FIGHTING FOR FAIR, INDEPENDENT JOURNALISM FOR SCOTLAND
So, wow. Last month we decided to kick on a little bit as an experiment and put more of our time into Wings Over Scotland, and the results were dramatic. But the truth of the matter is that we can't keep up that level every month, because we have to earn a living.
(Some lovely readers made generous donations over the Christmas/New Year period in particular, which were very much appreciated but not enough to cover the rent on our humble shack for a month, let alone our crippling heroin habit.)
But here's a thing: supporters of independence constantly and loudly bemoan the lack of a pro-independence Scottish newspaper, or even just a balanced one committed to old-fashioned fair-minded and honest reporting.
The last attempt to make a print one crashed and burned a long time ago - as pointedly noted in the image above by Kerry Gill, current political editor of the Scottish Daily Express. And the online Caledonian Mercury, despite being staffed by proper experienced journalists, died (though technically its corpse still twitches faintly once in a while) through a failed funding model, having not found a high enough readership to generate sufficient advertising revenue.
The thing is, it doesn't have to be that way.
Wings Over Scotland is pretty small beer in the grand scheme of things. But nevertheless, from a standing start and with very little help from anyone other than its own readers and contributors, this wee site, mostly the part-time work of one person, has built a readership of over 30,000 people. And that’s actually quite a big deal.
We currently have a "subscription" facility where readers can donate £2 a month to help with our running costs. If, purely hypothetically speaking, everyone who reads the site subscribed - at just 46p a week, or 1p more than a single day's edition of the Daily Record - we'd suddenly and startlingly have enough money in the kitty to pay for TWENTY full-time professional journalists on very decent wages.
(Because 30,000 times £2 is £60,000 a month, divided by 20 people is £3000 a month each, or £36,000 a year - a pretty handsome salary for a journalist, or indeed anyone else, these days. Obviously the arithmetic wouldn't be quite that simplistic in real life, but as a basic illustration of the power even a modest readership could harness if it put its mind to it, it's a real eye-opener.)
Now, don't panic. We're not nearly mad enough to think we'd get 30,000 readers to all cough up even that modest sum for the sake of a dedicated, professionally-produced Scottish news site with 20 full-time staff. So after a reader's suggestion a couple of weeks ago, instead of 20 writers we're going to see if we can start with just one.
I first became a professional journalist in January 1991, taking a Staff Writer job on a new videogames magazine. I stayed with the magazine for three years, becoming Deputy Editor and then Acting Editor, and seeing it rise from third place to become the best-seller in its field, with a peak circulation of around 65,000 copies a month. Along with some games- and software-development work I've been a freelance for the 17 years since, working chiefly as a writer for dozens of publications from the Guardian to Esquire, The Face, SFX, Front, Teletext and Wired, on subjects ranging from games to music, TV, films, football, comedy and travel.
The referendum on independence is the most important subject I'll ever be involved in, and I don't want to be doing it as a hobby (and especially to the point where I can't afford to pay my rent from neglecting proper work). So the purpose of this Indiegogo project is to see if enough people are prepared to put their money where their mouth is and hire at least one full-time professional journalist to cover the topic every day without having to follow the agenda of uniformly-Unionist newspaper proprietors.
That modest goal requires a very small commitment from readers: a one-off contribution of just £1 each. If everyone who reads Wings Over Scotland this month contributes that tiny sum I can do this as a job for a whole year.
There'll be more posts every day, and the opportunity to do more in-depth research. The site can have a design overhaul to make it even more accessible and make the additional content easier to navigate. If we exceed the minimum, we can pay other people for still more articles and features, and perhaps ultimately grow a whole online newspaper organically from the ground up. (I like the name "Scotland Tomorrow".)
It's up to you.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Why do you need thousands of pounds to keep doing what you've been doing for free for the past year and a bit?
Because I can't sustain the current level of commitment to Wings Over Scotland and keep a roof over my head. I need to spend more time on earning money and less on writing about Scottish politics for nothing. The ideal scenario, obviously, would be earning a living writing about Scottish politics, but I'm going to hazard a guess that the Herald and Scotsman won't be knocking on the door any time soon, so we're going to have to do this for ourselves.
Why should we pay you when there are loads of free blogs, and lots of other sites who also want money?
That's entirely your decision. Look back at the quantity and quality of content we've published here over the last 15 months and decide whether it's matched anywhere else. And if you do like it, ponder whether an expanded, improved version of it would be worth a little under 2p a week to you or not.
Why don't you just have advertising?
Respectable as our readership is, it's not yet large enough to attract serious interest/revenue from advertisers. More importantly, we're journalists, not ad-sales people - frankly we have no idea how to go about it. One thing we could look at if we exceeded the minimum goal would be hiring someone to sort that out for us, so that we wouldn't have to ask readers for money again next year. But in a perfect world we could fund the site without being beholden to advertisers at all.
Do you really need THAT much money?
We chose the figure to represent a symbolic £1 per reader. (To be honest, we sort of wish we'd had slightly fewer readers last month.) But yes.
The "living wage" in the UK is £15,496 nationwide, or £17,784 in London. Wings Over Scotland is based in one of the most expensive cities in Britain, and the living wage is itself a pretty bare minimum of tolerable existence (plus Indiegogo take a chunk out of the total as commission).
The target sum will keep us alive, cover running costs - including an overdue proper transfer to wingsoverscotland.com, which should stop some people's workplaces blocking us for having the word "game" in our URL - and pay other people for articles and so on too. If we're not working for free, we're not going to ask others to.
So why not just ask for donations as normal?
Because just asking people to bung you money ad hoc is a bit beggy, and more to the point it doesn't bring in much. Every penny in donations is appreciated very much indeed, but since we've had the Donate page the total is well short of four figures, in nine months. This way, your money goes towards a very specific, clear and defined goal - paying properly for the site to be a full-time professional concern. This way it's crowdsourced project funding, not panhandling.
Couldn't you try a paywall?
A paywall would rather defeat the object of the site, which is to reach as many people as possible and give them the facts about the independence debate. "Hey there, No voter - go and read this site to see why the stuff you're saying is wrong! Oh, you'll have to pay for it, by the way" isn't going to change many minds.
Shouldn't I give my cash to the official Yes campaign instead?
We're hoping that a single £1 won't put too much of a dent in your philanthropy budget.
What will we get for our money?
For your £1 you'll be getting a year (or more) of seven-day reporting, at considerably more than 40 hours a week. You'll get more posts every day, even compared to January's record total. We'll be able to devote more time to writing, researching, audio-capturing and transcribing, because we won't have to be fretting that every hour we spend working for the site is an hour we're not earning money to pay the bills with.
Anything over and above the target will be put straight into the site in the form of paid content from other high-quality contributors, as well as other improvements - better webhosting, broader coverage (eg we could afford a subscription to The Times to monitor its Scottish reporting), attending events in person and so on. Ideally we'd make enough to carry on all the way to the referendum, but we're keeping the goal simple for now.
Crucially, more money would also enable us to do something several readers have asked for - produce printed materials that could be used by doorstep campaigners to get vital facts and information across to people who don't frequent political websites.
What happens if you don't reach the target?
We don't have the faintest idea whether the fundraiser will succeed or not. If we don't reach the target amount, we'll put any money we do get into the site one way or another - a couple of months full-time, a couple of paid contributors, a new candle for our desk and an extra pair of gloves to keep our typing fingers warm, whatever.
(If we don't reach the target, incidentally, we get substantially less money than the "final total" - Indiegogo charge more than twice as much commission if you miss your goal as they do if you hit it, to encourage achievable aims.)
It might be that Kerry Gill is right, and that independence supporters will do anything for a fair and balanced quality press except pay 2p a week for it. Perhaps it'll fail by such an embarrassingly vast margin we'll have to close down out of sheer humiliation.
Or perhaps it'll exceed our wildest dreams and we'll be able to offer you a daily diet of stories, features and columns about Scottish politics from the finest writers in the country, from all points of view, with unparallelled quality of research and insight. Those outcomes, and everything in between, are in your hands.
Can I donate more than £1 if I want to?
Oh God yes, by all means. Obviously in the real world not everyone will kick in, so we'll need some people to do more than their bit if we're going to have a chance. And, y'know, if anyone happens to know the Weirs, feel free to send them to this page.
Editor, Wings Over Scotland