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July 16 2010


Media Consortium Pushes Collaboration to Increase Innovation

Once a week, representatives from liberal publications such as AlterNet, Yes! Magazine, the American Independent News Network, the UpTake, and Ms. Magazine convene to discuss mobile strategies. The call, organized by the Media Consortium, is part of an Incubation and Innovation Lab designed to help members collectively tackle the new realities of journalism -- a landscape where traditional revenue sources are disappearing, new technologies are emerging, and media organizations must innovate to survive.

media consortium logo.jpg

The Media Consortium created the Incubation and Innovation Lab in response to The Big Thaw, a study they commissioned and published in late 2009 on the changing business and editorial structures of journalism. Collaboration, experimentation and engaging communities were key themes in the study.

"We no longer want to talk about the death of journalism. It's thriving," said Tracy Van Slyke, project director of the Media Consortium. "We want to talk about what the future of journalism looks like."

At the same time, the Media Consortium realizes that news outlets are struggling to find the time and resources to invest in the future.


"For our members and other media organizations, the ability to do this rapid low cost prototyping is challenging," said Van Slyke. "They don't have the space and time to organize it on their own. We want to provide that by pulling organizations together to look at specific topics and research, and work together to implement and experiment."

In order to do that, the Media Consortium is providing organizations with a space to learn, experiment and create. For a nominal fee, members were invited to join one of three Labs. "Moving into Mobile" is the first, and will soon be followed by a Lab on community engagement, and one on revenue generation in the fall.

Jason Barnett, executive director of the UpTake, didn't hesitate to sign up for Moving into Mobile. His organization wants to use mobile to build audience and increase user engagement. He hopes that by participating, he will come away with a better understanding of the trends and requirements for developing mobile applications.

"It is a totally new field, and it is really difficult to learn this information on your own while trying to run a small business," Barnett said. "Having the Media Consortium coordinate and facilitate discussions and the information around this topic has been a real time saver."

Media Groups and Hackers Collaborate

While discussing case studies and best practices is crucial, so too is the implementation of that knowledge to innovate and create. To that end, the Media Consortium will provide $5,000 to $12,000 in seed money for each of the three Labs to develop a shared application.

To jump-start the rapid prototyping phase, the Media Consortium is raising funds to host a hack-a-thon in October. They've already begun outreach to the technology community, including Hacks/Hackers, to generate interest and participation.

"We're mostly looking at a hack-a-thon to benefit our members, but we're open to other media organizations joining in," said Van Slyke. "For hackers it's a great way to work with organizations that can potentially use the apps you're building. Hackers have realized the need to help journalists evolve. They bring a lot of creativity and knowledge to the table."


In addition to seed money, the Media Consortium is fundraising to further develop the winning prototypes. The resulting applications will be made available to all members.

"We're hoping for projects that are easily skinnable," said Erin Polgreen, senior program associate at the Media Consortium. "Ones that can be used by multiple organizations and for multiple audiences."

Facilitating Collaboration

Before the prototyping phase begins, the group will undertake months of collaborative research and planning. Developing a strategy between five media organizations, with participants across the country, is no small feat. Communication is paramount to success and the Media Consortium ensures that there's plenty of it.

In addition to the Lab's weekly call, participants are in constant contact through Google Wave. Organizations contribute relevant articles, links and resources to the Wave. They also learn from each other's experiences.

"We have organizations with all different levels of technical fluency," said Polgreen. "This increases sharing between organizations: high-tech orgs help lower tech orgs."

In addition to the technical experience that each organization contributes, the Lab benefits from having participants with different job functions. Each organization has two to three people on the call with an expertise in technology, editorial or community engagement. The perspective that each brings could help the Lab create a more nuanced approach to the development of its application, as well as one that has built-in buy-in across departments and organizations.

"We are learning from the other participants," said Barnett. "The dynamics seem very healthy. Tough questions are asked, we all laugh and get along, and we are trying really hard to focus to find the core needs all the organizations share."

While the cost to participate may be low, participation does require dedicated time. Van Slyke estimates that on average participants spend a couple of hours per week on the project.

"When we laid out the criteria for participation, we were very clear that it was a time commitment," said Van Slyke. "People had to agree to that in the contract."

Barnett finds that it is time well spent for the UpTake and its future in mobile.

"Many collaborations I've been involved with are content-based and on a short time frame," said Barnett. "This one has goals of developing core knowledge that can help a diverse group of media organizations for the long term."

While it's tempting to project what that long term might look like, Van Slyke hesitates to speculate.

"We're not putting the answer in front of people before they start talking," she said. "This is an experiment and we'll see what comes of it."

A public relations and social media consultant, Katie Kemple works with public media clients to build community, develop strategic partnerships, and create integrated public relations campaigns. Over the past ten years, she has held positions at WGBH, WETA, Capital News Connection, and Public Media's EconomyStory. You can find her every Monday at 8 p.m. ET on Twitter, as a co-host and organizer for #pubmedia chat.

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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.”


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
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?

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