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June 16 2010

19:30

Knight News Challenge: PRX’s StoryMarket will bring Spot.us-style crowdfunding to public radio

Most of the projects awarded grants in the Knight News Challenge come out on top because they offer something new: they’re innovative, they’re different, they’re unique. One of this year’s crop of winners, though, made a selling point of its similarity to a previous Knight grantee. The Public Radio Exchange’s StoryMarket project will build on — and collaborate with — Spot.us, one of the best known Knight winners, to bring crowdfunding to public radio.

Per Knight’s official announcement of StoryMarket’s $75,000 grant:

Building on the software created by 2008 challenge winner Spot.us, this project will allow anyone to pitch and help pay to produce a story for a local public radio station. When the amount is raised (in small contributions), the station will hire a professional journalist to do the report. The project provides a new way for public radio stations to raise money, produce more local content and engage listeners.

“This has been an idea that PRX has been kicking around for a while,” says Jake Shapiro, PRX’s CEO and the leader of the StoryMarket project. And it’s one that “really takes advantage of the platform that we have in place.” Which makes the project unique…by way of similarity. As Shapiro told me of the project’s proposal: “This would be one of the first ones, as far as I know, that help anchor a collaboration with another promising Knight investment.” (Another of this year’s winners also has a history of intra-KNC collaboration: Tilemapping has worked with past winner Ushahidi.)

The PRX-Spot.us collaboration will be a core component of the StoryMarket project — in particular, Shapiro points out, “at the code level,” where much of the partnership will be focused. The PRX technology team (some ten members strong at the moment, with an additional six or so working on a contract basis) will work with the Spot.us coders to “add value to the investment made in the open-source code base to date — and increase the likelihood that it’s a worthwhile investment.”

That synergy — wheel-reinvention, in reverse — also means that StoryMarket will be insulated in ways that ground-up, from-scratch projects don’t tend to be. “There are risks in all of this,” Shapiro allows, “but some of the things that are typically risks are not ones for us.”

At the user level, in turn, PRX will adopt much of the Spot.us approach to crowdfunding to raise money for its own stories — a significant shift for the public media platform. “The way that PRX had, for the most part, been available was more as an aftermarket for existing work,” Shapiro points out, “where somebody who had stories and had created documentaries would use PRX as an additional distribution path for broadcast and digital.” StoryMarket is an attempt to make PRX an up-front and active participant in the entire production process. “The fundamental driver of it, and the outcome, was to create original, new stories that are important on a local level,” Shapiro says. Only “instead of having the chain wait until you’ve identified, developed, and produced a story, and then look for a media partner” — the Spot.us model, essentially — we’re beginning with media partners.”

The first of those partners? Louisville Public Media in Kentucky — “a very forward-looking, ambitious station in a smaller market in the South, where historically there’s been less investment in this kind of work,” Shapiro says. Not only is the station not among “the usual suspects, which are the major-market stations that we work a lot with” — and not only is there “no shortage of important stories to be told there,” from mountaintop mining to race relations in public schools — but LPM’s size means that its status as a PRX media partner will offer a challenge. In, you know, a good way. A core goal of StoryMarket, as it is with most Knight winners, is scalabilty — and with LPM’s relatively small number of producers, “it’s going to be an interesting test of how much the network effect will kick in,” Shapiro says.

Helping that effect along will be the Public Media Platform, the behemoth digital distribution network launched on Monday. The platform, a collaboration among American Public Media, NPR, PBS, Public Radio International and, yes, PRX, should amplify StoryMarket’s reach. To collaborate with PRX is to collaborate, in effect, with the entire network.

At the same time, though, StoryMarket will also be a test of local news outlets’ ability to generate financial support for individual stories in addition to their broader, brand-based fundraising efforts. With national public programming widely available, stations now “have an even deeper interest in being relevant locally,” Shapiro points out. Competition means that “they’re increasingly wanting to differentiate themselves by making sure they do good local coverage.” And StoryMarket, for its part, will mean that the public has a new way to express what “good local coverage” actually looks like.

18:30

Announcing the 2010 Knight News Challenge winners: Visuals are hot, and businesses are big winners

They started out last year as a crowded field of hopefuls from around the world, each dreaming of a chance to perform under the big lights. Over months, their numbers dwindled as the level of competition rose; each successive round brought new disappointment to those eliminated and new hope to those left in the running. And now, whittled down to an elite few, they’re ready for the global stage.

Okay, I’m giving myself a yellow card: So maybe the World Cup isn’t the perfect metaphor for the Knight News Challenge. But the News Challenge is the closest thing the future-of-news space has to a World Cup, and while this year’s 12 winners — just announced at MIT — won’t be forced to battle each other for global supremacy, they do represent the top of a sizable pyramid of applicants — nearly 2,500 in all. You can judge for yourself which ones are Brazil and Germany and which are New Zealand and North Korea.

I’ve got information on all the winners below, but first a few observations:

Visuals seem to be this year’s theme: lots of projects about things like mapping, data visualization, video editing, and games inspired by editorial cartoons. Just one winner focuses on the business-model end of the equation (Windy Citizen’s real-time ads).

— This year’s new grants total $2.74 million. That’s up from last year’s total of $1.96 million, but still down substantially from the really big checks Knight was writing in the first two years of the News Challenge ($11.7 million in 2007, $5.5 million in 2008). The number of grantees is also up a bit from 2009 but well below earlier years (26 in 2007, 16 in 2008, 9 in 2009, 12 this year).

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Knight’s overall commitment has decreased over time. Many of its grants are distributed over multiple years, so some of those early commitments are still being in force.

— Despite extending this cycle’s application deadline in part to encourage more international applicants, the winners are quite domestic — 11 American winners out of 12. In 2008, there were six international winners, and last year there were two projects that, while technically based in the U.S., were internationally focused — Ushahidi and Mobile Media Toolkit. (You could argue that this year’s One-Eight should count as international, since it’s about covering Afghanistan, but through collaboration with the U.S. military. And while Tilemapping will focus on Washington, D.C., a version of its software was used after the Haiti earthquake.)

That said, the deadline extension was also about reaching out for other kinds of diversity, and that happened in at least one way: Knight reports that nearly half of this year’s winners are private companies, up from 15 percent in 2009. That’s despite Knight’s elimination of a separate category for commercial applicants last cycle.

Below are all the winners — congratulations to one and all, and my sympathies to the thousands eliminated along the way. In the coming days, we’ll have profiles of all of the winners and their projects. In the meantime, for context, you can also read all we wrote about last year’s News Challenge and what we’ve written so far about this cycle.

CityTracking

The winner: Eric Rodenbeck of Stamen Design

The amount: $400,000

The pitch: “To make municipal data easy to understand, CityTracking will allow users to create embeddable data visualizations that are appealing enough to spread virally and that are as easy to share as photos and videos. The dynamic interfaces will be appropriate to each data type, starting with crime and working through 311 calls for service, among others. The creators will use high design standards, making the visuals beautiful as well as useful.”

The Cartoonist

The winner: Ian Bogost of Georgia Tech and Michael Mateas of UC Santa Cruz

The amount: $378,000

The pitch: “To engage readers in the news, this project will create a free tool that produces cartoon-like current event games — the game equivalent of editorial cartoons. The simplified tools will be created with busy journalists and editors in mind, people who have the pulse of their community but don’t have a background in game development. By answering a series of questions about the major actors in a news event and making value judgments about their actions, The Cartoonist will automatically propose game rules and images. The games aim to help the sites draw readers and inspire them to explore the news.”

Local Wiki

The winner: Philip Neustrom and Mike Ivanov of DavisWiki.org

The amount: $350,000

The pitch: “Based on the successful DavisWiki.org in Davis, Calif., this project will create enhanced tools for local wikis, a new form of media that makes it easy for people to learn and share their own unique community knowledge. Members will be able to post articles about anything they like, edit others and upload photos and files. This grant will help create the specialized open-source software that makes the wiki possible and help communities develop, launch and sustain local wiki projects.”

WindyCitizen’s Real Time Ads

The winner: Brad Flora of WindyCitizen.com

The amount: $250,000

The pitch: “As a way to help online startups become sustainable, this project will develop an improved software interface to help sites create and sell what are known as real-time ads. These ads are designed to be engaging as they constantly change showing the latest message or post from the advertisers Twitter account, Facebook page or blog. Challenge winner Brad Flora helped pioneer the idea on his Chicago news site, WindyCitizen.com.”

GoMap Riga

The winner: Marcis Rubenis and Kristofs Blaus

The amount: $250,000

The pitch: “To inspire people to get involved in their community, this project will create a live, online map with local news and activities. GoMap Riga will pull some content from the Web and place it automatically on the map. Residents will be able to add their own news, pictures and videos while discussing what is happening around them. GoMap Riga will be integrated with the major existing social networks and allow civic participation through mobile technology. The project will be tested in Riga, Latvia, and ultimately be applicable in other cities.”

Order in the Court 2.0

The winner: John Davidow of WBUR

The amount: $250,000

The pitch: “To foster greater access to the judicial process, this project will create a laboratory in a Boston courtroom to help establish best practices for digital coverage that can be replicated and adopted throughout the nation. While the legislative and executive branches have incorporated new technologies and social media, the courts still operate under the video and audio recording standards established in the 1970s and ’80s. The courtroom will have a designated area for live blogging via a Wi-Fi network and the ability to live-stream court proceedings to the public. Working in conjunction with the Massachusetts court system, the project will publish the daily docket on the Web and build a knowledge wiki for the public with common legal terms.”

Porch Forum

The winner: Michael Wood-Lewis of Front Porch Forum

The amount: $220,000

The pitch: “To help residents connect with others and their community, this grant will help rebuild and enhance a successful community news site, expand it to more towns and release the software so other organizations, anywhere can use it. The Front Porch Forum, a virtual town hall space, helps residents share and discuss local news, build community and increase engagement. The site, currently serving 25 Vermont towns, will expand to 250.”

One-Eight

The winner: Teru Kuwayama

The amount: $202,000

The pitch: “Broadening the perspectives that surround U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, this project will chronicle a battalion by combining reporting from embedded journalists with user-generated content from the Marines themselves. The troops, recently authorized to use social media while deployed, and their families will be key audiences for the online journal steering, challenging and augmenting the coverage with their feedback. The approach will directly serve the stakeholders and inform the wider public by bringing in on-the-ground views on military issues and the execution of U.S. foreign policy.”

Stroome

The winner: USC Annenberg’s Nonny de la Peña and Tom Grasty

The amount: $200,000

The pitch: “To simplify the production of news video, Stroome will create a virtual video-editing studio. There, correspondents, editors and producers will be able to upload and share content, edit and remix with friends and colleagues — all without using expensive satellite truck technology. The site will launch as eyewitness video — often captured by mobile phones or webcams — is becoming a key component of news coverage, generating demand for supporting tools.”

CitySeed

The winner: Arizona State’s Retha Hill and Cody Shotwell

The amount: $90,000

The pitch: “To inform and engage communities, CitySeed will be a mobile application that allows users to plant the ’seed’ of an idea and share it with others. For example, a person might come across a great spot for a community garden. At that moment, the person can use the CitySeed app to geotag the idea, which links it to an exact location. Others can look at the place-based ideas, debate and hopefully act on them. The project aims to increase the number of people informed about and engaged with their communities by breaking down community issues into bite-size settings.”

StoryMarket

The winner: Jake Shapiro of PRX

The amount: $75,000

The pitch: “Building on the software created by 2008 challenge winner Spot.us, this project will allow anyone to pitch and help pay to produce a story for a local public radio station. When the amount is raised (in small contributions), the station will hire a professional journalist to do the report. The project provides a new way for public radio stations to raise money, produce more local content and engage listeners.”

Tilemapping

The winner: Eric Gundersen of Development Seed

The amount: $74,000

The pitch: “To inspire residents to learn about local issues, Tilemapping will help local media create hyper-local, data-filled maps for their websites and blogs. Journalists will be able to tell more textured stories, while residents will be able to draw connections to their physical communities in new ways. The tools will be tested in Washington, D.C. Ushahidi, a 2009 Knight News Challenge winner, used a prototype after the earthquake in Haiti to create maps used to crowdsource reports on places needing aid.”

June 08 2010

21:00

MinnPost, The UpTake try Spot.us to raise funds for their coverage of the Minnesota gubernatorial race

Interesting pitch on Spot.us today:

With the cutback of political reporters at every major newspaper in the state, the need for more political coverage is clear, we will have a new Governor come November, and the citizens of Minnesota need to know as much as they can about everyone in the race. This means we need more, more stories written, more video captured and more questions asked.

We’ve decided that our communities who rely on our coverage may also share these goals and we are excited to be using Spot.us to help us crowd-fund this story idea.

The pitch comes from the Minnesota nonprofits MinnPost and the citizen journalism site The UpTake. It’s looking for funding through November. Oh, and it estimates the total cost of the project to be $40,800.

Yes. That’s steep by all accounts — “if I’m realistic, I don’t know if we’re going to hit that,” Spot.us founder Dave Cohn told me — but it’s also based on straightforward estimates of the man-hours both outlets will require to report (MinnPost) and record (The UpTake) information between now and election time this fall — with about a 50/50 split between the two. MinnPost, says Roger Buoen, the managing editor overseeing the site’s coverage, will have a lead journalist backed with, if resources allow, three or four other reporters. And The UpTake, executive director Jason Barnett told me, will hire a professional videographer — again, if resources allow — to be assisted by the outlet’s cadre of citizen volunteers. That’s a commitment. And a costly one. Indeed, the collaborative coverage idea “has been one of the most expensive projects presented to Spot.us,” Barnett notes.

This isn’t the first time media organizations have used the Spot.us platform to solicit donations for reporting — in the past, the community-funding site has hosted pitches from Bay Area news organizations like the Oakland Tribune, San Francisco magazine, the San Francisco Appeal, the Bay Guardian, and Investigate West — but the MinnPost/UpTake partnership represents a significant step forward for the still-fledgling site. Not only are the organizations based in Minnesota — and proposing to produce an ongoing series of stories that are very specific to Minnesota’s interests — but they’re also, together, significantly bigger than most other outlets that have solicited funding through Spot.us.

“MinnPost is arguably the largest nonprofit that we’ve worked with,” Cohn told me. And it’s also “the second in the Investigative News Network that we’ve worked with.” (TheUpTake — “sort of the local C-SPAN,” Buoen puts it — isn’t an INN member, Cohn notes. “But they’re also awesome.”)

The trifecta came about as many such collaborations do: through a casual meeting that became something more. Cohn and Barnett met each other “maybe a year and a half ago,” Cohn recalls, “and we always talked about doing something together.” At the same time, Barnett and his staff had been working with MinnPost, supplying livestreamed video for, among other things, the long saga that was the Al Franken/Norm Coleman Senate runoff. The collaboration — MinnPost supplying the reporting, TheUpTake providing the video — worked so well that they wanted to continue it for other political stories. “Jason and I had been talking for some time about gubernatorial coverage,” Buoen says; the Spot.us pitch was in some ways a logical outcome of that discussion.

So a Kickstarter-esque, all-or-nothing proposition this is not. “Even if we don’t raise a lot of money, we’re going to do a lot of this stuff anyway,” Buoen says. The question is how much reporting they’ll be able to do with whatever funds they’re able to raise. Cohn said that, for Spot.us pitches that don’t reach their fundraising goal, reporters have the option to take the money donated and do the work anyway. And Buoen sees the Spot.us effort as existing separately from MinnPost’s current, three-tiered revenue stream of subscription fees, advertising dollars, and foundation support.

Still, the new-car-worthy ticket price isn’t just a matter of pragmatism, Cohn points out. The high number — which lives, price-tag-like, next to the description of the MinnPost/UpTake reporting project on the Spot.us site — serves as a reminder that good, thorough journalism is, you know, pricey. The Spot.us pitch is an effort to raise money, of course; but it’s also an effort to raise awareness. It’s a way, Barnett says, to “present some of the real costs of journalism.”

13:54

Community Centered Ads Boost Engagement, Funding at Spot.Us

The beauty of starting something from scratch is the iterative and agile process I've talked about since before "Spot.Us":http://www.spot.us began. In this post I'm going to discuss two new developments at Spot.Us. One is an exciting feature and revenue stream. The other is in relation to our expansion into new regions.

For almost two years now, Spot.Us has been growing and evolving. I'm very happy to say that the last month has possibly been the most exciting since our launch. We grew almost 30 percent in terms of users. Even more exciting is that the technology behind Spot.Us is starting to show real signs of scale between our expansion into Seattle and other regions, which I'll describe below.

So what's happened in the last month?

Community Centered Advertising

I'm normally good about breaking news of Spot.Us on my personal blog and Idea Lab. But last month we unleashed a feature somewhat quietly, using just an email to registered members of Spot.Us (sign up for our newsletters here). It was later covered in Poynter.

We call it "Community Centered Advertising." Before I go off on a rant about it, let me ask long time readers, friends, acquaintances, lovers of journalism or revenue geeks to try the following demonstration.

In less than two minutes and five clicks you can help an independent reporter (and Spot.Us).

  1. Go to Spot.Us and login or register.
  2. Click "Earn Credits" in the header navigation.
  3. Take a simple and short survey.
  4. Submit the survey and earn $5. Then you'll be taken to a page with all our active pitches.
  5. Select the pitch of your choice (this is the fun part), click "Apply Credits," and confirm that decision.

Bill Mitchel from Poynter wrote about it and summed it up: "In some ways, it seems like a no-brainer: Encourage consumer engagement with advertising by giving users a stake in deciding how the revenue gets spent ... Spot.Us itself is an experiment in transparency and control of money for news. This is just a matter of applying it to advertising."

What we are doing is making it very transparent how advertising money gets spent on Spot.Us. It's so transparent that we give up ownership of that decision to members of the public who engage with the advertisement. Spot.Us is sponsoring this current campaign but we already have our next sponsor lined up. (Interested in being a sponsor? Contact info@spot.us).

Is It Working?

1. The numbers don't lie: Our engagement percentages went up drastically. When fundraising online you can expect a certain amount of attrition. People will view your site and not engage. It's a big mental burden to reach for your wallet even if it's not a financial burden. Folks like Beth Kanter have been talking about it for years; there is an engagement
ladder
and people have to start from the bottom. Well, now the bottom level of engagement on Spot.Us can still support stories financially at no cost to the user. As expected, user engagement went up dramatically -- it quadrupled, in fact.

2. The numbers got better: We also saw something that I didn't expect to happen -- we got more financial contributions on Spot.Us as well. I figured with the "Earn Credits" option nobody would donate their own money. To the contrary, many did. The $5 in credits was an appetizer.

3. The challenges for this revenue stream: I feel confident that this model is ethically sound in that the advertising won't influence the content -- at least, no more than could be argued advertising impacts content for any publication. That said, we want sponsorships that engage people in a positive way. Wouldn't it be great if people were engaging with the advertisement not just because they wanted the credits, but because it served their information needs somehow? Still, we are a non-profit startup. Unlike the Bay Citizen which had $8.7 million at their launch, we have just me to try and sell sponsorships on top of everything else. So challenge  number one is finding a way to sell sponsorships quick and easy. To do this we need a broader appeal. Which brings us to the next part of
this update.

Spot.Us Creeping into Your Town (Lessons on Assumptions)

Today we are publishing a pitch that is in collaboration with both The Uptake
and MinnPost.com, two of Minnesota's finest non-profit news organizations. 

There have been two aspects of Spot.Us that, since launching, I realize have not worked the way I envisioned. One was around the idea of distributing content. Most news organizations are adverse to running content that isn't 100 percent produced by them or produced by somebody within the mainstream media club. Hell, even the larger non-profits have trouble distributing their content to the AP. It's a challenge and we've gotten around it by partnering with news organizations from the start of a project. That was a shift from my original vision.

It's time now to question my original vision of expansion, and this creep into Minnesota is a perfect example. The pitch we're publishing today is to cover the gubernatorial race via video from The Uptake coupled with reporting from MinnPost. You couldn't find two better partners to do this. Meanwhile, they have large enough audiences such that if 10 percent or so take action on "community centered advertising" we'd start fundraising large amounts. Even better, it wouldn't divert from their regular fundraising efforts. If anything, it might bolster it by giving potential future donors an easy route in.

But this is the only pitch we have in the Minnesota region (more are welcome -- just click "Start a Story.")

Meanwhile, over in Seattle, we've funded two stories and a third is close. After that's done, I'm going to have to start emailing around to convince reporters to create a pitch. Not an impossible task, but a drain nonetheless.

At the same time, I'm getting pitches from places like Portland, Oregon; Sacramento, California; Vermont; Maine, etc. Even as far away as Guatemala (international is a whole other can of worms). These locations don't necessarily merit their own network. I don't suspect I could get a steady stream of pitches from Maine. But the pitch that has come my way is pretty good. It is local and covers civic issues. I certainly wouldn't want that to die on the vine because I couldn't find three other Maine reporters to create sister pitches. 

From the start, I thought Spot.Us would expand a la Craigslist: Pick locations, create sub-domains and let people aggregate around them. Certainly San Francisco and Los Angeles have worked like this. We always have about five active pitches in both locations at any given time. Seattle however, might not be that way. I fear I'm viewed as an outsider -- perhaps even as "competition." And perhaps outside of The Uptake and MinnPost.com, I will have no luck in Minnesota either (I hope I'm wrong). 

But that shouldn't stop me from expanding. Especially not when I am getting very solid pitches from around the country.

Which is to say: Spot.Us might need a new organizing principle for expanding. Maybe the network or "region" shouldn't be a factor at all; maybe we will expand to wherever a decent pitch comes calling, be it in New York or Sante Fe. Making this shift would undoubtedly raise more questions, such as how we decide what pitches to take, etc. But I am prepared to have that conversation.

What do you think?

May 21 2010

09:11

Next Generation Journalist: crowdfund your journalism

This series of 10 moneymaking tips for journalists began on Adam Westbrook’s blog, but continues exclusively on Journalism.co.uk.

Adam’s e-book, Next Generation Journalist: 10 New Ways to Make Money in Journalism is on sale now.

10. crowdfund your journalism

Crowdfunding has made it into my book even though, on the face of it, it is hardly entrepreneurial. It is however a method only possible thanks to the internet; and as you’ll read in the e-book, a method which actually requires some of the toughest entrepreneurial spirit.

The idea of crowdsourcing news stories, opinion and media isn’t that new. But the notion of crowdsourcing money is only beginning to come to fruition. The real pioneers on this have been in cinema: last year the producers of Age of Stupid funded the entire project with donations from the public.

The internet has made it easier too. In particular we’re seeing new platforms from which to launch your crowdfunding project. Spot.Us is one of the first, and currently helps to fund projects with networks in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. More recently another startup – Kickstarter – has emerged working along similar lines.

Crowdfunding your journalism…

  • has so far proved successful in print, online and cinematic projects
  • is not easy and requires strong marketing skills
  • is only possible because of the internet

But be under no illusions: crowdfunding is not an easy ride.

“You have to tell people what’s in it for them” says multimedia journalist Annabel Symington, “people want to know what their money is going to do, and saying it’s going to fund a piece of quality journalism isn’t enough.”

Along with two partners Annabel has spent the last few months using Kickstarter to raise enough money to report on the Guarani Aquifier. As with almost all of the ideas suggested in Next Generation Journalist: 10 New Ways to Make Money in 2010, crowdfunding it’s about being more than a journalist:

“Through this project I’ve become a brand designer, a social media guru, a public speaker and an event organiser. You name it, I think I’ve done it,” says Annabel.

You can find out more about the Guarani Project here, and more about the ins and outs of crowdfunding in the ebook.

And that wraps up the 10 new ways to make money in journalism in 2010. If you’ve been inspired by any of them you can find out how to make them happen inside the ebook – on a discount price until 27 May.

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April 14 2010

17:05

Spot.Us Expands to Seattle

We have been hinting at Seattle as the next Spot.Us city for some time and I'm very excited today, with the click of a few buttons, to make it a reality.

It would be a crime to keep Spot.Us limited to the Bay Area and Los Angeles. It would turn us into a non-profit news organization when, as I've said many times, we are a platform. A platform for freelancers to pitch the world (editors and the public) in one fell swoop. Non-profit news organizations can use this platform to fundraise, local papers and bloggers can use this to expand their freelance budget, and through Spot.Us the community can have a say in what news gets covered. So it's time to start opening up the platform. We may be coming to a region near you, so join our newsletter or suggest a city on our home page.

This is the first phase in a larger expansion. We are already talking with folks in other cities where we hope to expand. Perhaps some of these local Spot.Us networks won't pan out. Hopefully they will. This depends entirely upon the public. We need your help to spread the word and to get folks involved. It's a chance for the public in Seattle to take ownership of the media.

This is an experiment for the larger journalism community to take control of. This belongs to everyone.


Why Seattle?

My first response is: why not?

Aside from being the next major city on the West Coast, Seattle is a hub of hyper-local media experiments and projects. If my hunch is correct these local media projects need as many revenue sources, platforms and tools as possible. There are a ton of organizations and sites we hope to partner with like Investigate West, West Seattle Blog, Seattle Post Globe, Capital Hill Blog, Next Door Media, Seattle PI, CrossCut, Wallywood -- and that's literally off the top of my head.

Why Now?

About six weeks ago I was having a meeting with Spot.Us media advisor Jeremy Toeman, one of my oldest "Internet friends," who gave me a polite kick in the butt as only an e-friend can. "You aren't learning fast enough," he said.

He was right. Something was holding me back and he aptly pointed it out. I was starting to talk with news organizations in various parts of the country about expanding Spot.Us in partnership. I still want to, but I can't wait for that to manifest. Especially not when it really only takes a few clicks for us to create a new Spot.Us network.

And besides: The mission of Spot.Us as a no-nprofit is not to partner with newspapers. Those are welcome events, like today's article in the SF Bay Guardian funded in part by Spot.Us, but it is not our driving mission.

Creating a new network without a strong partnership does feel vulnerable -- but that is what is needed in this phase of Spot.Us' growth. And more networks will come. We are looking at Austin and Minneapolis next.

April 02 2010

19:48

What Kinds of Experimental Ads Are Local News Sites Using?

In the search for new business models for community news sites, many experimental advertising platforms have been used. MinnPost has its Real-Time ads widget. Printcasting is trying out MediaBids. And Spot.us is planning something called Community-Centered Ads, where people could view an ad or fill out an advertiser's survey in exchange for credits they can use to pay for original reporting. So here's a question to Idea Lab bloggers and readers: What other experiments have you seen in local sites running advertising that's beyond the norm? What is working and what has failed? Share your thoughts and observations in the comments below, and hopefully sharing intelligence will help all involved.

April 01 2010

21:07

A Plan for Spot.Us to Use Community-Centered Ads

Perhaps it's ironic for me to write about advertising. Fellow Knight News Challenge winner Dan Pacheco can quote me as once saying "f*&# advertising" and one of the initial inspirations for me to get into journalism was Adbusters Magazine. Below I want to describe a potential advertising model that Spot.Us hopes to employ (and others can steal) along with general thoughts about the diversification of revenue streams.


Community Centered Advertising

The underlying inspiration for Spot.Us is to give the public a freelance budget so they can help set the editorial agenda. Right now that is done via contributions from their own wallet. But what if they directed an advertising budget? What if the people to whom an advertisement was directed had a say in where the money it generated went? I imagine it would look something like this.

A button on Spot.Us that says "Earn Credits." Upon clicking a user is sent to a blatantly sponsored page. We even have our first sponsor Mortgage Revolution. They are holding a fundraising event in San Francisco and part of the proceeds will go to sponsor our first Community Centered Advertising campaign which will try and stir up conversation about the real estate and mortgage industry.

In Community Centered Advertising the sponsor is looking for some kind of engagement with their brand, cause, business, etc. In the case of Mortgage Revolution they hope to stir up a healthy conversation about the real estate and mortgage industry. But let's use Levi Strauss purely as an example.


Perhaps Levi's provides survey questions:

  • What is your favorite cut of jeans?
  • What is a memorable Levi's moment you've had?
  • You buy Levi's jeans because... (multiple choice answer).


Or it can be a branded survey simply to get the customer to think more about Levi's

  • What year was Levi's invented? (Multiple choice)
  • Guess how much of material X Levi's produces a year?

Or a quick video that people have to watch Hulu-style.

Upon engaging with the advertisement the Spot.Us community member earns X credits, which represent real dollars, and they can direct those credits toward funding the story (or stories) of their choice.

The community still makes the decisions about what stories get funded but they are doing so with our advertising budget, not their own money.

At this stage it's just theory but we have our first sponsor and hope to roll this feature out soon and I hope more sponsors will follow (if interested in details, send me a note: david@spot.us). Then again, we may find that the Spot.Us community reacts negatively to it. Who knows? That's why we need to try it -- even new media experiments need to experiment.

Depending on the level of the sponsorship Spot.Us would probably take a small overhead fee. But even if we didn't, I would feel encouraged that with a low overhead we will be funding independent reporters. (Want to know when this feature is live so you can be one of the first to try it out? Sign up for our newsletter).

Journalists Awash at Sea

I bring this up because like all news organizations Spot.Us needs to diversify revenue sources. An analogy I often use is that, "Journalists are awash at sea. Previously we could rest the majority of our weight on a few revenue streams -- advertising, classifieds -- but now we need to get many revenue streams and a piece of rope to tie them all together in order to make a stable raft that distributes our weight."

This also requires re-thinking and re-inventing our relationship with classifieds, advertising and even coupons.

One of the problems I'm observing is that instead of re-inventing our relationship with classifieds, advertising and even coupons, news organizations are assuming they can take the old models and stick them on the web and move on.

Craigslist as Counter-Factual; GroupOn as Factual

I hate when journalists point to Craigslist as a "killer." But let's talk about why there is so much tension there. The fact is Craigslist was not a technical innovation. Any newspaper company could have invented it. They didn't because it would have drastically re-thought their relationship with classifieds. The bummer in this is that newspapers were really always in the advertising and classifieds business and used their profits to support journalism. That business has dwindled and journalism has suffered. Imagine if Hearst had created Craigslist? The profits from that would most likely be pumped back into newspapers.

This isn't to knock Craigslist either. With his profits Craig Newmark has created the Craigslist Foundation which is a HUGE boon for society. Craig has also supported journalism here and there. Understandably this isn't his top issue -- but at least it's on his radar.

Now look at GroupOn. Take a good hard look. I think Michael Skolar is right in his post "I'm suggesting you steal the idea for your local news operation fast before national competitors own the market."

These sites represent a new relationship to coupons, one of the last great revenue streams is being revolutionized right underneath newspapers' feet. And once again the technology isn't mind-blowing. I'm talking to the big guns (Hearst, McClatchy, Gannett, etc.) when I say "start something like this up now or buy one of these startups." The revenue you make can be reinvested into journalism because that's what your companies do.

I consider the founder of GroupOn a friend, but I doubt his company would just take profits and subsidize journalism -- that's understandable. The few companies that historically used profits from advertising, classifieds and coupons to prop original reporting are few and some of them are going bankrupt.

Re-inventing our Relationship to Advertising

One of the reasons Facebook is worth so much is because of the relationship they have created between advertisers and users. As an example a little birdie at the NY Times once told me that the number two country for registered users on the New York Times was...Afghanistan.

Before you start scratching your head as to why so many Afghans are reading the NY Times, consider the image of this registration drop down from NYTimes.com:

NYT register.jpg

Now you can stop scratching your head.

Compare this to Facebook where most people freely reveal their age, religion, relationship status and more. Now ask yourself: As an advertiser, where do you want to be? The site with lots of people pretending to be Afghans or the site where you can target the customer you most want? Privacy issues aside, it's pretty ingenious. And some might even argue that a good advertisement is good content. If the advertisement is exactly what you were looking for, it isn't annoying -- it's helpful.

Interestingly enough the new relationship to advertisers is predicated on the new relationship with the audience. The more the audience is ready to reveal about themsleves the more advertising is valued. Same with GroupOn. If a customer freely reveals they are interested in a deal before it becomes official, the small business offering the deal starts licking their chops -- rightfully so. And in all cases the user is incentivized to reveal the information because it's in their benefit. For the Facebook user they are connecting with friends. For the GroupOn user, they are looking for money saving deals.

With Community Centered Advertising our hope is that community members are encouraged to reveal something about themselves in exchange for the ability to fund the original reporting of their choice. Most news organizations don't have a system by which individuals can direct cash towards stories but perhaps they can offer something else?

What incentive can a news organization give to a user so that they freely reveal more about themselves in an effort to become more attractive to advertising? I would argue that it's best if the end goal, to become attractive to advertisers, is done above the table -- as with Spot.Us' model and GroupOn's. There is no deception. You are engaging with an advertisement. I wouldn't argue that Facebook is being devious, but certainly they have come under criticism because users aren't sharing their info with advertisers in mind, but rather with their friends as the goal.

So Now What?

As always, I never claim to have solutions. Just crazy ideas that I want to execute. Keep your eye open for Community Centered Advertising. If you've never donated on Spot.Us before, I hope this inspires you. Instead of having to reach for your wallet, you can just donate a little time and a little bit of your own knowledge. Register for our newsletter why doncha!

February 26 2010

23:58

4 Minute Roundup: Google's Trouble in Europe; WAC vs. Apple

This episode of 4MR is brought to you by GoDaddy, helping you set up your own website in a snap with domain name registration, web hosting and 24/7 support. Visit GoDaddy to learn more.

Here's the latest 4MR audio report from MediaShift. In this week's edition, I look at the trouble Google is having in Europe, with its executives indicted in an Italian court; the European Commission investigating anti-competitive behavior; and recent privacy complaints against Street View. Plus, an alliance of rival cell phone companies wants to create a unified app store to take on Apple. Plus I ask Just One Question to Spot.us honcho David Cohn, who explains an innovative ad plan for the crowdfunding site.

Check it out:

4mrbareaudio22610.mp3

>>> Subscribe to 4MR <<<

>>> Subscribe to 4MR via iTunes <<<

Background music is "What the World Needs" by the The Ukelele Hipster Kings via PodSafe Music Network.

Here are some links to related sites and stories mentioned in the podcast:

Google's appeal in Italy is a blow for freedom at the Inquirer

Italy's prosecution of Google execs could hurt flow of Internet information at Seattle Times

EU regulators critical of Google Street View, report says at LA Times

Google's Italian problem has a Korean solution... at ZDNet

Google facing challenges to its bold ambitions in Europe at LA Times

Mobile Operators Unite to Take on Apple's App Store at ClickZ

Why the WAC Is Whack at GigaOm

Apple ambushed in Barcelona at the Register

Mobile Operators Unite to Fight Apple App Store - Could it Work? at PC World

Spot.Us Adds Assignments, Widgets, Story Updates in Revamp at Idea Lab

Spot.us

Also, be sure to vote in our poll about what you think about Google's search results:




What do you think about Google search results?poll

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

This episode of 4MR is brought to you by GoDaddy, helping you set up your own website in a snap with domain name registration, web hosting and 24/7 support. Visit GoDaddy to learn more.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

February 23 2010

13:17

Spot.us unveils changes: Donate your time, follow updates

The crowdfunded journalism site Spot.us unveiled changes to the site today based on feedback from its users and writers. Users can now easily follow updates on a reporter’s pitch and donate their time or expertise to a story, instead of just their money.

The basic premise of Spot.us stays the same: Writers post a story pitch they’d like funding to cover. Site users can make small donations (many of which add up to cover big endeavors, like a $10,000 trip to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch). The new bells and whistles enhance this core functionality.

One improvement allows users to track a story from start to finish (rather than from pitch to then just finished product). Users can easily subscribe to blog post-style updates via email or RSS, or check them on the site.

“We’ve had that feature for a little bit now, but it’s kind of been overlooked because it’s buried within the pitches,” the site’s founder David Cohn told me yesterday.

The more prominent feature could also open new forms of storytelling on the site, including the possibility of daily news, or beat coverage. Reporters are free to use the tool however they wish. “When we publish a finished story, some of them have five to 15 blog posts which are just as, if not more interesting, than the finished story. So that’s why we wanted to find a way to feature those on the front page.”

Users can also donate their time and talents. Writers had told Spot.us that sometimes they need help with mundane reporting work, like scanning documents. Many reporters want help with photos. The idea was to allow writers to “make an open call for help on specific tasks.” It’s crowdsourcing, but on an individual basis.

“Now people can come together around developing a project,” Cohn told me. “[Spot.us is] really still trying to get reporters and contributors on an equal playing field.”

Cohn and I talked about how talent could also mean access. Need a photo from New Zealand for your piece? Just ask. (Proof of concept: I once needed some photos of Alaska’s Kenai River, an improbable task for a blogger stuck in Washington, D.C. Luckily, a loyal Talking Points Memo reader gladly helped me out.)

Cohn also noted that Spot.us has created a new embedable widget that can promote an individual pitch. He hopes to one day make donations possible within the widget itself.

“Releasing this stuff, it’s the start of a new phase for development.”

12:00

Spot.Us Adds Assignments, Widgets, Story Updates in Revamp

Since Spot.Us first launched in late 2008 as a simple wiki, I've wanted this to be a learning and growing endeavor both for myself and for  journalism as a whole.

There are so many lessons in starting a non-profit news project, especially one that is unique in its scope and mission like Spot.Us. I hope to share some insight below, but first the news.

spotus.png

Today Spot.Us takes a huge step forward with a new design and new features. This was made possible by lead designer Lauren Rabaino and the excellent development team of Erik Sundelof and Dan Newman. Please join me and Anh Do, managing editor of the Los Angeles branch, in thanking this team.

The new interface will continue to be tweaked, but it is already much more appealing and user friendly than our old design. I dare not call it "Spot.Us 2.0" just yet. There are two major new features planned before we hit that mark. This is Spot.Us 1.9.

New Features


Suggest a city: It's time to start looking beyond the Bay Area and Los Angeles. That's right -- expansion is a priority. Spot.Us is a tool or platform, not a news organization. With that in mind, we are looking to expand where we know people are interested in using the site. Would you intend on using it if it was available in your area? If so, suggest your city!

Assignments: This is a feature I am very excited about. In some respects it transitions Spot.Us out of "community funded reporting" and into "community powered reporting." It's a subtle but important distinction. Every reporter now has the option of creating "assignments" that are limited only by their imagination. A reporter could crowdsource a collection of photos, distribute the workload required for reviewing documents, etc. The reporter has control over who can and cannot contribute to an assignment, and how assignments exist, if at all, in relation to their pitch. This is an optional feature for anyone that wants to build a movement around their reporting efforts.

Widgets, Facebook, Twitter, Oh My!: Yes, it's been a long time coming. I admit we haven't been moving fast enough in this space. But we are making up for it ASAP! We aren't breaking ground here, but considering that we are playing in the new media space, it's a crime that we haven't had these features.

More on Widgets: This is a deceptively forward-looking feature. Our hope is that soon people will be able to donate through a widget without ever having to leave the site where the widget is placed. This could also pave the way for an API (which is much further out, but is along this train of thought). For now, widgets will be built into a "Spot.Us Lite" that can be hosted on your website by just copying and pasting some code. (This is coming soon.)

Story updates: We've had blog posts associated with every pitch, but the vast majority of blog posts have been overlooked. Now we are highlighting the latest story updates on the front page, and will encourage reporters to show the process of their reporting.

RSS: We now have an RSS feed for...everything: Latest stories, newest pitches, blog posts, even the most recent contributions -- and they can all be filtered by networks. Only interested in Los Angeles news? Go into the LA network and all the RSS feeds will be relevant to you.

Spot.Us Channels: The first channel we're creating is "Spot Us Picks." But in the future, channels, or filtered menus of pitches, can be created around topics (the health channel) general types of organizations (the public media channel) or specific partnering organizations (The Bay Area News Project channel).

There are also a few more minor features and tweaks. For example, we are finally able to better highlight our successful partnerships, our community advisory boards, and more.

General Lessons, Observations

I've learned more during this process than I can truly reflect on in a single blog post. But I have always seen winning the Knight News Challenge as a great privilege that has afforded me the luxury (and responsibility) to publicly expound on how Spot.Us is going, and what I'm learning along the way.

Many of those lessons are in past blog posts around being iterative, the things you must weigh in website development and collaboration. As of right now, these are some of the best lessons I've been able to articulate. I hope to share more as I continue.

How Is Spot.Us Doing?

I never know how to answer this question. No matter how many times I say it won't, some people still expect Spot.Us and crowdfunding to somehow replace the gobs of money that has been lost from traditional advertising.

Here's what I usually say: "Considering all the things that could have gone wrong, we are doing amazing!"

And that is true.

Now in our second year of an initial grant from the Knight Foundation, I am proud to say that with micro-donations and other foundation grants, we have almost raised a third of the amount of money given to us in that first grant. Which is to say: In another two years, we could be a net positive to the cash flow of working journalists. That, of course, assumes nothing changes.

This design represents a shift from the proof-of-concept stage to the expansion stage. Indeed, I'm talking to (and want to talk to more) folks around the country who want to use Spot.Us in their area. My hope is we can continue to funnel more money into the pockets of journalists who are reporting on important civic topics.

However, if people expect Spot.Us to replace major metro papers, then we are in trouble. As I often say, there is no such thing as a silver bullet. Spot.Us is a new, growing revenue stream. It is not meant to be as big of a revenue stream as classifieds were 20 years ago; but it is a revenue stream that requires little effort (just create a pitch and embed a widget), and an option that can be combined with a multitude of other streams

We continue to be a platform -- a growing platform. This year is a make or break moment. At the end of 2010, Spot.Us could be a beautiful failure in that we can report back to the larger journalism community what we know, what we learned and how we think others could build off that. Or we will keep going -- the little startup non-profit that could ;)

I've always been an underdog, a nice guy that didn't buckle to authority. With that in mind, I have every intention of breaking through every barrier I see in front of Spot.Us. I hope you'll join me!

December 03 2009

15:32

NewBizNews Conference Videos: Services & Partners

Representatives from a number of companies gave brief presentations (followed by Q & A) on how hyperlocal sites can benefit from their services.

PaperG (Victor Wong)


______________

Spot.us (David Cohn)


______________

SeeClickFix (Ben Berkowitz)


______________

GrowthSpur (Mark Potts)

November 10 2009

08:47

Spot.Us' Pacific Garbage Patch Story Published in Today's NY Times

Today in the New York Times science section you'll find a piece written by Lindsey Hoshaw about the Pacific garbage patch and an accompanying photo slide show. This piece would not have been possible if Spot.Us and a community of over 100 people hadn't come together to fund her trip. It is a great case study for Spot.Us, and arguably the best of the 40-plus projects we've undertaken in the past year. Despite its ambition, and the mound of publicity it generated, the story went off without a hitch. It involved almost every facet of how I imagined Spot.Us could work, and I'd like to walk through how it came about from start to finish.

Below you will find.

•    How did this start?
•    The connection with the Times.
•    What all this represented in a nutshell.
•    The real test: fundraising
•    The unfolding story: Lindsey's live reporting
•    Conclusion/what can be improved.

How Did This Start?

I first met Lindsey Hoshaw after speaking at Stanford's journalism school about Spot.Us. Our first meeting was uneventful. The only impression I was left with was her time in Los Angeles, which gave us something to connect on.

A few months later, however, Lindsey contacted me about the Pacific garbage patch. It was a story I knew of through Manuel Maqueda, who himself has undertaken recent reporting efforts around plastic in the ocean.

Lindsey explained that she had been given a seat on the boat with Captain Moore, the man who first discovered the Pacific garbage patch. After reaching out to the science editor at the New York Times, she found that they were interested in the story. There was, however, one giant hurdle: she needed to pay her own way on the trip, and getting to the middle of the Pacific Ocean wasn't cheap.

The Connection with the Times

This pitch excelled where many others have gone awry, and for that I must give praise to the Times. In most Spot.Us experiences, the larger a news organization, the slower it is to get approval to try something with Spot.Us because of our radically different approach. In past attempts with mainstream organizations, I've sat in countless meetings only to spin wheels. Those experiences are actually the inspiration for this blog post, "News Organizations In a Battle Against Inertia."

My hat is off the Times. They interfaced with Spot.Us as if they were a lean and mean startup. I spent half a day at the Times talking with various decision-makers who agreed to entertain the idea further if we drafted a pitch. Once the pitch was approved, all we had to do was make it live and let them know. I am still in awe of that process. It contrasts with everything I've experienced with other larger media organizations, and it's a testament to why the Times is not just the paper of record but also leading the charge into the digital future.

What All This Represented in a Nutshell

A freelancer and a news organization wanted to work together, but they needed to grease the wheels with some money. This is not uncommon. News organizations have a shrinking staff and budget. They must rely more on freelancers, but also don't want to burn through the entire freelance budget on a single story. This is one reason why we are seeing less original long-form reporting. Spot.Us acted as the grease. I hope we can continue to grease the wheels between freelancers and the public and with other news organizations.

The Real Test: Fundraising

At the time, this pitch had the most ambitious fundraising goal Spot.Us had ever undertaken. I am happy to say that a new project with McSweeney's and the Public Press may surpass it. Fundraising is never easy, but a few things favored this pitch.

1. Lindsey is an ideal Spot.Us reporter. She is passionate and unafraid to show it. Her desire to report on this topic pours out of her in the Spot.Us video pitch. I only wish every Spot.Us reporter could show their interest in a story like her. Perhaps, in the future, the "video pitch" will be required for a Spot.Us pitch. Furthermore, Lindsey was unafraid to reach out to her network of friends, family and social networking sites to ask for support.

2. The Times followed up our initial efforts with a story of their own, "Many Checkbooks One Newspaper." The piece by Clark Hoyt examined the growing role of public support in journalism and highlighted Lindsey's pitch. I would never speak on behalf of the Times, but I like to think this was their way of putting out a test: "if we ask, will you give?" The answer was a big "yes" from a variety of folks for a multitude of reasons. Some donated in support of the Times. Others did because they knew of, and want to know more about, the garbage patch. Perhaps others donated just because of how fresh Spot.Us seemed; and perhaps others did so because they connected with Lindsey as an individual

Regardless, we raised $6,000 on Spot.Us before I could even go in and change the fundraising goal to $10,000 (the amount Lindsey truly needed). We used Facebook Causes to get the remainder.

The Unfolding Story

Once funding was secured, Lindsey didn't rest. She blogged regularly throughout her experience - including using a satellite phone to get online while on the boat. She saved her best photos for the Times upon her return, but she did not ignore the interest of people that supported her trip. She kept them involved and engaged. The best wrap-up of her posts from the ship can be found here.

The best pitches on Spot.Us are those that treat their subject as an unfolding story. KALW's "Crime Courts and Communities" pitch is another great example of this "beat blogging" approach.

Conclusion/What Can be Improved

Spot.Us needs a new design. There, I said it! (We've gotten started).

We need to express our mission clearer, and improve functionality/features of the site (new designs coming soon). We are far from perfect. This is not a post to simply pat us on the back and claim/whine, "if only more reporters were as open as Lindsey, or more news organizations as willing as the Times  Spot.Us would be the best thing since the Walter Lippmann." That sentiment would not only be naive -- it would shift the burden of improvement from Spot.Us to the culture of journalism.

Spot.Us does represent a fundamental shift from traditional journalism culture. While that is a hurdle for us, it is something we must overcome by highlighting exemplary projects like this, and figuring out how they can be repeated. With that in mind, this case study would be incomplete without the following section.

We Need

1.    Other ways to support reporting. There are other ways to support reporters beyond whipping out a wallet. Distributed reporting can be huge, and Spot.Us should dabble in this. Perhaps we will shift from "community funded reporting" to "community powered reporting" or "community supported reporting."

2.    Facebook, Twitter and more. The Times article would not have had a big impact without Twitter.

3. A clearer way to articulate what is going on with every pitch to any visitor that comes to our site.

4. Your ideas!

Finally

A big thank you from Lindsey:
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