Sandeep Junnarkar is an award-winning journalist who writes frequently for The New York Times and was one of the original New York Times CyberTimes writers in the 1990s. A former New York bureau chief for CNET News.com, he is currently a visiting professor at Indiana University School of Journalism.
After a decade of writing articles about technology, I decided earlier this year to cover the impact of India’s new patent law on the medical treatment of the country’s HIV-positive population. The 2005 law fulfills India’s obligation as a member of the World Trade Organization to recognize and protect international patents. This Indian domestic law is likely to have global repercussions in the treatment of AIDS patients — especially those in the developing world — who depend on India’s generic drug industry to provide medications well below the prices charged by multinational pharmaceutical companies.
I was motivated in large part by my dissatisfaction with the superficial coverage of this issue by the American mainstream press. I wanted to work outside the traditional freelance options of magazines or newspapers so I could allow those affected by AIDS to describe their experiences in their own words. Their lives, I reasoned, should not be reduced to a traditional anecdotal lead and kicker.
Lives in Focus, a multimedia blog, was the result. The project is an effort to document the lives of families struggling to buy anti-retroviral drugs in order to keep a family member healthy, and to show the challenges that stigmatized AIDS patients face while trying to earn enough money to buy lifesaving treatment. My colleague, Srinivas Kuruganti, a photographer, took portraits, while I interviewed on video more than two dozen men, women and children.
While most blogs use stories published or broadcast by news organizations as fodder for discussion and debate, Lives in Focus required first-hand reporting. We gathered over 1,500 photographs and 13 hours of video, giving us enough material to update the blog every week.
Using a blog as a publishing platform, the Web provides the ideal outlet for freelance journalists seeking editorial control and unlimited space for text, photographs and video — and that’s especially good for showing people’s lives in detail as we wanted to do. But self-publishing posed two major hurdles. First, we need to raise the funds required for two to travel to and within India, to buy basic equipment such as digital audio and video tape, and to cover post-production costs. The second hurdle was generating an awareness of a blog that lacked the built-in readership or viewership of a news organization.
Below are the steps I used to raise funds and to increase traffic to this new site.
Fundraising for blogs
First came the rejections.
When I turned to foundations that might award grants for reporting such topics, I quickly learned that most grants are aimed at funding print projects. In addition, few of the foundations we approached understood the potential of blogs to disseminate information. But I suspect that will change over time.
Discouraged by the lack of support from traditional funders, I decided instead to turn to the Internet. I posted on my website a proposal that detailed the project, its importance and the budget required to complete the reporting.
At a time when the first impulse is to distrust an email solicitation and to automatically click on the “trash” or “spam” buttons, showcasing my credibility was paramount. At this stage in my career, I had more credibility as a “professional” journalist than as a blogger — and I emphasized those credentials in the proposal. I wanted people to feel confident that they were supporting a legitimate project rather than a new twist to the Nigerian email scam.
I linked to a page on my site that in turn linked to several of my bylines on the NYTimes.com site, and to a list of awards I have received. I also provided links to a page on the South Asian Journalists Association website that notes that I am a board member of the organization, and to the Indiana University School of Journalism site where I am listed as a visiting faculty member. I also posted links for Kuruganti’s recent work. Obviously, however, this fundraising process may not work for those bloggers with no “professional” credentials.
I opened a PayPal account to allow people to make instant credit card donations electronically to support the effort. I also provided the mailing address for the IU School of Journalism (prospective donors could verify for themselves it was a legitimate address) for those who might be more comfortable sending a paper check.
I sent an email to numerous AIDS-related news groups and listservs informing them of the project. I also emailed friends and family, asking them to mention the project to other like-minded people. Hoping to avoid turning the email into a chain letter that spreads to the point of bothering people like spam, I asked everyone that the message not be forwarded to more than two people whom the sender knows personally. I also emailed several bloggers who I thought might be interested in the project.
Traffic to the proposal page rose slowly at first, but then became steeper as the emails and blog postings increased. Donations also began to trickle in. The first was for $50. Each day we received donations in the amount of $10, $15 and $25. The Indiana University School of Journalism also pitched in with a generous $1,500.
I created a bar chart that showed the amount we had raised in green and the amount we needed to meet our goals in red. I updated it every day hoping that as people saw the green grow taller and the red shrink, they might make a donation just to close the gap. I also had to underscore that the project would not be a tax-exempt organization, so donations would not be tax deductible. Perhaps forming a tax-exempt organization might have resulted in greater support.
This fundraising tactic unexpectedly underscored the growing symbiotic relationship between blogging and traditional news. On a Sunday night, Glenn Reynolds posted a link to the proposal on his widely read blog Instapundit.com. The next morning, I received an email from a producer at the BBC’s Five Live radio program requesting an interview. When I asked how he had heard about the project, he told me he read about it on Instapundit.com. Once the Five Live interview ran, the donations started pouring in. The amounts varied from as little as $10 to, on a rare occasion, as much as $500.
I also turned to an old trick — well-known to most freelancers — that involves approaching organizations and telling them you already have travel costs covered, then offering to do some reporting while there. In this way, I took on a job doing background research for a foundation interested in gathering some information on AIDS in India.
Within three months, the effort raised more than we anticipated and provided the funds necessary to complete the reporting of the project.
Exposure: Stumbling upon a blog
Once you accept the money, you enter into a pact with your supporters to prepare and deliver a compelling story. One of the inherent implications in this pact is that you will spread this material far and wide. How do you ensure that the general public actually reads the reporting on the blog?
One step was to find an appropriate name, based of course on availability of the domain name. Kuruganti and I wanted to insure that the name would remain relevant for future projects on other topics. We didn’t want to have to create yet another site later and have to rebuild a readership. This is analogous to Amazon.com and eBay choosing names that allowed them to expand their services without being boxed in by their branding, such as was the case with the likes of eToys.com and CDNow.com.
Using a domain-named blog (i.e., www.example.com) rather than one on a blogging service like Blogger.com or Live Journal.com is useful for two reasons. First, you avoid convoluted and difficult-to-remember website addresses like http://www.livejournal.com/community/newsworld/ or
http://free-newspaper-dvd.blogspot.com/. Some services like Blogger.com and Typepad.com allow you to domain map your individual address to their blogging service but the address everyone sees is your own. Livesinfocus.org is domain mapped to a blogging service.
Secondly, having a blog at your own Web address might help generate credibility. Howard Rheingold, the author of “The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier,” told me for a New York Times article that it shows that someone is more invested in their blog. He added, “They are hanging out a shingle as being an expert or maven on a particular subject.”
Google, of course, cannot be left out of the discussion these days. Rahul Bhushan, a graphic designer who provided some advice when I was building livesinfocus.org, noted that search engine optimization is complicated but “there is a voodoo science to getting high search engine rankings and lots of traffic.” To build a strong, Google-aware site, he recommended avoiding domain forwarding (different than domain mapping), using strong descriptive URLs, titles (the text that appears in the browser bar) and Meta Tags.
While I have followed part of his advice (providing full titles such as “Lives in Focus: Condoms and moralities”), I have yet to create clearer URLs. The site currently has URLS like “http://www.livesinfocus.org/voices/2005/08/ambulance_ride.html” but Google search would prefer
something like “http://www.livesinfocus.org/AIDS/ambulance_ride.html.” Nonetheless, Lives in Focus has moved to the top of the results for many Google searches for key words. Here are some of the actual terms that directed people to the site: “experience of ambulance ride,” “sexually neglected women and health” and “asian stereotypes.” What remains unanswered, however, is whether the people who stumble upon the site through a search phrase actually read the content.
The traffic at livesinfocus.org is steadily increasing as new websites add links to it each week. As far as I can tell, a posting on the Online News Associations CyberJournalist site led to our being linked to by European sites. A link on Indian blog DesiPundit led to a posting on Harvard’s Global Voices. As links to the site continue to proliferate, it seems that this form of media is taking on a life of its own.