Nieman Journalism Lab's Zachery M. Seward interviewed Spot.Us founder David Cohn about the project's plans for expansion. Spot.Us is an 'experiment' in locally funded journalism, which calls for readers to suggest and fund story ideas about the San Francisco area. Since November, the site has funded and published 20 stories written by freelancers, supported by donations from readers.
Cohn explained to Seward that one of his three-month goals is to replicate the Spot.Us model in other communities, such as Los Angeles or Seattle, or maybe Boston, Philadelphia or New York. To do this would call for "a more careful analysis of what's really required from the organisation," he said. He is currently a volunteer and would probably have to stay that way for some time, the site does not bring in anywhere near enough money to fund a full-time employee.
Most people donate $20 to the site, which Cohn pointed out was the suggested donation. This money goes purely to the journalist and donators are asked to give an extra $2 to the organisation, which 90% do. Spot.Us has an algorithm that ensures that a diverse group of people support a story in order for it to appear on the homepage as a pitch, to prevent the site being used by lobby groups or marketers.
Pitches must have some civic value, and Cohn told Seward that environmental stories typically do "really well" as do those that "have an anchor in a geographic or ethnic community that are relevant to people's lives:" those that address a concrete issue. Investigative pieces that seek to find out something unknown for the community are particularly valuable, he added. Spot.Us has also just started beat pitches, the first of which will be be covering San Francisco city hall during the budget crunch for the next three months.
Interestingly, Cohn has found that volunteer editors who do the job "because they just want to be involved in journalism" do a better job of the editorial workflow that those who were paid a little. Originally he put aside 10% of the money for editors but found that that was not enough to motivate people.
Crowd-funded journalism is a worthy idea that undeniably has potential, but will it work on a larger scale? Are there enough concerned citizens who will make the effort to pay for journalistic projects in their community? As mainstream media suffers and is forced to make cutbacks, there is a gap to be filled, particularly in the area of investigative reporting. Nonprofits funded by donations from foundations and philanthropists have also been working to fill these, such as the VoiceOfSanDiego and ProPublica.
It is interesting to look at the Spot.Us concept in the context of the paid online content debate. Readers generally pay considerably more for one story to be written on Cohn's site than a newspaper publisher would ever consider charging for its content, but they have the chance to choose the news they want to read about, and feel involved in the process of producing it. A different type of project but one which also believes in the idea of people funding the news they want to read is Kachingle, which asks readers to donate a certain amount of money per month and choose which news sites they would like this distributed to. As the news industry hunts for new business models, will it come to rely more on the goodwill of readers?
Source: Nieman Journalism Lab