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Ethan Cox, one of the founders of Ricochet, a new Canadian media startup that is trying to crowd fund its journalism, poses in Montreal, June 22, 2014. (Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail)
Ethan Cox, one of the founders of Ricochet, a new Canadian media startup that is trying to crowd fund its journalism, poses in Montreal, June 22, 2014. (Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail)

Crowdfunded news website Ricochet aims to thrive without ad revenue Add to ...

A new crowdfunded journalism startup hoping to offer a distinct voice among Canadian media has cleared its first hurdle, raising more than $80,000 to get off the ground. Now comes the hard work.

Ricochet, based in Montreal and Vancouver, is a bilingual experiment gambling that a digital media site offering free content can thrive without leaning on advertisers to survive.

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The question is not so much whether readers will open their wallets to pay for news, but whether they will keep donating to keep the outfit afloat.

The impetus for Ricochet’s strategy is not just skepticism about the health of an ad-driven model but rather outright antipathy over the motives of powerful media owners.

The founders, some of whom were major players in Quebec’s massive student protests of 2012, are promoting the new site as an independent counterweight to “mainstream media” that is “not constrained by corporate interests.”

They promise readers a say in stories and ask that audiences pay what they can in return.

“We all know how broken the media is. It’s no secret, it’s no controversial statement,” said Ethan Cox, a Ricochet co-founder and former bureau chief for the website Rabble.ca, which bills itself as progressive. “Everyone is casting around and looking for new models of how to do media and make it sustainable.”

Unlike high-profile American digital news startups, Ricochet has no media company or angel investor backing it. But so far, its concept of crowdfunding news and opinion writing with no paywall has proven popular. A campaign on Indiegogo.com surpassed its goal, raising $82,945 from 1,548 donors in a month, with more than half the donors giving $25.

That initial pot of funds should be enough to build out Ricochet’s website and commission stories for up to six months. The site’s tentative plan is to pay contributors $100 for standard articles and roughly $500 to $1,000 – or sometimes more – for longer, investigative pieces. Editors aren’t paid, at least for now.

The burning question is whether readers will keep giving. Further crowdfunding campaigns for specific projects will surely follow, the site’s founders say, and Ricochet is counting on readers to sponsor particular writers or topics by agreeing to have perhaps 50 cents charged to their credit card each time a new piece is published – leaving a supporter’s total monthly tab uncertain.

A $25 donation also gets donors a membership that allows them to vote on which pitches and subjects are worth pursuing. But Ricochet’s French and English editorial boards, made up mostly of budding journalists aged 35 and under, are still in control.

“To be really clear, we want to engage the audience, but it is not a democracy,” Mr. Cox told supporters at a launch event in Toronto last week.

A stickier question is whether, and to what extent, Ricochet may turn to advertising to bolster its shoestring budget. Mr. Cox isn’t ruling it out, but any ad partner would have to meet a yet-undefined “ethical threshold,” he said. As for its editorial strategy, Ricochet bills itself as a “progressive” voice of the people. Early preview pieces published in recent weeks staunchly oppose oil industry interests and the Northern Gateway pipeline project, which Ottawa granted conditional approval for last week. The headline on its first editorial was, “Enbridge: Not now. Not ever.”

Among the site’s architects are former Quebec student movement spokesmen Jérémie Bédard-Wien and Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, both of whom have shown their ability to rally large-scale support around an issue and neither of whom has been shy with their opinions.

“We’ll have strong editorial positions,” Mr. Cox says, suggesting that’s not so different from established newspapers. “I’ve always felt that objectivity is a bit of an illusion, and that readers are better served by a media that wears its biases on its sleeve.”

Ricochet is “in for a ride” trying to gain traction in a relatively small and crowded Canadian media market, said Wilf Dinnick, executive producer of online news for Al Jazeera and former head of OpenFile.ca, the now-defunct Canadian community-based journalism project. But he thinks soliciting micro-payments to amplify a distinctive voice could help it carve out a niche.

“As a developer and as a news creator, you’re going to see very quickly what people like and what they don’t like,” Mr. Dinnick said, “and you can double down on that.”

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