, including a $1 level, $5 and $9.

Sarah Krichel is an independent writer and editor who recently completed her tenure as editor at the Eyeopener, Ryerson University’s independent student newspaper. Soon after graduation, she started a Patreon dedicated to supporting her work mentoring young journalists.  

Krichel says she decided to crowdfund because of the connection she could make with her growing audience. 

“I felt like it was a good place where I could put my thoughts and my criticisms of the industry into a platform that I would feel really confident in,” says Krichel. “And the fact that people have to subscribe and actively support what you’re doing means that they really want that content and they really want to know what you have to say. Obviously, the newsletter is just one tiny part of it. The main part is definitely the service tiers.”

Those service tires include options such as support for those looking to improve their journalism skills through pitch editing, a workshop for student media members and the aforementioned newsletter. Krichel has 31 patrons, providing USD$188 to her monthly, with tiers ranging from $1 to $13 a month, plus a one-time fee tier at $100 for those who are looking to build an independent outlet. 

For The Rover, initial coverage will be split between stories in and around Montreal, where Curtis has built his career, and Val-d’Or, a community in Québec that he says needs to have more of its stories told. The impetus for The Rover’s model was Curtis’ interest in that small community. 

“I told Ethan (Cox, editor at Ricochet) about this region in Québec where there’s a pretty big population of Anishinaabe First Nations residents, and there’s a lot of  reports of police brutality, there’s a lot of mining on Indigenous territory  — there’s just a lot of systemic unfairness and systemic racism,” Curtis says. “I thought it would be really interesting if we could spend a bunch of time there and uncover stories that no one else is looking into on a national scale.” 

The logo for the Rover, displaying a barking dog on top of a rolled up newspaper.

In just a few days, The Rover attracted nearly 400 subscribers and has since raised 30 per cent of its $20,000 a month goal. The outlet has an entry level subscription of $12.50, a yearly subscription of $145, and a founding member level of $300.

“I had this gut feeling that there is a yearning out there for something different and for something new,” says Curtis. “I wanted it to be about, you know, if I died today, would I be happy with my career and the choices I made? And the answer was not really. So then how do I change that? And  how do I create something that I can be proud of?”

Curtis says that, while he doesn’t claim to know the future of media, he does know that crowdfunded outlets are doing some of the most impactful work in the country.

“On a national scale, look at the biggest political story in Canada right now, it’s the WE charity scandal. That was not broken by the Toronto Star or the Globe and Mail, that was broken by Canadaland, which is a crowdfunded news outlet. If you look back to the last few years, some of the biggest stories in Canada have either come from crowdfunded outlets or alternative media outlets like the National Observer.”

In moving to a crowdfunded model as a journalist, Curtis says that his focus is on providing good representation in places that do not catch mainstream attention. 

“If I visit someone, it’s not like this is the only time we’ll ever speak. You know, I have to see that person again, and again, and again. So, I have to be accountable to that person and their community. I want to do the best job that I can representing them.”

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Have a tip, pitch, question to ask, link to include, or opportunity you want to promote? Send it to me!

And one more thing… 

Must read: how the journalism industry’s elitism locks out folks from underrepresented backgrounds.

“The idea that my lesser-known school could remove me from consideration for an opportunity is elitism at its core. In that moment, it felt like the journalism industry was more likely to recognize folks who attended elite private schools, rather than for the quality of their journalism.”

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