How Ukrainian journalists turned to crowdfunding site Patreon to fund their coverage

Olga Rudenko, editor of The Kyiv Independent, had a trying six weeks. Faced with the prospect of trying to run her publication from a bomb shelter with unreliable internet and fearing Russian soldiers would target journalists, she fled the capital for western Ukraine. the day after President Vladimir Putin’s invasion began.

Yet, as the conflict destroyed Ukraine’s economy, its fledgling English-language publication flourished.

Created in November last year, the site has grown from 32,000 page views in January to 7.5 million in March. Its team of 20 editors reported from the field and provided a steady stream of social media updates, growing its Twitter following from around 30,000 followers before the war to 2 million today.

“The sense of responsibility to do everything has become even stronger,” said Rudenko, who is now back in Kyiv.

The increase in The Kyiv Independent’s readership is understandable given the global interest in reporting on the conflict. But its success is also emblematic of a larger trend of smaller publications and individual writers finding funding through crowdsourcing sites or subscription platforms to build their brands.

The Kyiv Independent quickly raised £1.5m via a GoFundMe page at the start of the war. But its core operations are funded by donors on Patreon, an American crowdfunding platform launched in 2013 for fans to support creators by becoming “patronages” and financially supporting their work.

Patreon’s traditional base includes musicians, authors, artists, and filmmakers such as comedian Tim Dillon and, at one point, writer Jordan Peterson. Now, journalists, including podcasters and video journalists, are a growing subset of creators, said Ellen Satterwhite, communications and US policy manager at the platform.

Patreon’s more than 3,000 backers in Ukraine saw four times the year-over-year funding growth of those across the rest of the platform in March. The Kyiv Independent earns over £50,000 a month from almost 7,000 customers, making it one of the largest Patreon sites in Ukraine.

Funding is needed to cover higher operating costs, ranging from equipment to insurance. “War reporting is really difficult and very expensive, not just because of the need for $10,000 worth of equipment, but also the need for training, a repairman and a security consultant,” said Jakub Parusinski, the media’s financial director.

When they launched The Kyiv Independent, Rudenko and Parusinski hoped to make 30-40% of revenue from reader contributions in some form before eventually installing a paywall or membership model. With crowdfunding, that proportion is “probably double,” Parusinski said.

The use of alternative funding methods not only allows the publication to maintain its editorial independence. It also marks a change of direction for Patreon, created by musician Jack Conte and his former college roommate Sam Yam to provide struggling artists with more reliable financial support. In April last year, Patreon was valued at $4 billion after its last fundraising round, with US tech investor Tiger Global among the company’s backers.

Under editor Olga Rudenko, The Kyiv Independent earns over £50,000 a month from almost 7,000 customers, making it one of the largest Patreon sites in Ukraine.

The platform could play a supporting role for journalists in “countries with a historically antagonistic attitude towards an independent press. . . it’s definitely something we’re trying to create,” Satterwhite said.

The company suspended its 5-12% platform fee for Ukraine-based contributors and Satterwhite names Ukrainian investigative newspaper Bihus.info and Russian dissident blogger Ilya Varlamov as other news providers using the platform.

Subscription platforms, such as newsletter startup Substack, have become popular ways to fund alternative journalism in the UK and North America.

Parusinksi, who is also managing partner of Jnomics Media, an organization that advises media outlets on how to monetize their content, cited the example of Polish site Patronite, which has been used in a similar way by journalists to seek funding directly. to readers, as proof that this independent model had become a “regional phenomenon” in Eastern Europe.

Such a payment structure is “very much in line with this kind of global movement. . . but adapted to the local environment,” he said. Funding from Patreon allowed for more ambitious and comprehensive coverage of the war, Rudenko added, mentioning the possibility of hiring more staff to support its overworked employees.

The team had used the money to begin video reporting, and they were considering a “large-scale podcast operation,” she said. Donations are also a more flexible means of funding than grants, which must be spent on specific areas.

Freelance journalists in Ukraine, including former BBC reporter John Sweeney, also use the platform. He has used a strong following on Twitter to attract customers and earns around £10,000 in donations a month, which is partly used to pay for a translator and driver.

Sweeney posts video content on the platform daily and said social media and platforms such as Patreon reward journalism with personality. “Audiences love storytellers who tell stories inside their own character. Part of my success is my public identity: people know my voice, my weaknesses and my strengths,” he said.

Patreon decided to continue supporting Russian-based creators when the war broke out, Satterwhite said, although the impact of international sanctions made it difficult for them to receive funding.

When asked if Patreon is responsible for content created by journalists on its platform, Satterwhite said the company weighs freedom of speech against safety, based on user reports. and machine learning to detect breaches.

The site has taken down accounts where people have spread misinformation about Covid-19, for example. She added that the company, unlike Twitter, does not have a “discovery algorithm”, which prevents potential misinformation from being amplified.

Parusinski rejects the suggestion that Patreon has editorial responsibilities. “It’s more of a payment solution or a follower or member management solution,” he said, adding that outlets can post to Patreon but tend to rely on other means to distribute their content.

Crowdsourcing as a funding channel is flawed, Parusinski warns. Kyiv Independent will be taxed on its Patreon earnings rather than profits, and it also has a 2-5% payment processing fee. But using the site has allowed the publication to quickly increase its funding.

Beyond the war, Parusinksi believes the publication can continue to grow by expanding its audio and video coverage, as well as expanding into other areas, including events or e-commerce services for products. Ukrainians.

“Will the amount of attention and support diminish when hostilities die down? Sure. But I will be happy. It’s a good problem,” he said.

Amanda J. Marsh