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Spot.Us Goes National, Gets Clay Shirky as Sponsor

Anyone that has followed Spot.Us from the beginning knows we've tried to remain iterative and agile. In the earlier stages of Spot.Us I thought this was one of the larger lessons for journalism-entrepreneurs. I went through the iterative and agile process and tried to document it so others could repeat. I hope to continue this tradition as I get ready for an academic fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. Indeed, the heart of this post addresses two features of Spot.Us (expansion and community-focused sponsorships) which will be my focus while in Missouri.

Inherent to this mindset is the ability to acknowledge missteps and pivot. There are countless things I believe we've done right (pats self on back); but there are other things where we made the best guesses we could and upon failure had to pivot. Recently, Spot.Us made one big pivot and is openly thinking about how to dance around two remaining problems. Before we analyze those, let's get to the good news (pats self on back again, rewards reader with cute kitten photo).

Community-focused sponsorship continues.

We have another community-focused sponsorship, this one made possible by Clay Shirky (how cool is that!).

In this sponsorship we are asking the community questions about objectivity and journalism. Not only do we reward your time by giving you control over a part of our budget, but we will release answers to these questions so that we all may become smarter and learn about what the Spot.Us community thinks about this subject.

Community-focused sponsorships was also a notable entry at the Knight-Batten awards and we've created a sponsorship package to help spread the word. The next step is an affiliate program. If you help us sell a sponsorship, you'll get the commission. Interested? Contact me at david at spot.us.

Editorial Highlights

Just about every week we complete a reporting project and publish a handful of blog posts. Some of the recent victories are highlighted below:

  • The Los Angeles Times imitates Spot.Us reporting: They say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. If that is true, then the L.A. Times gave Spot.Us a huge kudos recently. Our ongoing investigation into the UC Regents found that one regent has invested lots of money into private educational institutions. The L.A. Times followed up our reporting, giving a small nod to the original investigation without really giving full credit. In a separate email the L.A. Times reporter did admit that our reporting inspired his column. The Spot.Us community can collectively pat itself on the back for that one.
  • Our most dynamic collaboration ever -- covering the Johannes Mehserle trial: This week we published the 40th post in our coverage of the Johannes Mehserle trial. Mehserle, a former BART police officer, was found guilty of the second degree murder of Oscar Grant. What was unique and interesting for Spot.Us about this project was the number of partners that participated. Our pitch had seven different organizations taking part including Oakland Local, New American Media, California Beat, KALW and The Bay Citizen. In another era, each organization would have hired its own reporter and provided competitive (and perhaps overlapping) coverage. Through Spot.Us we were able to create a ethos of "co-opetition." We hope to see more pitches like this in the future, and our hat is off to these organizations who were able to pull it off.
  • The Treasure Island investigation: Our partners in crime, the SF Public Press, put out a print product recently with an exhaustive spread on Treasure Island. It's a fantastic look at development in SF from several angles and will be adapted and republished by Shareable.Net this week.

Lessons Learned and Missteps

1. Expansion isn't clean: A careful observer of Spot.Us would have seen this coming and may have even noticed the change last week. We have removed the networks on Spot.Us. We used to say we were based in SF, LA, Seattle, Minnesota and expanding; we are now open to anyone with a good local/regional pitch anywhere in the United States.

As I noted in a previous post in June:

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

It makes little sense for me to tell a good pitch from Illinois or  Texas that they can't put their pitch up until we find a handful of other pitches in their region. So, as of last week, the sub-domains at Spot.Us have been removed. Trying to convince people in a specific region to use the site -- while stopping others from using it because they aren't in the right region -- is not the best use of our time or energy.

So the lesson here is really one about internal expectations and external realities. While in my mind's eye it still makes sense for Spot.Us to expand region-by-region, I don't see this happening anytime soon. This is not the end of the world. In some respects I find it freeing. In the end Spot.Us is a platform, not a news organization. Opening up the platform is a positive endeavor, especially considering the vast majority of pitches so far have been successful.

The major misstep then is not making this change sooner. The challenge going forward is finding a different organizing mechanism so that people can find pitches that are relevant to them as quickly as possible on our search page without expecting those pitches to be grouped geographically.

2. Letting go isn't easy: Related to the misstep above is a larger phenomena. Put bluntly I was a smothering Jewish mother (trust me, I know what these are like). I think I clung to the "babyness" of the Spot.Us project instead of letting it go free. It's natural for anybody who starts something to hold onto it and fear releasing it into the wild. I've tried to avoid that, but  I'm afraid I've put Spot.Us into a tough position of wanting it to expand but also being protective over the pitches that are uploaded into the site.

There are some pitches I felt very comfortable rejecting. The best example was a pitch from a Seattle fortune teller that was going to read people's future via the Internet and publish on Spot.Us. I feel justified in saying "that's not for us." As a non-profit, we have a mission to fund local/regional reporting.

At the same time, this tension hasn't always been easy to negotiate. Some pitches we get exist in a much more difficult space. The tension exists between being a site where the founder has authority over what pitches are included, and a site that is truly open but still filters out pitches that don't meet our mission. I am not 100 percent sure how we will negotiate that tension.

For the immediate future, Spot.Us will be a site where I filter pitches. I will not be filtering pitches based on "credentials" but rather the topic of the reporting and the earnestness and eagerness of the reporter. Ideally Spot.Us and its community board members will be able to come up with a system whereby pitches can be accepted and/or rejected not at the whim of my decision, but by the community and its representatives.

In Conclusion

Spot.Us continues to push forward. We've had some missteps and some beautiful moments. I suspect both will happen in the future as well. The beauty of all this continues to be that both happen in public, and that it is only with the public's participation that either can happen. This remains an experiment in transparency and public control over the process of journalism. It will continue to be such an experiment as we move forward.

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