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Crowdfunding: a publisher’s story

In 2015, publisher Sean Dagan Wood, launched a crowdfunding campaign to save Positive News and raised more than £260k. Talking to Mary Hogarth, he reveals why the campaign was so successful.

Reading Positive News magazine, it is clear the title has a unique purpose: to publish good journalism about the good things that are happening in the world. Each print issue runs an eclectic collection of upbeat articles – from sustainable housing projects to successful co-operatives – and all are expertly written and curated. 

That viable purpose is celebrated in the latest edition marking its 100th issue in print, with a 40-page section aptly titled The Hope 100. An encouraging but not surprising achievement given the fact that this publication is owned by its audience who have a say in its editorial pillars. 

This is a story of one title’s transition into what could become a showcase business model for indie magazines.

The transition

Positive News, which began in 1993 as a free newspaper, reached a crossroads in 2012 following the death of its founder, Shauna Crockett-Burrows, who remarkably was still leading the organisation in her 80s. “At that point, the responsibility was passed to me,” explains publisher Sean Dagan Wood, who at the time was editor of the not-for-profit newspaper when Shauna put him in charge, before she died. 

As expertise can sometimes hinder innovation, perhaps it was the fact it was fairly early in his career, which gave Sean a broader perspective, along with the courage to step into the unknown. 

“I found myself in charge of the business in my late-20s, having progressed through the organisation at lightning speed, getting involved in all parts of it. From the start, I saw its potential and really got behind its mission, and I built trust with Shauna.”

He acknowledges that while Positive News at that time didn’t have a sustainable business model, it did have a strong community of support and was funded by benefactors who were close to the founder. “When the founder died the title was in a bad financial position. I had to decide whether to let it go with the founder or to try and rejuvenate it. I chose the latter.” 

The rejuvenation, which took three years to come to fruition, included turning the newspaper into a high-quality, quarterly magazine and launching a crowdfunding campaign to finance Positive News’ development and growth. 

Between 2012 and 2015, Sean considered new business and ownership models. “I explored potential routes to investment. We desperately needed capital to resource, relaunch and grow the title.” 

While investigating different options it became evident that the real value lay in the fantastic community of support the title had amassed. A crowdfunding idea started to take shape.

An audience-owned model

A successful crowdfunding cause needs an engaged and supportive community. As a newspaper, Positive News had built up a small but loyal base of long-term subscribers. “There were also a few hundred readers across the UK who used to order bundles of the newspaper and distribute copies in cafes, independent shops and other places where they lived, for other people to pick up for free. They were really passionate about Positive News – I could see that from all their letters and phone calls,” says Sean. “Those readers were our biggest asset.”

As he saw it, the best route to sustainability was through its deeply engaged support base. 

His inspiration came from having learned a great deal about the co-operative movement while covering news stories. One of the country’s first organic farms, Ford Hall in Shropshire – the county where Positive News was originally based before Sean relocated it to London –  was saved through a community shares crowdfunding campaign. This, admits Sean, was a lightbulb moment.

“I thought if our audience owned the publication it could be an aspirational model for other media. It also meant that Positive News would only be accountable to its audience – with each shareholder having an equal say, irrelevant of their investment amount – not to a corporate interest or wealthy proprietor who might be pushing their political or overtly-commercial agenda.”

Taking into account other media co-ops, such as Ethical Consumer Magazine, which had become a co-operative some years prior, proved inspirational. 

Sean decided to merge the co-operative model with crowdfunding as he found the idea really exciting. 

“We could do something extraordinary if we became a co-operative and combined this with a crowdfunding campaign. Selling shares in that co-operative would enable us to raise the necessary funds and doing it through crowdfunding meant we could create strong engagement and wide reach.”

The aim was to raise sufficient funds to support the title for five years while grew its reader revenue, so he set the crowdfunding target at £200,000.  Sean’s role was to develop a sustainable business model, plan the campaign then hire a team who could successfully deliver it.

Crowdfunding challenges

There were many difficulties along the way, including hiring extra team members to leave Sean free to focus on business planning and PR while developing pivotal relationships with high net worth individuals.

Keeping up a strong campaign momentum was critical, which meant limited resources for its usual publishing activities. 

“Essentially, from a publishing perspective, we stripped Positive News back so most of our resources could be focused solely on fundraising, marketing and business planning. For the entire campaign, we had a dedicated campaign manager, someone else delivering constant social media and email marketing, while our editorial team were producing content marketing. Our usual journalism activity was minimised; it was an all or nothing campaign. ”

But the biggest challenge was everything that came next and turning the publication into a viable business. Using the money effectively and making it last was tough admits Sean. After the campaign, with benefactor funding drying up after the death of the founder, Positive News was running at a loss. so immediately capital was being eaten up in keeping the business afloat while the team worked to turn it around. 

The team need time to create the new business model, refresh the brand, launch a new website and relaunch the print title as a magazine. “As a result, much of the money was initially eaten up with relaunch costs, and covering our running loss. That was a scary place to be. I felt a lot of pressure to deliver on expectations after we had run such a successful campaign.”

There was a sense of expectation from supporters and it was keenly felt. 

“Our message from the start was: we don’t know if this will work, we don’t know if we will be able to do it but we want to give it our best shot and we want you to help us raise the money to do that.” 

A critical part of the restructuring involved significant changes such as recruiting new staff, moving premises, planning a relaunch of the brand and new print publication as well as building a new website. 

There were also fundamental decisions about how much to spend upfront and invest in building the team. 

“We needed to invest in the resources and activities that would grow our audience and our revenue versus spending as little as possible to make that money last, so that we could cover our running costs and buy enough time to build momentum and deliver on our plans. It was a delicate balancing act.”

Lessons learned

Asked what made the campaign so successful, Sean cites two critical strategies – developing a clear, compelling narrative and priming their established audience early so that they were ready to invest (including not ignoring offline tactics).

The Positive News team built a compelling campaign concept and strong narrative theme around Own The Media, which was also used as their hashtag for digital marketing. “People understood why we were doing this. More importantly, we also had an emotional as well as a rational connection with our audience. 

“It was their opportunity to be a media proprietor, to have a say in the kind of media they wanted. We had tapped into a vision that was bigger than just our own journalism.”

Offline campaigns can also prove vital. “I wrote a lot of letters directly to our long-term readers and got them on board with the idea before we launched the campaign publicly. Despite having no upfront campaign funds – for example, we had some of the extra team working on commission based on how much we raised – we had multiple touchpoints.” 

There are many lessons from the Positive News story, but perhaps the biggest is to prepare early and that you will always need more money than you think. Many crowdfunding campaigns have failed because teams thought the work started with the launch. 

“Not so, the work starts way before,” says Sean, adding that getting the campaign off to a good start is down to that early preparation – building the right team and detailed planning throughout. 

“Our crowdfunding was successful because we were able to use our strengths as communicators – we knew how to run a good campaign and tell a good story. Plus, we had a really hard-working team who were passionate about our campaign. From the campaign manager, to business advisors who volunteered support, everyone believed in our mission to create a better media.”

Find out how Positive News has evolved post crowdfunding in the second part of this article next week.