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Feb. 18, 2016, 10 a.m.
Business Models
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Jose Antonio Vargas is launching #EmergingUS outside the L.A. Times, aiming to crowdfund $1M

The platform Beacon will match the first $500,000 Vargas can raise to support #EmergingUS, a news site that “lives at the intersection of race, immigration, and identity in a multicultural America.”

“Five years ago, I took the biggest risk of my life. Last year, I made a film called White People. In 2016, I want to talk about us,” the voice of journalist and activist Jose Antonio Vargas announced in a teaser trailer for a soon-to-be-launched digital news site #EmergingUS (hashtag included).

Vargas revealed his status as an undocumented immigrant in an essay for The New York Times Magazine in 2011 and has since been a prominent advocate for immigration reform. He envisions a wide-ranging digital platform that explores immigration, race, and identity in the U.S., with a focus on telling stories through video. Vargas will serve as its publisher and editor.

You may remember #EmergingUS being announced last year as a new vertical at the Los Angeles Times. That was during the regime of Times publisher Austin Beutner. Beutner was fired last September, and though staffers were told that Beutner-backed ventures like EmergingUS will not be casualties of the leadership change,” something led to a separation: The current site makes no mention of the Times. I reached out to the Times; a spokesperson did not clarify its involvement and referred me to the #EmergingUS site on Thursday for more information.

(After this story was published, the Times added this: “The Los Angeles Times and Jose Antonio Vargas agreed to transfer the assets developed for #EmergingUS to Vargas’ company so that he may pursue the project independently. We have enjoyed collaborating with Jose and wish him every success with #EmergingUS.”)

Journalism crowdfunding platform Beacon will match the initial $500,000 Vargas is seeking to support #EmergingUS for a total of $1 million, which will go toward building out the platform, expanding its staff, and, of course, producing lots of stories. The crowdfunding campaign will run for 60 days; Vargas’s project will have to hit its $500,000 goal to unlock a matching gift, which is part of the Beacon’s nationwide initiative to fund journalism on issues around immigration in America. (According to Beacon’s Keren Goldshlager, who heads up marketing and partnerships, starting in diverse Los Angeles made sense initially, but #EmergingUS had more national ambitions.)

The project is Beacon’s largest campaign to date, and also the largest crowdfunding campaign for a journalism project within the U.S., according to Goldshlager. The decision to rely on crowdfunding to jumpstart the site feels consistent with its aim of being heavily reader-driven.

“There’s a hashtag in our very name and we must live up to it. In other words, engagement will be key for us,” Vargas wrote in an email. “We’re building community tools into our platform so that backers will be able to give us feedback and post their own content to supplement our work. We want backers to pitch us ideas on #EmergingUS stories in their own communities.”

A $25 donation gets backers early access to video features. At higher levels of giving, backers are promised swankier rewards: A $250 donation, for instance, gets donors VIP tickets to the #EmergingUS launch party in Los Angeles, and a $1,000 donation gets donors a lunch with Nicco Mele, former deputy publisher of the L.A. Times (one of several top departures at the Times after Beutner’s firing) to talk “entrepreneurship in journalism.”

In the meantime, Vargas has recruited a small dedicated team for the site — including a head of operations, an editor, some videographers and producers — who have been working on some preview content to give potential backers (and readers) an idea of the issues the site wants to cover, and how it intends to cover them. None of the content will be released in full for the general public on EmergingUS.com, however, until after the crowdfunding campaign ends.

When the site launches, stories will appear on #EmergingUS in more thematic packages, centered around a feature video. As Vargas told me in an email:

#EmergingUS is video-centric, and the length of each video varies. But each video is packaged with collateral content like an essay, an article, a slideshow, et al.

For example, one of our videos feature Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, the co-founders of #BlackLivesMatter, who appear together on camera for the first time to describe the origins of this modern-day civil rights movement. That video is packaged with an essay and an article.

Another video features immigrants who respond to Donald Trump’s policy of re-admitting the “good immigrants” to America after his proposed mass deportation. Essays that accompany that video explores what it means to be a “good immigrant.”

But the direction and scope of #EmergingUS coverage will be in part guided by the backers (and eventual readers) who support the site through the crowdfunding process, as supporters will eventually be encouraged to share their own videos and other content through the web platform.

If #EmergingUs succeeds in securing the $1 million to kickstart its site, it’ll also look at other revenue opportunities, but “reader funding will be the foundation,” Goldshlager said.

“I am proud to say that our very small #EmergingUS team looks like the emerging America we are seeking to cover,” Vargas said. “As we grow, diversity is an imperative. We are ill-equipped to cover the emerging America if we don’t look like it.”

POSTED     Feb. 18, 2016, 10 a.m.
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