A young freelance journalist, Lindsey Hoshaw, is trying to raise money via Spot.Us for a story that could eventually end up in the New York Times. Hoshaw spoke with the NYT about investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and its effect on the levels of toxins in local marine life, and then started looking for funding for the project.
Spot.Us, which supports crowd-funded journalism, usually receives pitches that do not have a specific publication in mind, and in this case both the company and the New York Times have taken care to make it clear that although both outlets are involved in the story, it does not represent collaboration. The trip that Hoshaw plans to take to cover the story will cost $10,000. It involves embarking on a month-long voyage to visit the Garbage Patch in the northern Pacific to study the levels of toxins in fish tissues. Out of the $6000 she aims to make through her pitch on Spot.Us (she will personally pay for the rest), over $4000 has already been donated.
The Times has told Hoshaw that it might pay about $700 for the pictures, or more if it also buys a story. She will also provide separate photos, blog posts and a debriefing for the Spot.Us community that will be made available via Creative Commons, as Spot.Us stories generally are.
Is it an ethical path for the Times to take, to use a story funded by elsewhere? Two potential issues arise: one, does the Times deserve to receive a story it did not pay for, two, should the paper take stories for which it is not sure of the nature of the funding? On the first point, public editor Clark Hoyt pointed out that "to some, this is exploitation - the mighty New York Times forcing a struggling journalist to beg with a virtual tin cup." All that the Times is giving Hoshaw for now is the chance to say that the paper has expressed an interest in her story.
However, she is happy with that, and Times policy is to pay expenses for freelance work it assigns, not for what comes in unsolicited. Hoshaw pitched her story while interviewing for an internship at the paper. According to her pitch, she sees the chance to have her work published in the New York Times an "amazing opportunity." And if the public is willing to pay for a story that is undoubtedly in the public interest, then it makes sense to give it a chance.
On the issue of the nature of the funding. Craig Whitney, the Times standards editor, met with Spot.Us founder David Cohn before approving the pitch, to satisfy himself that there are safeguards against special interests hijacking the story, Hoyt reported. Poynter's Bill Mitchell was told by Cohn that the Times would only have a problem with receiving the Spot-Us funded story if it turned out that advocacy groups had been donors. All those who donate to pitches are publicly named. And although collaborating with this sort of crowd-funding effort is a first, the NYT has already partnered with investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica to produce stories, ProPublica's policy is to offer its reporting free to partner publications. It has a clear non-interference policy on the part of its board and funders.
So as it stands, it seems that everybody is happy with the collaboration, and the public will learn more about an arguably pressing environmental issue. As newspapers suffer financially, with the NYT said to be considering seeking assistance from foundations, could such forms of collaboration using outside funding become more prevalent?