Six self-described “seasoned freelance journalists” with a combined 90 years of relevant reporting experience are looking to online crowd-sourcing to fund their climate and environmental coverage. They face a deadline of March 5 to get to 800 backers.

The freelancers, all based in the San Francisco Bay area, are using to build support for their proposed “Climate Confidential” reporting efforts. As of the morning of February 20, they counted just over 300 backers and initial revenues of about $9,100, with both numbers likely to grow incrementally and daily. If they don’t get to 800, they face abandoning the effort.

The crowd-funding initiative is one of a number of such entrepreneurial journalism efforts looking to raise relatively small individual fees during a time when traditional financial support for serious journalism is hard to come by. Many journalism observers say it’s a sign-of-the-times — fraught with risks but also holding some promise — given struggling newsroom economies, shrinking news staffs, thinning audiences, and tough challenges for freelancers generally.

A Promise of ‘Completely Independent Reporting’

The six freelancers say they will provide “sustainable reporting on the topic you won’t get anywhere else” … “stories of scientists and entrepreneurs who are shaping our future, and communities where environmental issues are playing out.”

Climate Confidential is Amy Westervelt, Ucilia Wang, Celeste LeCompte, Josie Garthwaite, Mary Catherine O’Connor and Erica Gies.

Pointing to their “deep rolodexes,” they promise to cover stories “that have until now been lurking in the shadows.” And they promise “completely independent” reporting free of external interests “apart from yours,” the paying readers, who are the only ones who will have access to their work.

In an e-mail, one of the six “Climate Confidential” freelancers, Mary Catherine O’Connor, wrote that the group “can provide real context and insight from true insiders. Our subscribers will have open communication with us, telling us what they want to read about, in terms of topics (not influencing our reporting in any other ways, of course).” Those selecting particular subscription options will be invited to  quarterly “salons” to be held in the San Francisco area to meet with the reporters and exchange ideas.

Responding to questions from The Yale Forum, for which she has twice written paid features, O’Connor explained the rationale behind Beacon’s 30-day fundraising deadline. “Statistically, crowd funding projects with 30 days perform the best because of the momentum that can be built week over week,” she wrote. “Campaigns are supposed to be time-sensitive and it helps motivate backers and campaigners to really push. Anything longer than that and it can get very fatiguing.”

With Beacon taking a 25 percent slice from each paid subscription, O’Connor said 800 paid subscribers would “allow us to write weekly stories at a livable wage. We’d like, of course, to grow the subscription base well beyond 800. That would allow us to increase the frequency and scope of our reporting, maybe bring in other reporters, produce multimedia, etc.” The six freelancers are targeting $500 per story as their objective, and O’Connor noted that all six plan to continue their independent freelance reporting with or without this new project.

Complex Range of Subscription Options

With a February 3 launch to their fundraising, O’Connor said the effort by February 11 had reached “about 25 percent” of the goal of 800 subscribers. By February 20, the site pointed to 311 backers and a total raised of $9,115.

But those numbers alone can be misleading, perhaps even meaningless, as extrapolating to a full year, or to all 800 would-be funders, requires making numerous assumptions that may or may not be borne out, in part because individuals could cancel or change their subscriptions at any time.

In addition, the site describes seven different categories of funders or subscribers: from those subscribing at $5 a month, to be billed monthly to a credit card, to those prepaying for a full year at $55, a savings of $5, and several other and more substantial variations, including, for instance, 15 subscriptions for six months for $300. So not all subscribers — whether 800 or more — would be paying the same freight. With less than two weeks remaining in the campaign, the weekly subscriptions comprised about one-third of the total, and the annual $55 subscription, the second most common, about one-seventh. No subscriber had signed up for the $5,000 “Launch Partner” option as of February 20.

It’s a complex pricing strategy, and O’Connor said in an e-mail that Beacon staff recognize it to be “quite confusing, and we probably need to change how it works.” It’s bound to be even more complex for would-be subscribers and backers than for the Beacon staff itself.

While the wording on the site itself seems absolute — “This project will only be funded if 800 readers back it by Mar 05, 12:00AM GMT” — O’Connor left open the possibility that the freelancers could at the end choose to proceed even if they miss that goal, but think it still within reach. As for whether they would continue the project if the number of backers reaches 800, but then falls below that figure, she was philosophical and practical: “We are certainly committed to this project and understand that it’s entrepreneurial. As such, we accept that income will be a moving target.”

Elaborating on that point, reporter Ucilia Wang wrote “This is meant to be an experiment to try a new business model, and we understand that as a startup we aren’t likely going to make [a lot of] revenue consistently at the start. Our goal is to provide good stories,” she said, and “lining-up new subscribers and sponsors would be an ongoing effort.”

Partner Celeste LeCompte added that “We’re going to keep doing this as long as we can make the economics work. We hope to grow, not shrink, over time.”

No one who knows anything about the subject suggests that good journalism comes cheap, however, and the six engaged in this experiment recognize that “Climate Confidential,” if it launches, would be just one client among a number all would have. With less than two weeks remaining to attract the additional 489 subscribers needed to meet the goal of 800, the climb they face clearly remains a steep one.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is Editor of Yale Climate Connections. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as Assistant Director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission on Air Quality,...