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June 17 2010


Spot.Us Case Study Shows Impact of Crowdfunding on Journalism

Platforms such as Spot.Us and Kickstarter have shown that crowdfunding can work as a financing mechanism for journalism. We will likely see more crowdfunded stories in the future, which means it's important study how crowdfunding impacts journalism and the role and work of a journalist.

I'm currently in the process of completing a Ph.D. project about collective intelligence in journalism, and my case study about Spot.Us attempts to address these issues. I interviewed 15 Spot.Us donors and reporters for the study, which I presented last week in the form of a research paper at IJ-7, the Seventh Conference on Innovation Journalism at Stanford.

This is the first of two blog posts based on my paper. In this post, I offer five observations on how the crowdfunded process impacts journalism from the reporter's and donor's point of view. The quotations below are taken from the interviews I conducted with Spot.Us reporters and donors.

The Reporter's Point of View

Donating bonds readers to reporters -- Donating is a significant act that bonds reporters to the community members (a.k.a. readers). Reporters said it's very motivating to see that the community is willing to support their work. This is how one Spot.Us reporter described the feeling: "It feels great. It feels gratifying ... And seeing somebody paying $20 for a story -- it is way more than 20 cents." Reporters described the act of donating as "heartening," "gratifying" and "personally motivating, beyond professionally motivating." They consider the donors as their supporters. For them, donating is an act that supports their work and the topics they are working on.

Strong sense of responsibility -- The connection created by donations develops a strong sense of responsibility within the reporters. Reporters described this as being different from the feeling of responsibility that comes with a traditional assignment. It goes beyond the usual feelings of "professional responsibility." A Spot.Us reporter explained how this additional level of responsibility felt to her: "It is more than having it written in a nice style and formatted properly, things you worry about for an editor. You worry more about the accuracy, really honest reporting and presenting the issues correctly, because these people have directly invested in you."

Direct connection to the readers -- Rather than writing for an editor, reporters said they feel as though they're writing for the community. They find it rewarding to have a direct connection to readers, and to know who the readers are. One reporter said: "When I started working on the story [for Spot.us] I already knew who the readers are, whereas when writing a usual story [in a traditional journalism model] sometimes it feels like writing for a black hole."

Discomfort with pitching -- Spot.Us reporters don't feel comfortable pitching in public. For example, they feel hesitant to reach out to their social networks to raise awareness of their pitch. "I'm a journalist, not a salesperson," said one reporter. "I can't make myself go out and promote my pitch." Another reporter compared pitch promotion to begging by saying it's like asking for spare change by shaking a tin can on the street. Traditionally, journalists pitch directly to editors rather than to the public. Reporters said they would feel more comfortable promoting their pitch in public if Spot.Us organized promotional events that they could participate in.

Freedom to experiment -- Reporters said Spot.Us is more than just a way to finance their work; they see it as an opportunity to experiment with new methods of journalism, and an opportunity to experiment with tools such as video and infographics. The platform gives the reporters freedom they have been longing for.

The Donor's Point of View

Donating doesn't bind donors -- Donating doesn't bind donors as strongly as it binds journalists. After donating to a story, donors often don't return to the Spot.Us site to read the final work. They are more likely to stay connected with the story process if they receive notifications from Spot.Us, but even then the connection remains loose. "I'm not actually engaged with what has happened on the site," one donor said. "I will wait to get the email [telling me] here's the story done, here you are, here's the output of it. A part of it is that I'm not incredibly close to these stories."
spotusdonor.jpg Not eager to leave comments, submit tips -- Donors are not eager to participate in ways other than donating. They usually said that they don't have enough knowledge to submit tips to a story. One donor put it this way: "I participated by donating. I don't have so much to say about the topic, and I'm not used to leaving comments on websites." The donors rarely interacted with the journalists, even though Spot.Us encourages readers to do so.

Donating to a good cause -- Donors tend to support stories that have relevancy or connection to their lives. However, the primary reason for donating seems to be that they want to support a healthy society, and they consider journalism to be an essential element of this. Donating is more about supporting a good cause or the common good, rather than supporting a specific story pitch. Donors do not expect a master journalistic piece for their donation, though they are happy if that happens. "I don't think I'm gonna get anything [for my donation]," said one donor. "I'll learn something out of the process ... I consider this as a donation for the common good, more than anything else, or any kind of personal gain."

Donating to change the world -- Donors hope the stories they support will make a difference in society. They see articles as a way to produce change for the better in society by revealing wrongdoings or inequalities.

Donating builds one's identity -- The act of donating to a pitch helps builds one's sense of personal identity. Donors who are on Twitter usually tweeted after they had donated. Some donors said the act of donation made them feel part of the community, even though they were unable to define what that community is.

In my next blog post, I will discuss and analyze what these observations mean for journalism. For more information about the study or for the full paper, please contact me at tanja.aitamurto at gmail.com or on Twitter as @tanjaaita.

Tanja Aitamurto is a journalist and a Ph.D. student studying collective intelligence in journalism. She has studied innovation journalism at Stanford, and has degrees in journalism, social sciences, and linguistics. Tanja advises media companies and non-profit organizations about the changes in the field of communication. As a journalist, she specializes in business and technology. She contributes mainly to the Huffington Post and to the Helsingin Sanomat, the leading daily newspaper in Finland, as well as to the Finnish Broadcasting Company. Tanja splits her time between San Francisco and Finland, her home country.

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June 16 2010


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.

June 08 2010


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.”

May 21 2010


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


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


Ted Rall is going to Afghanistan, with the help of Kickstarter, 200 supporters, and 101% funding

Ted Rall is going back to Afghanistan.

In January, the cartoonist, reporter, essayist, radio broadcaster, book author, polemicist, graphic novelist, mischief-maker, and Pulitzer finalist posted a project proposal on Kickstarter, the community-funding site, in its journalism section: “Comix Journalism: Send Ted Rall Back to Afghanistan to Get the Real Story.”

Rall had been to Afghanistan before (a trip that resulted in, among other things, a graphic travelogue); he wanted to return, he wrote in the project’s pitch, “to see what has changed and how life is going for Afghans, especially those in the remote provinces in the southwest where Western reporters never venture.”

Or, as Rall put it to Andy Baio, Kickstarter’s CTO, in a February podcast: “This is about filling in a lot of gaps.”

The project started with funding momentum, then ebbed a bit — as of Monday, several weeks after its funding effort launched and one week before its April 5 funding deadline, the project had received $15,000 of its $25,000 goal — toward the end of this week, picked up speed. (“Like cartoonists, civilians love a deadline!” Rall told me.) As of yesterday afternoon, the project had received $21,660 from 179 different backers — with 52 people pledging between $50 and $100, 42 pledging $100-$500, 8 pledging between $500 and $1,000…and one generous soul pledging an amount in the $5,000-$10,000 range.

Yesterday afternoon, Rall sent an e-mail to his network:

Issue Number 4 – April 2010
Ted Rall Newsletter


Here’s the latest on my attempt to raise travel expenses for a return trip to Afghanistan.

Needed: $25,000
Raised: $21,600 from 178 backers
Shortfall: $3,400
Days To Go: 3

To pledge support for my trip, please click:


I will only receive the funds, and your credit card will only be charged, if I raise the whole amount of $25,000. Bear in mind; I will contribute some $10,000-$15,000 from my personal money in addition to the $25,000 to make this trip possible.

This is down to the wire, and could go either way. I’d say the odds are 50-50 of pulling this off.

The down-to-the-wire element seems to have worked in Rall’s favor: By this morning, the project had met its goal. Over 200 backers have donated $25,175 to pay for Rall’s reporting trip.

“Good luck Ted, I was really happy to see you undertaking this kind of thing, happy to pitch in on it,” one supporter (delightful handle: “lunchbreath”) wrote in after making a pledge. “i supported you for a hundred dollars i barely had because i believe so much in what you’re doing,” another put it. “thank you for having the guts to explore the dark terrain.”

I spoke with Rall before “Comix Journalism” was fully funded — when Rall was still “on pins and needles” about the pitch’s outcome — about the project, the journalism he hopes to produce with it, and his thoughts on crowdfunding. The conversation’s transcript is below; I’ve edited it for length.

What was the $25,000 number based on — your previous trip to Afghanistan?

Ted Rall: Yeah. And believe it or not, that’s a low-ball. It’s kind of funny how people have responded to that. Most people get it, because they’ve heard how much war correspondency costs. But some people are like, ‘What, were are you staying, four-star hotels or something?’ Far from it, trust me. I’m not going anyplace where there is a hotel — of any sort. I thought it would be easier to raise less money, so I put it as low as I could and still do it.

What you’re paying for mostly is passage through territories. Because Afghanistan’s not a contiguous nation-state — ironically, as it was under the Taliban — now, you have to pay warlords and sub-warlords and local commanders past checkpoints, one after the other. And everything you buy costs you a lot of money. When I was there, eggs were going for five bucks each. If you want to hire a truck to take you over the mountains for a day, that’s maybe a thousand bucks. So I’m going to put up at least $10,000 or $15,000 of my own money on top of the $25,000, assuming I get the $25,000. The $25,000 won’t cover everything.

I got laid off by United Features Syndicate, as an editor, last year. This is the kind of thing that I might have funded myself before that happened. The thing is, I also have a book offer — if I do this — from Farrar, Strauss. But the problem is, they don’t shell out the money quickly enough: Taxes and your agent take half, if you live in New York, then it takes months to get the check, and you only get the first half — so it’s not enough.

The main thing is to just go and see what happens. One thing that’s frustrating about war corresponsdency is editors always want to know what you’re going to do, and what you’re going to see, and what stores you’re going to bring back. And the truth is, you just don’t know. Things are going to happen while you’re there, right before you’re there, and you’re just going to have to chase the leads as they happen. Still, I like to have a plan, even if it’s a plan that I deviate from.

What will that plan entail?

So there are basically three goals here. One is to go back to northeastern Afghanistan, near the Tajik and Uzbek borders, where I was in the fall of 2001. There’s a town there that’s sometimes in the control of the Taliban, and sometimes of the central government. I’m going there to meet my old fixer and his family, to see how they’re doing. I want to bring them some stuff, some money. I want to just talk to them about how the last nine years have been. They’re a Tajik family, and the Tajiks were very oppressed by the Taliban, so they were very happy to see them go — and I want to see how they’re doing, and how the town looks, and how things have changed both for better and for worse since then.

There’s also the oil pipeline story, which I think is one of the most underreported stories. There’s an oil and gas pipeline that’s being built, right now, north of Herat. And as far as I know, nobody has gone there to talk to the workers, take photos and see the people who are building it — and the people who are trying to blow it up.

Why do you think that is?

Mostly I think it’s the big problem of there just not being very many foreign correspondents anymore — that’s probably 95 percent of it. And then of the people who are there, there’s this weird obsession with US military operations. It’s easier to pitch front-line coverage. I could get funding to go do that. I could go as an embedded reporter for that. Things that blow up are exciting. People like uniforms and bombs. It is exciting, and I’ve done that, but the truth is, it’s not really the big story in Afghanistan anymore. And it kind of never was, and it kind of never will be. This is a guerilla war like Vietnam. It doesn’t have a front line. The enemy just lives all around you.

And as far as the pipeline goes, it’s an interesting story, because it was dismissed by the right as basically a paranoid conspiracy on the left — kind of the equivalent of the 9/11 truthers. And so the argument was, ‘This doesn’t exist.’ And, you know, it does exist. So just to be able to go and show that is an interesting story.

So that’s part two. And then part three of the plan is to go to parts of the country that no one ever goes to, just because no one ever goes there. Reporters spend a lot of time wherever military operations are happening — so, these days, in Helmand Province, and since the beginning of the war, in the east along the border with Pakistan. But they really don’t spend any time in a lot of the country. So I’m going to go spend a lot of time on the border with Iran, north of Helmand, south of Herat. It’s an interesting part of the country because it’s so remote that in many ways it hasn’t really been affected by the American occupation. So it’ll be interesting to see how we’re viewed, and how life has changed — or not — since then.

Do you have any ideas about what you’ll find?

Absolutely none. Except that it’s not going to be a very pleasant place to stay. It’s going to be brutally hot — it’ll be August or September, and it’ll be 120, 130 degrees in the shade. And it’s going to be dusty, and dirt-poor — by Afghan standards — so it’s just going to be a miserable place to live for a few weeks. But those people live there all the time, so I can put up with it for a few weeks.

Finances aside (to the extent we can put them aside): Why Kickstarter? Are there other benefits to a self-financed trip, as opposed to a news-outlet-financed one?

I’m really, militantly, opposed to embedded journalism. I think it’s actually really irresponsible for anybody to participate in that program. It endangers all reporters. No one should do it. Imagine if your country were occupied, and you saw European reporters riding around on trucks with occupation troops — and they’re not talking to you, there’s only talking to those soldiers — and they’re going to their press conferences, and you see their reporters on TV, and they’re completely skewed toward the occupiers. You would say, ‘These people are part of the occupation forces.’ And that’s exactly what we’re doing there.

So even people who think they can remain independent — they can’t. When you’re riding around with people, and you’re being shot at, and your life depends on them shooting back successfully, there’s no way you can remain objective.

So the pitch here is: Whether you love me or hate me, I go in with my own mind, and I’m not beholden to anyone. Except the fine supporters of Kickstarter.

February 23 2010


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.”


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.


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!

February 05 2010


This Week in Review: Google’s new features, what to do with the iPad, and Facebook’s rise as a news reader

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

A gaggle of Google news items: Unlike the past several weeks with their paywall and iPad revelations, this week wasn’t dominated by one giant future-of-media story. But there were quite a few incremental happenings that proved to be interesting, and several of them involved Google. We’ll start with those.

— The Google story that could prove to be the biggest over the long term actually happened last week, in the midst of our iPad euphoria: Google unveiled a beta form of Social Search, which allows you to search your “social circle” in addition to the standard results served up for you by Google’s magic algorithm. (CNN has some more details.) I’m a bit surprised at how little chatter this rollout is getting (then again, given the timing, probably not), but tech pioneer Dave Winer loves the idea — not so much for its sociality but because it “puts all social services on the same open playing field”; you decide how important your contacts from Twitter or Facebook are, not Google’s algorithm.

— Also late last week, several media folks got some extended time with Google execs at Davos. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger posted his summary, focusing largely on Google’s faceoff with China. “What Would Google Do?” author Jeff Jarvis posted his summary, with lots of Google minutiae. (Jeff Sonderman also further summarized Jarvis’ summary.) Among the notable points from Jarvis: Google is “working on making news as compelling as possible” and CEO Eric Schmidt gets in a slam on the iPad in passing.

— Another Google feature was launched this week: Starring on Google News stories. The stars let you highlight stories (that’s story clusters, not individual articles) to save and return to them later. Two major tech blogs, ReadWriteWeb and TechCrunch, gave the feature their seal of approval, with ReadWriteWeb pointing to this development as the first of many ways Google can personalize its algorithm when it comes to news. It’s an intriguing concept, though woefully lacking in functionality at this point, as TechCrunch notes: I can’t even star individual stories to highlight or organize coverage of a particular issue. I sure hope at least that feature is coming.

Also in the Google-and-news department: Google economist Hal Varian expressed skepticism about news paywalls, arguing that reading news for many is a worktime distraction. And two Google folks, including Google News creator Krishna Bharat, give bunches of interesting details about Google News in a MediaShift interview, including some conciliatory words for publishers.

— Meanwhile billionaire tech entrepreneur Mark Cuban officially jumped on the Google-News-is-evil train, calling Google a “vampire” and urging news organizations not to index their content there. Not surprisingly, this wasn’t well-received in media-futurist circles: GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, a former newspaperman himself, said Cuban and his anti-Google comrade, Rupert Murdoch, ignore the growing search traffic at news sites. Several other bloggers noted that Cuban has expressed a desire in the past to invest in other news aggregators and currently invests in Mahalo, which does some Google News-esque “sucking” of its own.

— Finally, after not carrying AP stories since December, Google struck some sort of quasi-deal that allows it to host AP content — but it’s still choosing not to do so. Search engine guru Danny Sullivan wonders what it might mean, given the AP and Google’s icy relations. Oh yeah, and Google demoed some ideas of what a Chrome OS tablet — read: iPad competitor — might look like.

What the iPad will do (and what to do with it): Commentary continued to trickle out this week about Apple’s newly announced iPad, with much of talk shifting from the device’s particulars to its implications on technology and how news organizations should develop for it.

Three most essential pieces all make similar points: Former McClatchy exec Howard Weaver likens the iPad to the newspaper in its physical simplicity and thinks it “will enrich human beings by removing technological barriers.” In incredibly thoughtful posts, software developers Steven Frank and Fraser Speirs take a programming-oriented tack, arguing that the iPad simplifies computing, bringing it home for normal (non-geek) people.

Frank compares it to an automatic transmission vs. the traditional manual one, and Speirs says it frees people from tedious tasks like “formatting the margins, installing the printer driver, uploading the document, finishing the PowerPoint slides, running the software update or reinstalling the OS” to do the real work of living life. In another interesting debate, interaction designer Sarah G. Mitchell argues that without multitasking or a camera (maybe?), the iPad is an antisocial device, and developer Edd Dumbill counters that it’s “real-life social” — made for passing around with friends and family.

Plenty of folks have ideas about what news organizations should do with the iPad: Poynter’s Bill Mitchell and news designer Joe Zeff both propose that newspapers and magazines could partially or totally subsidize iPads with subscriptions. Fortune’s Philip Elmer-DeWitt says that wouldn’t work, and Zeff gives a rebuttal. Publish2’s Ryan Sholin has an idea for a newsstand app for the iPad, and Frederic Filloux at The Monday Note has a great picture of what the iPad experience could look like by next year if news orgs act quickly.

And of course, Robert Niles of The Online Journalism Review and BusinessWeek’s Rich Jaroslovsky remind us what several others said (rightly, I think) last week: The iPad is what content producers make of it.

Facebook as a news reader: Last Friday, Facebook encouraged its users to make their own personalized news channel by creating a list of all the news outlets of which they’ve become a fan. The tech blog ReadWriteWeb — which has been remarkably perceptive on the implications of Facebook’s statements lately — noted that while a Facebook news feed couldn’t hold up to a news junkie’s RSS feed, it has the potential to become a “world-changing subscription platform” for mainstream users because of its ubiquity, sociality and accessibility. (He makes a pretty compelling case.)

Then came the numbers from Hitwise to back ReadWriteWeb up: Facebook was the No. 4 source of visits to news sites last week, behind only Google, Yahoo and MSN. It also accounts for more than double the amount of news media traffic as Google News and more than 300 times that of the web’s largest RSS program, Google Reader. ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick responded with a note that most news-site traffic still comes through search, and offered a challenge to Facebook to “encourage its giant nation of users to add subscriptions to diverse news sources to their news feeds of updates from friends and family.”

This week in (somewhat) depressing journalism statistics: Starting with the most cringe-inducing: Rick Edmonds of Poynter calculates that newspaper classified revenue is down 70 percent in the last decade. He does see one bright spot, though: Revenue from paid obituaries remains strong. Yup, people are still dying, and their families are still using the newspaper to tell people about it. In the magazine world, Advertising Age found that publishers are still reporting further declines in newsstand sales, though not as steep as last year.

In the world of web statistics, a Pew study found that blogging is steady among adults and significantly down among teens. In other words, “Blogging is for old people.” Of course, social media use was way up for both teens and adults.

A paywall step, and some suggestions: Steven Brill’s new Journalism Online paid-content service has its first newspaper, The Intelligencer Journal-Lancaster New Era in Pennsylvania. In reporting the news, The New York Times noted that the folks behind both groups were trying to lower expectations for the service. The news business expert Alan Mutter didn’t interpret the news well, concluding that “newspapers lost their last chance to hang together when it became clear yesterday that the wheels seemingly have come off Journalism Online.”

In a comically profane post, Silicon Valley veteran Dave McClure makes the strangely persuasive argument that the fundamental business model of the web is about to switch from cost-per-click ads to subscriptions and transactions, and that because people have trouble remembering passwords, they’ll login and pay through Gmail, iTunes or Facebook. (Mathew Ingram says McClure’s got a point.) Crowdfunding advocate David Cohn proposes a crowdfunded twist on micropayments at news sites.

Reading roundup: Two interesting discussions, and then three quick thought-provoking pieces. First, here at the Lab, future Minnesota j-prof Seth Lewis asks for input about what the journalism school of the future should look like, adding that he believes its core value should be adaptability. Citizen journalism pioneer Dan Gillmor gave a remarkably thorough, well-thought-out picture of his ideal j-school. His piece and Steve Buttry’s proposal in November are must-reads if you’re thinking about media education or involved in j-school.

Second, the discussion about objectivity in journalism continues to smolder several weeks after it was triggered by journalists’ behavior in Haiti. This week, two broadsides against objectivity — one by Publish2’s Paul Korr calling it pathological, and another by former foreign correspondent Chris Hedges saying it “killed the news.” Both arguments are certainly strident ones, but thoughtful and worth considering.

Finally, two interesting concepts: At the Huffington Post, MTV’s Maya Baratz calls for newspapers to think of themselves as apps, commanding them to “Be fruitful and multiply. Elsewhere.” And at the National Sports Journalism Center, former Wall Street Journal journalist Jason Fry has a sharp piece on long-form journalism, including a dirty little secret (“most of it doesn’t work in any medium”) and giving some tips to make it work anyway.

November 10 2009


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!


A big thank you from Lindsey:
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