Roberta Staley on crowdfunding, connection and independent journalism

Roberta.Mugshot..cropped.AfghanistanRoberta Staley is a Vancouver-based magazine writer and documentary filmmaker. Her current film project, Mightier Than The Sword, is about about female journalists and filmmakers in Afghanistan. She is also the editor of Canadian Chemical News and the winner of the 2015 Amnesty International Canada Media Award.

She took the time to speak with Story Board recently about the challenges of crowdfunding, the power of storytelling, and the importance of having a community of freelancers for support.

SB: What kind of story grabs you as a writer?

RS: I’m really interested in medical and science stories. Medicine and science is really important because that is where so much public money goes, so it’s really important for the public to be able to understand these types of stories.

And I think and I hope that I’ve actually created a bit of a niche for myself in the sense that I am able to interpret difficult, complex science and medical jargon and translate it for a general readership.

But my true love, really, is international reporting. I think it’s really important for the west to know what is going on in the developing world. And you can only do that by telling stories and by connecting people through stories. There’s always a common humanity no matter where we live.

SB: Tell me about your documentary project, Mightier Than the Sword.

RS: These kinds of stories fascinate me — getting into the nitty gritty of a culture and the lives of the people. And if I can bring those stories to the public, if I can have people in the west relate to these people in Afghanistan then they’ll realize we’re no different. We all want the same things.

I was there in 2012, I fell in love with the country. I fell in love with the people. I fell in love with the women who are such warriors. And so there was a really really important story there. There’s the story of the power of the media.

And one of the great success stories of Afghanistan is the media. There is such a dynamic media that has grown up. It’s a free media and it reports on corruption. It reports on the Taliban. It reports on gender issues. Publishers and producers have cultivated and nurtured female reporters. And it’s been a very important way to disseminate women’s stories. So I looked at the importance and the impact of the media in regards to women’s rights and women’s equality.

SB: You launched an Indiegogo campaign to crowdfund post-production for the film. What have been the challenges with that?

RS: One of the challenges is that it really needs to have someone that is active promoting it on a daily basis. One of the problems I’m having is that I’m immersed in full time work.

That is one of the things that I’m really finding out, is that to do crowdfunding properly you have to be active in communicating with all your potential donors on a daily basis. And you have to be doing interesting things, you have to be having interesting discussions. And unfortunately I don’t have that. I’m just doing so many other things.

That doesn’t mean that my project isn’t going to get done. It will absolutely be done. But you can’t go into a crowdfunding initiative and think that you’re just going to make money. That’s foolishness. It is a job. It is a daily job. That’s one of the things that I’ve found out.

SB: If you could start all over again would you do anything differently?

RS: Yes, I would have started it much earlier. The thing is that you go through such a massive learning curve when you first do this. So now I know how to do the video. Now I know how to create an Indiegogo crowdfunding page. Now I know about all of the preparation work that you need to do. Now I know more about how you need to create kind of a tribe of people who are interested in your project.

And probably what I would do is I would actually hire someone. Someone who is actually experienced and is actually good at doing Indiegogo campaigns. I think it would probably be worth the money to hire someone.

On the other hand, though, it doesn’t mean that my project is going to fail. This is all probably part of being a writer. When you want to do things that are passion projects sometimes things don’t work out the way you want them to but you still do it because you are really dedicated to the project. For me this is a passion project and I’m so determined to get it done.

SB: How do you balance the work you need to do with the work you want to do?

RS: It’s hard. Because I’m a single parent, as well. My son is 18, in grade 12 and is pretty self-sufficient now but it’s always been a challenge. And what it means is that you end up working four or five or six hours a day more than other people in a 9-to-5 kind of job.

But you do it because you have to do it. You have to do enough work in order to survive and then you have those projects that mean so much to you that they’re going to get done no matter what. I feel such a responsibility to the women that I interviewed when I was in Afghanistan. And I need to get their voices out. When you have a story to tell, money becomes irrelevant.

SB: What’s your top piece of advice for freelancers just starting out?

RS: You have to work really hard. You have to be ready and expect failure. You can’t take it personally. You have to absolutely follow the stories and create the stories that you want to read that are not being created — that are not out there already. It’s such a cliche, but follow your passions. Create the stories — whether that’s video or whether it’s writing — go out and create the stories that are not being told. The stories that you want to read.

Because you’ll get so much life satisfaction. And in the great scheme of things, being poor for a short period of time is not going to kill you.

SB: You’re a new member of CMG Freelance. What made you join the freelance union? What are the benefits for you?

RS: I think that one of the reasons that I joined was in order to connect with other freelancers. Because I think that one of the really important things is to hear how other people are coping. Sometimes when you’re slaving away at your computer and you’re in your home office you feel kind of lonely. You feel like you’re a lonely voice in the forest. And you sort of wonder: if I fell would anyone hear? Would I make a sound? And would anyone care?

But I think that for us journalists who have remained in the business because we love it so much, we really need to be there to support each other. And I want to hear the stories of how other people are coping. And I want to help other people who are trying to cope as well, in whatever way that I can. So I think we really need to connect as a community. And understand that there’s something bigger than us. That journalism is the fifth estate.

And if we stay in it we have a huge responsibility to the public but because it’s so capricious and inconsistent nowadays, the more help and assistance and support we can give each other the better. And that’s one of the reasons I joined. And I’m already loving it. It’s really inspiring to have people around who are still dedicated to journalism. And also to have people around who understand the challenges of execution.

It’s important for me to know that there are other people out there who understand, who can empathize and sympathize with the challenges you’re going through… but people who you can ask questions of, too. Having an organization there like that is tremendous. Just to know that someone has your back.


You can find some of Roberta Staley’s work on her website. Information about her documentary project Mightier Than The Sword is available on the Indiegogo page. And you can follow Roberta on Twitter at @RobertaStaley.


*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Posted on June 1, 2016 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

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