Spot.Us is an innovative new sight that recently won funding and support from the highly respected Knight Foundation. It is garnering much attention as the concept essentially transforms the idea of community reporting and reinvigorates investigative reporting on a local level. However, would it be attracting this much support and attention if the newspaper business model weren't struggling?
Spot.Us allows anyone to send in a story idea to the site as long as it is a local issue affecting the San Francisco Bay area. Spot.Us calculate how much it would cost to investigate said story and the ideas is then "pitched" on the site, if other users of the site support the story idea then they can donate money to pay for a freelance journalist to cover it. It is then published on the site and other news organisations can publish it as well. The point being, some stories that are interesting to the public are being ignored by news organisations, this is an opportunity for the public at large to read a story that they want written about. The public becomes the editor.
Spot.Us deserves credit for coming up with an innovative way of bringing journalism back to the community and reinvigorating local investigative reporting. Furthermore, it is an original concept that has won the support of not only the Knight Foundation, but also Jeff Jarvis and other significant names in the journalism community.
Will the public pay?
While Spot.Us is undoubtedly exciting, there does appear to be some issues with the concept. For example, the organisation is currently garnering a lot of press attention and is therefore very much in the public eye, but what happens after the media attention dies down? Will people continue to visit the site: how will they maintain public interest?
Furthermore, it will be very difficult for Spot.Us to maintain its integrity and not be manipulated by outside groups who want certain stories investigated for their own agenda. It may be difficult for it to stop itself becoming little more than part of a lobbying machine for various interest groups.
The Editors Weblog spoke to David Cohn - the CEO and sole employee of Spot.Us - about these issues and the thinking behind his project.
EW: If newspapers were not suffering financially in the US, do you think there would still be a place in the market for an organisation such as yours?
DC: I do think there would be a place for an organization such as mine - but I don't think it would be as urgent. Part of what Spot.Us does is democractize the media by allowing the audience to determine the news agenda. Traditionally .001 percent of the population determined the news agenda, we called them "editors." But with Spot.Us the public can set the news agenda because now they have a freelance budget as well.
EW: Do you have any guidelines on what you will or will not investigate or write about, eg, an oil company wants you to write a piece proving that oil drilling doesn't hurt the environment?
DC: Yes: They aren't guidelines but categories that all pitches have to fall in. This was to ensure that we don't get pitches that aren't civic journalism. The categories are education, environment, city government, public health - etc.
EW: How will you maintain Spot.Us's integrity, to stop it from being used as a tool for lobby groups or marketing?
DC: We have an algorithm that required a diverse group of people to support a story or it does not make it on to our homepage as a pitch. Right now my algorithm is very simple, firstly, the site is new and I have a small pool of people visiting the site in general. As the site becomes more popular it is just a matter of tweaking the algorithm to ensure that you always have a diverse group of people.
EW: Is this something that you are aware of?
DC: It is something that I am very aware of. I would say I am concerned about it. I understand the concern and the fear...
But I am more concerned that we are going to find out that the public are just not going to donate at all, that's the fear. People think that they're going to be clambering, we will have to build bridges so that we slow them down they are going to be donating so much money towards our work. I think it is actually going to be the opposite and that we are going to have to do a lot of outreach to try and find people who would benefit and see the public good of donating to journalism.
EW: There is a lot of media attention surrounding your organisation right now, but how you are going to maintain that when, say, the interest in your organisation has died down from the media perspective. How will you maintain interest with the community?
DC: We are going to be doing some community organising. This is where it gets interesting right? So, like the San Francisco Commutative campaign that we did over the summer and we raised $2,500 from 74 different people who gave $34 each. If we were to do that again next year, the first thing I would do is go to the League of Women Voters. It's an organisation with a branch in San Francisco and say they have - I am just guessing here - 1,000 members in the bay area, they have a large group of people who would be interested in fact checking for the political adverts and I can go to the League of Women Voters and say, "Hey, can you help go and spread the word about this to." Then they spread the word to their members, and say even 30 of them thought it were a good idea and donated $25 each. That is a decent amount of money right there. That and also social networking and things like that.
EW: Are you going to try and build a relationship with the local media?
DC: Yes, definatly. If there is a pitch that a local newspaper would be interested in running, they have a vested interest in seeing community members donating towards it so they could help spread the word about the pitch.
EW: Can you explain how you monetise Spot.Us?
DC: The same way that Kiva.org monetizes their site. If somebody is donating $25 then all of their money goes to where they want it to go, but before they are done with the transaction we also ask that they donate 10% or $2.50 to the nonprofit organization that is Spot.Us. This extra 10% is optional. Kiva.org does the same thing and they found that something close to 90% of people will go ahead and give the extra 10% to the organization.
EW: What inspired you to set up Spot.Us?
DC: A few things. First - I was a freelance journalist for a long time and I know how hard it can be to make it as such. I wanted to create tools that enabled freelancers to do their job easier.
I was also the research assistant for a guy named Jeff Howe who was writing a book on "Crowd sourcing." I was researching for the chapter on Crowd funding and I began to learn about sites like Kiva.org and DonorsChoose.org. These are micro-finance sites for teachers or for people in third world countries. They are hugely successful. I wondered if it would be possible for journalist to also tap into the gift economy, which in America was $300,000 billion last year.
I have worked in citizen journalism in the past. I love it and strongly believe in it - but I also know the limitations of citizen journalism. I wanted to find a way that journalism could be participatory but also stretch to do some of the harder journalism that requires professionals to stick to a story for a longer period of time.
EW: Can you talk me though how you organise your staffers?
Spot.Us is not a newsroom. It is a platform or Internet tool. All pitches on Spot.Us are from freelance journalists in the Bay Area. They are not staff reporters for Spot.Us.
EW: How big is your team and how do you contact the editors
DC: I am the only staff person on Spot.Us. The developers and designers are contractors. All the pitches you see on Spot.Us are from independent freelance journalists - and are contractors. We assign an editor to each story - but the editor is just another journalist within our system. Again, Spot.Us is NOT a newsroom or news organization as traditionally understood. We are a platform. Just as YouTube is not a film production company, but they host video, Spot.Us is not a content producing organization, but we host the production of content.
EW: What technology is powering the platform you are using?
DC: The site is built with Ruby on Rails. I was thinking about using Drupal but in the end used Ruby on Rails and so far I am very happy with that decision.
The development firm is called Hashrocket. My hosting service is Engine Yard.