Online public-records startup MuckRock expands crowdfunding ambitions

DOD redacted

Boston news startup MuckRock has used government-records sleuthing to dig up some big stories, from the Boston Police Department’s use of license-plate scanners to the FBI file of deceased rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard.

Along the way, the company found that readers were willing to dig into their own pockets to help pay for the costs of prying documents out of the government. Starting today,  the site is testing the waters with a broader crowdfunding initiative.

The new feature will give news consumers a chance to pledge money to ongoing reporting projects, such as MuckRock’s existing reporting on private prison companies in the United States. The site also is giving journalists an improved way to display their progress and source material, helping them engage with the audience as the stories play out.

“You can tell a lot of great stories with individual requests, but what we found was our reporters, our editors, and our users were doing bigger and bigger projects,” MuckRock co-founder Michael Morisy said. “We wanted to figure out a way to tell those larger, ongoing stories — and also find ways to fund those larger, ongoing stories.”

Online crowdfunding has quickly become an established way for companies to test the market demand and raise initial financing for a first run of products, which traditional venture investors are less likely to back because of their hefty up-front costs.

Tech gadgets such as smartwatches and 3-D printers were among the bigger early successes, causing musicians, filmmakers, and others to try crowdfunding as a means of bankrolling creative projects.

Regular people have used crowdfunding sites to pay for personal causes, such as the blind New York man who couldn’t afford his soon-to-retire seeing-eye dog after both of them were run over by a subway train.

The news industry has flirted with the idea of crowdfunding, with mixed results. An early attempt at asking readers to pay for reporting projects was Spot.Us, a nonprofit that was acquired by American Public Media in 2011 but shut down early this year.

In announcing the shutdown, American Public Media said its research showed that journalism projects represented a tiny slice of all crowdfunding campaigns and had a higher-than-average failure rate.

It pointed instead to broader crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo as an outlet for journalism projects, saying they make it possible for journalists to “reach new audiences with an affinity for the kind of content you are making, even if they’ve never heard of you before.”

Nevertheless, separate niche crowdfunding sites have continued to draw support — Beacon Reader is dedicated directly to news projects, while Patreon supports a broader base of artists and other creative types.

MuckRock was founded in 2010 and has a long-running relationship with The Boston Globe — its reporters have collaborated on major news stories, and the startup uses free office space in the Globe building. Morisy, who was a 2015 John S. Knight journalism fellow at Stanford, also is the former editor of BetaBoston.

The underpinnings for MuckRock’s new crowdfunding tools date to the site’s earlier push for donations to back individual records requests, but the startup really began looking seriously at expanding those tools to larger reporting projects about six months ago, Morisy said.

Partnering with another crowdfunding site wasn’t a good option in part because MuckRock’s users often are researching controversial topics, and donors sometimes insist on anonymity, he added.

“A lot of these platforms, you can’t vouch for them. We don’t know what they’re going to do with the user data. So building it ourselves was pretty important,” Morisy said.

Morisy declined to disclose details about MuckRock’s user growth or revenue, but said that about 5,000 users have filed more than 17,700 public-records requests, and that the site has attracted millions of visitors.

MuckRock makes most of its money through the fees it charges to use the company’s public-documents services, which start at $20 to file four requests. It also does some consulting work, including public-records audits and surveys in conjunction with nonprofits or journalism schools. It has a paid staff of five, including Morisy, an editor, a developer, and two reporters.

The startup plans to add 15 percent to crowdfunding campaigns to cover the cost of payment processing, Morisy said. The crowdfunding tools will be rolled out to reporters and news organizations first, but could be expanded to activists and researchers of other kinds in the future, he said.

David Cohn, the founder of Spot.Us, said MuckRock’s focus on documents requests under the federal Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, could be a strength as it seeks to branch into broader crowdfunding.

“If you fund-raise for something and a journalist comes back and says, `Here’s my 5,000-word article,’ someone can say `Oh, I can’t believe I paid 50 bucks for this.’ But if there’s a FOIA request, there is no arguing with that. That’s where the money went, here is the information,” Cohn said.

“The only real question, which I guess is the million-dollar question for them, is what’s the appetite for this? I’d like to think that it’s bigger than we might guess, but that’s what they’re going to look into. And I’m glad that somebody is going to.”

Updated 9:35 a.m. to correct user and record-request figures.