Power to the Readers: A Muckraking Startup Bets on Small Donors

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From a financial perspective, the big picture for American news organizations isn’t pretty. Even accounting for philanthropic support, overall spending on journalism has fallen significantly since 2008, leaving many newsrooms hollowed out. Investigative reporting (and American democracy, some might say) has suffered as a result.

At the same time, through crowdfunding, the digital technologies that dealt such a blow to old-school news have made charity itself a more democratic enterprise. With crowdfunding on the rise and traditional journalism on the ropes, one natural question is: Can the one help the other? 

In the United States, crowdfunded journalism has a shaky track record. Most successful American projects tend to be one-offs focused on specific topics. Attempts to create sustainable crowdfunding platforms for journalists, like Spot.Us and Beacon Reader, have faltered. And while ProPublica famously experienced a flood of small online donations following Trump's election, that's hardly a replicable funding model. 

But none of this has stopped Wendell Potter from trying another variation on the theme. Potter started out as a journalist in the 1970s before working as a healthcare communications executive for two decades. Then, in 2008, in what he describes as a crisis of conscience, he left the industry and became a consumer advocate, publishing a scorching expose in 2011, Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR Is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans.  He followed up that book with a broader indictment of money in politics, written with Nick Penniman, called Nation on the Take.

Now, Potter has founded Tarbell, a digital media site that aims to investigate power players, largely corporate, that can influence elections and otherwise “rig” the system. The site seeks to be mainly reader-funded. 

“There are many different models for potential journalism in the future, all with different objectives,” Potter said. “It’s really important to be accountable to readers and less accountable to any other funders.” 

Potter raises a point that we've explored often at IP. As philanthropy steps up its support for in-depth journalism, one persistent worry is that foundations and big donors, however noble their intentions, will influence nonprofit newsrooms and steer investigations away from their own front doors. Crowdfunding is one obvious way to avoid that conflict. 


Named after Ida Tarbell, the famed Gilded Age muckraker, Potter’s site is just getting up and running after a gestation period during early 2017. The goal right now is to acquire new donors (particularly “members” providing regular support), and to spread the word. A counter on the front page of the site says that it has 1522 funders so far. If you visit the donate page, you can choose to give at different levels, ranging from mere "supporters" at $27 to "founders" for $150 a year.

Meanwhile, Tarbell has released its first set of stories focused fittingly on the pharmaceutical industry’s influence in D.C. The site doesn’t run ads, and there’s no paywall. While members pay to support the enterprise, anyone can read the stories.

Because Tarbell is more like a nonprofit newsroom than a crowdfunding platform for independent journalists, Potter sees potential in an ongoing campaign to build membership. He cites European successes like Germany’s Krautreporter and the Netherlands’ De Correspondent, which have used similar models to build sustained support.

As I've discussed in the past, the biggest crowdfunding successes often involve a major newsworthy event, celebrity backing, or both. Tarbell, and nonprofit journalism in general, lacks those advantages.


But Potter does enjoy a certain level of star power in certain circles. He has used an extensive personal network to good effect, building an impressive board of directors and advisory board that includes Bill Buzenberg, former executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, Krautreporter founder Sebastian Esser, Mediashift founder Mark Glaser, and others. Potter also says he has achieved traction on social media and elsewhere with figures like Bill Moyers and Arianna Huffington, and organizations like Consumer Watchdog.

Still, Tarbell's business model does sound like a kamikaze mission. So we weren't surprised to learn the site doesn’t rely on small donors alone. Several larger funders, including a number of modest family foundations, have stepped up with larger gifts. One less modest funder is the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which has given a lot of money to Tarbell, according to Potter. LJAF, as we’ve seen before, has been keen to fund investigative journalism on healthcare and the pharmaceutical industry, including by backing outfits like Kaiser Health News.

But over the long term, Potter doesn’t want to be “solely reliant on one or two wealthy individuals.” He envisions a model along the lines of PBS or NPR, with some support from foundations and a firm base of donating readers. 

In the meantime, Potter is reaching out to larger foundations like MacArthur, McCormick, the Rita Allen Foundation and the California Endowment regarding potential support down the line. Among larger funders, Potter said, “there’s a desire to provide funding to organizations that have been around for a while. That’s another reason for doing crowdfunding first.” Perhaps an even better reason for a crowdfunding model in this case is that funders like MacArthur are already backing a slew of nonprofits engaged in muckraking. These groups include not just ProPublica, but the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Public Integrity, the Nation Institute, and others. Tarbell is entering a very competitive space when it comes to landing institutional grants. 

Going forward, Potter sees Tarbell as an active space that engages its membership, even to the point of taking coverage suggestions and connecting members with reporters working on stories. There’s also a civic engagement piece, here. While Tarbell doesn’t take official policy positions, Potter wants it to “help people understand how they can acquire the tools and information to be more effective citizens” by reporting on efforts to solve the problems the stories pose. This brand of “solutions journalism” has won support from some nonprofit news regulars including Knight, Hewlett and Rita Allen, among others. 

If Tarbell takes off, it’ll be a model for viable crowdfunded investigative journalism in the U.S. It’ll also be another entry in the list of ways journalism is adapting to the realities of the present. Whether it augments projects like Tarbell, supports innovative concepts like Gerry Lenfest’s nonprofit journalism institute, or tries to combat “fake news,” philanthropy has become a key part of that story.