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June 26 2013


Three lessons from ProPublica on how to run a successful journalism Kickstarter

ProPublica’s Blair Hickman writes about what the news nonprofit learned running its first Kickstarter project. (At this writing, with 18 hours left to go, it’s just $521 short of its $22,000 goal, making funding almost certain.)

Twenty-nine days ago, ProPublica launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to hire an intern to help us investigate unpaid internships — an issue that has regained national attention with a flurry of new lawsuits following a key ruling against Fox Searchlight Pictures.

If our Kickstarter succeeds, our intern will spend the fall semester traveling around the country, tracking these cases and documenting interns’ stories for a microsite on the intern economy. They’ll blog about their journey, the investigative process and their learning experience as an intern — a unique opportunity for our newsroom, and this intern.

We’ll know tomorrow at 9:32 AM ET whether our campaign was a success — as of this writing, we are just over $3,000 away from meeting our goal, and per Kickstarter’s rules, we have to raise the full $22,000, or we get nothing.

Regardless of the outcome, we’ve learned a lot through our first foray into project-based crowdfunding. Here’s some of what we’ve learned:

Your project should be creative and well defined

ProPublica has pondered Kickstarter crowdfunding for years. One of our biggest hurdles is that Kickstarter campaigns work best for concrete, defined projects – a documentary, another season of a podcast or a new level of a video game.

But investigative journalists often don’t know what their reporting will yield. We’re sifting through more than 360 detailed tips from interns or people whose career plans changed because they couldn’t afford to take an unpaid internship, but we don’t yet know exactly what our stories will be.

We were fortunate that for this particular investigation, a substantial piece of the story is hidden in plain sight. Millions of Americans have completed internships, many of which were unpaid. We think capturing their stories and voices through an interactive microsite gives us a tangible way to define the project for our Kickstarter backers and add impact to our overall investigation.

It’s also been tough for us to pitch the internship as an all-or-nothing project — a key Kickstarter funding factor — because we are committed to reporting this story, even if we don’t get to hire our intern. But it’s a Catch-22 we can live with.

(For some other great examples of successful journalism projects, check out Roman Mars’ 99% Invisible, Decode DC and Matter.)

Creative rewards and crunching the numbers

Donor rewards are a crucial part of Kickstarter’s model, and we tried to be creative and strategic about what we offered at different levels. Think $25: get a T-shirt. $50: get early access to a podcast. $5,000: get a project-related celebrity to speak at an event.

The best rewards make backers feel like they’ve benefited from a project they helped make possible. For journalism projects, this could include access to the editorial process, tote bags or t-shirts with custom project designs or special, real-time updates on the reporting.

But you need to make sure to figure out how you’ll pay for your rewards. Does your marketing budget cover them, or will your Kickstarter funds need to cover those costs?

Once you set your fundraising goal, make sure the cost of your rewards fit within your overall budget. If you’re going to offer a T-shirt or a postcard, figure out how much that will cost, including shipping. (We were a bit surprised at how much shipping increased the cost.)

Then compare that unit cost to income projections, and an estimated number of backers. We found it useful to compile all of this in a spreadsheet that let us tweak rewar costs until it fit our budget (we set a limit of 10 percent to be spent on rewards).

Mobilize your readers and networks

How are you going to raise awareness about your Kickstarter campaign? Our game plan included social networking, email outreach and pitching our story as widely as possible. Nearly 90 percent of our donations came from outside the Kickstarter platform, and we had articles or coverage appear in New York Magazine, The Week, Business Insider, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Wire and more.

We sent a minimum of one, if not two project updates via our social media accounts every day. We emailed all of our existing listservs, crafted project updates for our Kickstarter backers and emailed organizations with an interest in the issue asking if they might be willing to share our project with their listservs.

In short: Marketing a Kickstarter is a close to full-time job, so make sure to budget the time.

Fresh stories were also incredibly helpful for building momentum around the Kickstarter campaign. During the past month, we produced seven pieces on internships, linking to the Kickstarter and encouraging people to back the campaign in each.

In the end, our own site was the third-highest source of donations after Twitter and direct referrals.

Based on our experience, Kickstarter can be a great tool for creative, unique projects, but also tricky for those designed around story-driven projects. But if your newsroom has the time, resources and smart idea, it’s definitely worth an experiment.

A huge thank you to everyone who has donated to our Kickstarter so far. If you’ve ever known, or been, an unpaid intern, we’re sure you can appreciate its importance. And if you haven’t already, please donate in the final stretch to help us achieve our goal!

A big thanks to our Kickstarter team, which included News Apps Fellow Jeremy Merrill, Senior Engagement Editor Amanda Zamora, News Applications Director Scott Klein, ProPublica President Richard Tofel and Explainer Music.

May 29 2013


It’s time to talk about interns

It’s graduation season, and the end of the academic year means thousands of college students and grads are headed off to their summer internships. Just in time for their departure, David Dennis wrote a piece for The Guardian exhorting the journalism industry to end its reliance on the unpaid intern industry, which Dennis says prevents low and middle-class students from ever achieving media careers, thereby disenfranchising wide swaths of the population.

At the same time, ProPublica has launched Investigating Internships, a crowd funding effort to help pay the salary of an intern who will, in turn, use their time there to “tell the stories of the millions of interns across the U.S.”

We plan to send our intern to college campuses across the country, collecting intern stories in a visual way (think video, animation, graphics). We will be closely involved from ProPublica HQ, training our intern in multimedia, reporting and editing skills while they’re on the road.

These stories are a vital part of this investigation. While our reporters will focus on deep dive watchdog reporting, our intern will help highlight the human side of the issue in a visual, creative way.

However, if we don’t raise the money to cover the salary, travel and production costs, we won’t be able to hire someone.

So if you’re moved by Dennis’s arguments, you can do your part by helping at least one journalism intern get paid this summer.

Sponsored post

September 04 2012


Outgrow.me: Marketplace for projects crowdfunded successfully

The Next Web :: Outgrow.me is a marketplace for Kickstarter and IndieGoGo projects that were successfully funded and are now available for purchase. Here, you can go beyond thinking about how cool it would be if something did come to market and start benefiting from all that the best of crowdfunding entails.

A report by Joel Falconer, thenextweb.com

August 25 2012


Idea.me buys Movere to become Latin America's crowdfunding leader

The Next Web :: Idea.me has bought its Brazilian competitor Movere, the Argentine crowfunding startup announced today. Following the merger, it now expects to become Latin America’s leader in its segment.

A report by Anna Heim, thenextweb.com

August 13 2012


Seth Godin posted an article about Twitter selling the

Seth Godin posted an article about Twitter selling the attention of its users closing his piece with the advice that Twitter should align with its best users.   Guy Adam's account was recently suspended by Twitter because of he complained about NBC's Olympics coverage and Tim Bradshaw asked the social network to set priorities becoming "more reliant on advertising from big brands" - With all that bad press for Twitter recently, it's no miracle that App.net, a Twitter competitor, succeeded in reaching its crowdfunding goal of $500,000 on Sunday. Still there are a few hours left not only to become a backer but also to secure your name on the new platform. Full disclosure: I'm a backer ("developer tier") as well.

The Verge :: Dalton Caldwell's ambitious attempt at a new kind of social network has just achieved its no less daring goal of half a million US dollars in pledged funding. The requisite threshold for funding App.net was crossed some 38 hours in advance of the ...

... midnight PT deadline that its developers had set for Monday, August 13th.

A report by Vlad Savov, www.theverge.com

July 28 2012


$3.2b market, really? - Annals of dubious statistics, crowdfunding edition

Reuters :: Are crowdfunding statistics the new counterfeiting statistics? Certainly they seem to have become a meme. If you know that crowdfunding is a big deal, it’s probably because you read all about it in TechCrunch, in USA Today, or maybe the Economist. More recently, Forbes.

[Felix Salmon:] All of these statistics, you won’t be surprised to hear, come from the same place: a May report from Crowdfunding.org and its research arm, Massolution.

A report by Felix Salmon, blogs.reuters.com

April 30 2012


You have an app idea? - SellanApp: helps you to produce, fund and promote apps

The Next Web :: Many of us dream of getting an app to market but maybe do not have all of the skills, or the money to get one off the ground. Sellanapp the platform that allows you to produce, fund and promote apps opened up private beta registration at The Next Web conference in Amsterdam.

Video interview - Continue here Jamillah Knowles, thenextweb.com


Why searching for a VC? - Jenna Wortham: Start-ups look to the crowd

Did you know that Migicovsky and his partners couldn’t even get a foot in the door of Venture Capitalists, let alone secure any money for what he called the Pebble watch. Now they have raised $7 million of a $100,000 goal and still 18 days to go ...

New York Times :: Pebble is the latest — and by far the largest — example of how Kickstarter, a scrappy start-up sprouted in the New York living room of its founders three years ago, is transforming the way people build businesses. Founders Mr. Migicovsky and his partners did not have to give up any portion of their company to the venture capitalists. They still own 100 percent of it.

Kickstarter is already proving to be a viable alternative to starting a company the traditional way,” said David H. Hsu, an associate professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania who studies entrepreneurship and innovation.

HT: Hunter Walk here:

"The terms on @Kickstarter are more attractive than any bank loan or venture capital amount" by @jennydeluxe (@NYTimes) nytimes.com/2012/04/30/tec…

— Hunter Walk (@hunterwalk) April 30, 2012

Continue to read Jenna Wortham, www.nytimes.com

January 09 2012


6 Filmmakers Talk About Documentary Films in the Digital Age

Lower costs in pro-consumer digital equipment, the crowdfunding phenomenon, and new online and mobile distribution models have opened the door the past few years to many first-time documentary filmmakers in the United States. Independent filmmaking is on the rise, and with that, a trend for more personalized storytelling.

Many of today's documentary filmmakers are making bold, stylistic choices more often associated with narrative storytelling than documentary filmmaking and finding savvy, new ways to engage audiences. By pushing the boundaries of what is considered traditional documentary filmmaking, they are stepping up to compete for the eyes of a generation raised on the often outrageous, unfiltered and unedited user-generated videos that can be found on YouTube and the conflict-driven, scripted reality TV that fills networks.

I wanted to get a pulse on these current and emerging trends from those working in the industry as gatekeepers, curators and trend spotters and find out what influence online distribution, crowdfunding, and lowered equipment costs have had on U.S. documentary filmmakers. Here's what they had to say:

Eddie Schmidt

Eddie Schmidt, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, is president of the board of the International Documentary Association. Dedicated to the non-fiction filmmaking community, IDA also provides educational programs to the next generation of documentary filmmakers starting as early as high school age.

Schmidt: A lot of U.S. filmmakers are taking on international topics, and I think this is in contrast to the overall myopia and narcissism of American culture, which tends to take very little substantive interest in anything outside of itself. So documentary filmmakers are motivated to fill these gaps in our understanding, thankfully. This is the new journalism.

Filmmakers in general are flexing their creative muscles to explore the limitless possibilities for telling nonfiction stories on the screen. We're just beginning to understand and recognize the art and craft of documentaries, rather than just their nobility, goodwill, or sociopolitical eye-opening, so I think films are going to get better and more innovative.

I think U.S. documentary filmmakers benefit from the more regular employment of reality television, because its directors of photography, editors, and post people all bounce between the two and bring what they learn in reality to the wider canvas of documentaries (producers and directors too, although their schedules allow for less bleed-through). There's an energy present in a lot of U.S. documentaries that comes from these frequent workouts. If you have to strive to tell stories quickly and smartly in a demanding medium, frequently, you can't help but bring those problem-solving tools and ingenuity to the feature table.

Online distribution has leveled the playing field in terms of delivery systems. These days, no one can tell you your film isn't getting picked up and have that be the end of it. The battle now is for attention and eyeballs. Today, even funding channels have had a boost; 10 years ago, it would have been unthinkable to ask audiences to finance your film over the Internet, but now it's a totally viable way of getting $50,000-$100,000 towards your budget, maybe more.

Lois Vossen

Lois Vossen.jpg

Lois Vossen is the producer and founder of the Emmy award-winning series "Independent Lens" and vice president of ITVS, an organization that funds, presents and promotes documentaries on public television and cable as well as innovative media projects on the web. Previously, she was the associate managing director of the Sundance Institute.

Vossen: We've seen an increase in the number of U.S. filmmakers who want to make films about other countries, perhaps because we have so many independent filmmakers in the U.S. compared to many other countries and there's a lot of duplication of topics here (for example, 25 films on immigration on the U.S. Mexico border vs. one or two films on immigration in Turkey). That said, it is also exciting when U.S. filmmakers do focus on their local communities and find great, new ways to tell stories like Steve James did in Chicago where he lives with "The Interrupters," or Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady did with "DETROPIA," about Heidi's hometown.

"Independent Lens" has the youngest demographic of any prime-time PBS series and the most robust social media campaigns on PBS. We know that 70 percent of our viewers turn on their television specifically to watch "Independent Lens." They also then migrate to other PBS series at a higher rate than most other PBS series, so we're kind of a gateway drug to PBS. Documentaries certainly entertain, but they're about engaging in real life, not turning away from it. I think audiences see the obvious difference between reality television, which is scripted and actually not "real," and documentaries about real people. Reality television is escape television, and it is designed as entertainment for people who watch it.

I do think filmmakers are beginning to imagine new ways of telling stories across multiple platforms including online, through games, etc., and so transmedia and more immersive formats will continue to pull documentaries in new directions. Much more relevant to independent filmmakers is the question of how viewing habits have changed and what audiences will "sit through" in terms of television running times. I ask filmmakers how many 90-minute social issue documentaries did they watch on television last week, and maybe we need to consider making multiple versions of some films: a festival version, theatrical version and television version. We still want a great story, well-told, and some of us will sit in a movie theater to watch that, and more of us will sit in our living room or with our laptops to watch it, but the way we watch is definitely changing.

Jason Spingarn-Koff

Jason Spingarn-Koff recently became The New York Times' first-ever video journalist in Opinion, launching Op-Docs, a forum for short, opinionated documentaries produced on a variety of subjects, from current affairs to historical subjects. Jason himself is a filmmaker and journalist whose work has appeared on PBS, the BBC, MSNBC, Time and Wired.

Spingarn-Koff: I do think there is a growing interest in shorts online. When I say online, I'm also thinking about mobile. What I find really exciting with the New York Times videos is we put them out on every device imaginable. You can watch an HD video on the iPad so that now, even though the Times is not a TV broadcaster, we can ultimately deliver content to a lot of people at the same quality as TV broadcasters and now be in the same playing field.

There's a very big world out there to cover, and TV broadcasters are often months behind. When you start comparing online versus television broadcast, broadcasters usually have a very long horizon where they might be programming in the fall what's going to come out in the spring. We can put things up within a matter of hours, and it's exciting to be able to engage with issues as they happen. I think feature documentary filmmakers are excited about this format. They may have to spend years on a subject, and now they can spend a few weeks or maybe even days and reach a wide audience and find satisfaction around that.

I think the challenge and the opportunity is to marry creative storytelling with timelessness and find different ways to engage with the issues that are on people's minds. We have an editorial focus that is encouraging creative approaches, creative perspectives and unique voices, and some strong opinions about what is going on in the world. Not everything has to have an overt opinion -- some are much more subtle or artistic. We allow people to speak very freely, the same as they would in print. I'm actually commissioning pieces and receiving submissions from the public the same as we do in print. I'm encouraging filmmakers to think of a way to do an Op-Doc to help build engagement and awareness around the issue for them, but to me, the most important thing is that the Op-Doc stands on its own.

New York Times Op-Docs

Sky Sitney

sky sitney silverdocs.jpg

Sky Sitney is the festival director for Silverdocs, a film festival and conference created by AFI and the Discovery Channel that focuses on documentaries. Previously to joining Silverdocs, Sky was a programmer at several prestigious film festivals and worked in the industry.

Sitney: In documentary, filmmakers are giving themselves a lot more creative leeway when it comes to articulating reality, and I think a lot more documentary filmmakers see themselves as interpreters, creative interpreters of reality rather than strict observers. I think more and more filmmakers are acknowledging that every representation of reality inherently has a kind of bias, and rather than try and present the work as pure reality as it was in its early days, filmmakers are more comfortable taking creative license.

Sometimes we see this in very extreme ways. In the last couple of years, we've included a number of animations. For example, "Waltz with Bashir" would have been unheard of in the '60s or '70s. We are also seeing an interesting resurgence in re-enactment. About 10 years ago, re-enactment was considered a dirty word in documentary, and now there are very creative ways filmmakers are working with re-enactment. Overall, I think there is just a lot more flexibility and creativity to the aesthetics.

Every year, we can be certain there are going to be many films on the environment, many films on the economy, various health issues -- year in year out we will see these kind of things coming out and then surges based on big news events. Now I'm seeing a lot of comprehensive films on Haiti, the BP oil spill; we are just beginning to see some early work on Egypt.

What I'm seeing from running a U.S. film festival is a lot more American filmmakers telling stories that are specific to the U.S. but also globally. It's much less common to see an international filmmaker dealing with American stories. On the one hand, all the big U.S. events are covered ad nauseam, but a lot of filmmakers in the U.S. are invested in personal storytelling, using the camera to investigate some kind of familiar history or personal quest. The camera becomes a tool to make that journey. A film that comes to mind is "Family Affair" by Chico Colvard. He was the one brother of three sisters who were all sexually molested by their father. He was teaching law and turned to the camera to penetrate that story, and in some ways, as a safety mechanism to confront his sisters in a way that didn't feel comfortable in the privacy of a living room. I'm not sure that is specific to the U.S., but I see it a lot, for the camera to become a psychological tool.

At Silverdocs, we try and find balance, not just on topics and themes, but also who is behind the camera, and I have to tell you, it's really depressing. The minority is represented significantly on film, the subjects are diverse, but who's behind the camera is still very, very white. We have a long way to go on that. There are a lot of great entities out there trying to change that, but it isn't even close to where it ought to be. It's not as bad looking directly across gender lines, but across color lines it is very bad.

"Family Affair," an independent feature-length documentary film written and produced by Chico David Colvard

Peter Hamilton

Peter Hamilton is a former CBS executive, book author and frequent speaker at leading media industry events including Real Screen, Silverdocs, Sheffield Doc/Fest, HotDocs, and other international film festivals and conferences. His e-newsletter DocumentaryTelevision provides current information about deals and trends in the industry, and he is an authority on the factual sector including reality TV and docu-series.

Hamilton: Single and multi-episode documentaries as well as strands based on commissions of similarly themed docs are on the decline. The news for documentarians has not been good; decreased viewing overall because the number of documentary slots has fallen off. Sundance Channel dropped its documentary strand. OWN is struggling. Nature programming has been hit hard because the Nat Geo Channel has shifted to character-driven series and Discovery and Animal Planet have moved away from wildlife.

In the U.S., the tide continues to flow in the direction of character driven series -- big, larger-than-life characters that fill any room they walk into. In a mature, competitive environment of hundreds of channels, these characters stand out, and the series are repeatable, meaning that the channels' promotional and marketing efforts to launch them can pay off over multiple episode seasons.

Reality TV at its best is an extension of the observational documentary genre, and it draws from the best of that genre like the U.K. hit series "My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding"; at its worst, it is a casting-based enterprise that shares little with the documentary tradition. It is a good thing that reality is on the rise, versus drama and other categories, because it creates the possibility of a future return to unscripted documentaries on television.

Scott Macaulay

Scott Macaulay is the editor in chief for Filmmaker Magazine. The magazine's "25 New Faces in Independent Film" is a prestigious and much-anticipated list that provides great insight into current trends in filmmaking as well as a look at the industry's next generation of talented and award-winning narrative and documentary filmmakers. Scott is also the owner of Forensic Films and an independent film producer of award-winning films.

Macaulay: I'm seeing a number of trends with younger, up-and-coming filmmakers. One is filmmakers pursuing hybrid strategies, in which documentaries are inflected with elements more commonly found in fiction films. Alma Har'el's documentary, "Bombay Beach," is a great example. She visited the town of Bombay Beach, got to know its residents, and then, while documenting their day-to-day lives, worked with them to create dance and fantasy sequences that attest to these subjects' own imaginative, creative lives.

Bombay Beach trailer

As for personal storytelling, I think this is on an increase as well, and it's aided by the increasing amount of source material produced by subjects and their families. What once might have been a few rolls of Super 8 shot over years is now a family archive of hundreds of hours of footage. Filmmakers interested in exploring personal stories are finding they have a lot more to work with.

Another trend is one of self-sufficiency -- filmmakers embarking on, and sometimes finishing projects, entirely on their own. Alison Klayman, whose "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" is premiering at Sundance this year, started shooting her film in China and let it evolve organically into a feature documentary that was able to attract supporters. The Sparrow Songs team of Alex Jablonski and Michael Totten made a fantastic series of web docs simply by committing their time and resources to a once-a-month schedule. Completing a documentary feature can take years, whereas some stories need to be told immediately. You're seeing great short docs being made now about Occupy Wall Street, for example, and they're able to insert themselves instantly into the political dialogue. Kirby Ferguson has been making a fantastic series of web videos, "Everything Is a Remix," addressing copyright, remix culture, and the current political debate about the SOPA and PIPA legislation, and he's sharing those not only on his own site but also on the websites of groups supporting the same political goals.

Everything is a Remix, Part 1

Transmedia documentary projects, like David Dufresne and Philippe Brault's "Prison Valley" and Danfung Dennis' "Condition One," are pointing to new modes of interaction for viewers. As we've seen from the work of Robert Greenwald and his Brave New Films, there are now financing and distribution outlets composed of the audiences themselves, people who are as invested in the subjects as the filmmakers are. Crowd-sourced funding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are well-suited to documentaries because they can engage non-filmmaking audiences drawn by the subjects of the films.

Truth is in the eye of the beholder

Today's documentary filmmakers, exhibiting a strong postmodernist self-awareness of the blurred and murky lines crisscrossing vérité and agenda filmmaking, are more inclined to believe that, like beauty, truth is in the eye of the beholder.

Yet it is the search for "truth," the intriguing, mysterious and often-elusive truth that hides between words and behind actions, that drives documentary filmmakers to persevere in an industry hard hit in today's economy.

Amanda Lin Costa is a writer and producer in the film and television industry. She writes a series called "Truth in Documentary Filmmaking" and is currently producing the documentary, "The Art of Memories."

ejc-logo small.jpg

This piece was originally published by the European Journalism Centre, an independent non-profit institute dedicated to the highest standards in journalism, primarily through the further training of journalists and media professionals. Follow @ejcnet for Twitter updates, here on Facebook and on the EJC Online Journalism Community.

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

July 03 2011


Documentary - Citizen X: Sao Paulo, portrait of an integrant of movement of the homeless

emphas.is :: In 2007, Sao Paulo’s government launched the “Cidade Limpa” (Clean City) project, with the intention to standardize all visual advertisements throughout the city. This initiative has addressed what was indeed an overwhelming visual pollution, and in this matter it has certainly improved the life of the population.

Initiatives such as Cidade Limpa only deal with the most superficial aspects of the city and its problems. But Sao Paulo’s housing deficit, for instance, is a much bigger problem that affects people’s lives directly and contributes to the degradation of the city in a much more fundamental way than mere visual pollution.

The project seeks crowdfunding supported by emphas.is (crowdfund visual journalism).

Julio Bittencourt is a Brazilian photographer. His work has been published in GEO, Le Monde, The Guardian, Esquire, Photo, among many others. "In a window of Prestes Maia 911 Building", his first book, is the culmination of three years of work in a formerly squatted building in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Help to fund the documentary - Julio Bittencourt, emphas.is

November 23 2010


A handbook for community-funded journalism: Turning Spot.Us experience into lessons for others

In creating a new system to fund reporting directly by donations from a geographic or online community, Spot.Us broke some of the traditional rules of journalism — namely that reporting is funded through a combination of advertising dollars and subscriptions.

That was two years ago, and now a network of individual journalists and small news organizations are attempting to use Spot.Us as a model to find new ways to fund their work and strengthen their connections to the community. And what they need are a new set of rules.

As part of his fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, Spot.Us founder David Cohn is developing a handbook for community-funded reporting that will cover everything from how reporters can pitch stories to establishing partnerships in the community to learning whether crowdfunding is right for your project. I spoke with Cohn and Jonathan Peters, who are working together on the project. In their eyes, it’s as much an assessment of how Spot.Us methods work as it is a handbook.

“I don’t want it to evangelize Spot.Us,” Cohn told me. “I want it to evangelize the type of community-funded reporting of Spot.Us.”

Spot.Us has worked with more than 70 organizations, from MinnPost and Oakland Local to The New York Times. “In my experience so far, it’s been the journalism community that has been adopting the Spot.us model, not the journalism industry,” Cohn said.

Which is why the book will serve not only as a how-to, but also something of a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the (Community-Funded Journalism) Galaxy, pointing out what has (and hasn’t) worked for Spot.Us, introducing the new players in community journalism, new methods of generating funding and a helpful glossary of terms (the difference between micro donations, crowdfunding and crowdsourcing for instance).

What they did not want to do, Peters says, is try and create a paint-by-numbers book that applies the same method to every community. “The community-funded model relies wholly on a very local focus, not only in the reporting that sites provide, but also in the structure of the site,” Peters said, adding that what works for one site may not work for another.

Only a few months into the project (they expect to be done by the spring), Cohn and Peters have found that one of the biggest questions the handbook can answer is how to explain the way community-funded reporting — and Spot.Us — works. For their research the two are surveying reporters who have worked with Spot.Us to fund and report stories. “The most interesting thing to the two of us was the majority of reporters who talked to us could not give an elevator speech to someone who does not know what Spot.Us does,” Peters said.

Making a pitch to an editor and convincing groups of people to help pay for a story are different things — largely because reporters tend to think journalism should be supported simply because it’s journalism, Cohn said. This is where a little entrepreneurship and the art of the sale come in, teaching journalists to articulate their goal and show their work meets an identifiable need. Just as important as the pitch is knowing how much of a story to tease out when trying to get funding. Cohn said reporters need to show what an investigation could reveal instead of giving up all the information their story will hold. Why would anyone pay to fund your story if you tell them the whole thing during the pitch?

Becoming something of a salesman and being more transparent in reporting are part of a broader question the handbook will deal with: Is community-funded journalism right for you? Those considerations, along with the amount of time it takes to raise money for reporting and having regular interaction with the audience, are key to whether a reporter will be successful working in Spot.Us model, Peters said.

Just as important is being able to navigate the playing field. Peters said its important for journalists to be aware of the varying options for getting funding for the work, whether it’s Kachingle and Kickstarter or GoJournalism (for Canadians).

Cohn and Peters say they don’t expect the handbook to be the definitive resource on community-funded reporting, but they expect it can help people who are curious. (As far as the actual book part of the handbook, they expect to publish it online.) Cohn said a large part of what he does now is talk to others about how Spot.Us works and how it can be applied elsewhere. Now all of that will be in handy book form.

“The audience is — as far as we can tell — writing for reporters who want to work with people like Spot.us or GoJournalism, and don’t know what it’s like,” Peters said. “We can knock down barriers and misconceptions.”

November 16 2010


How Spot.Us Doubled Its Grant Money with Community-Focused Ads

There are many things that excite me about Spot.Us. One in particular, which I believe is part of our pathway to sustainability is "community-focused sponsorship" (CFS). It is the main thrust of my fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. My evolving view of advertising is becoming a passionate topic.

In some respects CFS gave me a needed shot of adrenaline into the Spot.Us project. If I'm not pushing boundaries and trying something new, I get bored. To date I still know of no other media entity trying anything exactly like it.

So what is community-focused sponsorship?
The quick version: We sell the sponsoring organization a form of engagement on our site (a quiz, survey, etc). Anyone who engages with the sponsor gets a slice of our sponsorship budget. They decide where the funds go. The sponsor gets the anonymized information from community members. Each side creates value for the other. Give it a whirl thanks to HP Partners PCRush.com. (To read more about the genesis of the idea, check out this blog post.)

When I first came up with the idea I approached the Harnisch Foundation for support. This is a foundation that considers news and information, among others, a priority. Bless their journalistic hearts. More-over they are interested in finding new models of sustainability. Bless their bold hearts.

When I told them about community-focused sponsorship I made a bold claim that, in truth, I wasn't 100 percent sure I could deliver on. I told them I could double the money they gave Spot.Us. I asked for $15,000. They gave us $20,000.

I'm happy to announce that not only did we double up on this larger figure, we've made $7,250, to spare -- for a total of $47,250.

What happened to the money?

Some of it went toward developing the infrastructure of our model. We already had a credit system on Spot.Us, but the database structure needed to be cleaned and a user-interface created, etc. I'll spare you the geekery so much as to say, it took some work, but it wasn't insane thanks to early thinking about our credit system and the fine work of CTO Erik Sundelof.

Some was used to prime the pump. When we got our first sponsorship from FreePress.net, we added some of our funds to extend the sponsorship. We even created a few of our own surveys/quizzes.

A worst case scenario of the Harnisch grant would have been if we had not sold any sponsorships. In that case -- this would be like many other grants that fund content -- except instead of deciding how the funds would get spent internally, Spot.Us was looking to engage community members to make that decision. Still worth it in my humble opinion. Whereas most non-profit news organizations that get grants decide internally (the publisher makes the call) how to spend the money, we looked to the community.

I triple-dog-dare any major non-profit news organization to take a little of their foundation budget on the side and let the community vote on how it should be spent. (Oh no he didn't just bust a triple-dog-dare!)


So how did we double up?

Talking about money is never easy for me. I am a natural salesperson, but when it comes down to the closing and to put up a dollar figure, I wince. As Brad Flora will attest, you need somebody who can make the sales-kill. I'm learning.

Somehow I've managed to sell a few sponsorships.

Mortgage Revolution (our first) gave us $6,000 to get us started. That was quickly distributed. 

FreePress did two sponsorships with us for $1,000 each (we matched it with $2,000 from the Harnisch grant). 

AARP gave us two sponsorships totaling out at of $4,500.

> The Aspen Institute, marketing the Knight Commission report on news and information needs of communities, did a sponsorship for $1,000 (also matched by a Harnisch grant).

Clay Shirky did a speaking gig and was given the chance to make a donation to the non-profit of his choice. He chose Spot.Us but instead of keeping the money, we distributed it via a sponsorship model.

We did a focused survey for Way Out West News. The bootstrapped operation gave us $250. Because they are a news organization starting out and the survey was in line with Spot.Us' mission -- we subsidized it with $500.

And finally the biggie. HP Partners did a whopping $10,000 sponsorship! The main partner benefactor of the sponsorship so far has been PCRush.com.

Total: $28,750 raised for journalism.

That is ALL money that goes towards reporting (Spot.us did start taking a commission near the end -- details below). These funds are unlocked a few dollars at a time by community members (roughly 5,600 acts of engagement). That's 5,600 choices made by members of the public to support independent reporting. That might not be earth-shattering in page views, but in terms of engagement it's huge. The average amount of time spent on a survey is 2:45 (much more valuable than a banner advert).

Total spent from the original Harnisch grant?
Six thousand on development and just over six thousand on sponsorships.

Remaining in the Harnisch budget - $8,000
(so I might be able to turn the original 20k into more).


The extra funds from Clay Shirky was unexpected. And I'll be honest with you -- there was a fair amount of time I considered not giving it away via community-focused sponsorship, but instead saving the money for an organizational rainy day (see my triple-dog-dare above).

Even without those funds Spot.Us still would have doubled-up its original investment from Harnisch.

When I spoke with Clay to get his permission to publicly distribute the funds he brought up an important point -- that this model shouldn't be about Push/Push advertising. The sponsored engagement shouldn't dangle the $5 above a community member's head and make them jump through an annoying hoop. This, in the long run, will isolate Spot.Us from its community members. As we get larger and more corporate sponsors (fingers crossed) this will have to be something we really "push" back on -- pardon the pun.

Since Clay didn't have anything specific to sell, although you should buy his book, he let us do whatever we wanted with his sponsorship. Keeping in mind his suggestion -- we asked folks for their view on objectivity in journalism. The idea is that we a) genuinely wanted to know; b) this is a stimulating conversation/question; and c) once we got responses we could turn around and share their aggregated answers creating value back for the the collective community. See: "What the Spot.Us community thinks of objectivity in journalism."

This final analysis became another selling point we did not anticipate. When I showed it to Free Press, now on their second sponsorship, they wanted a similar analysis. On that note: here's what the Spot.Us community thinks of public media.

In both cases the analysis became a topic of discussion in the Twittersphere and beyond. Here were REAL numbers based on REAL responses from people who were asking and answering difficult questions. That it funded independent media was icing on the cake from the sponsors' perspective.

In some respects we are doing what Pew Center for Journalism does -- in a less scientific and faster way. As organizations will constantly need to keep a finger on the pulse of things -- I think our sponsorship model will be a way they can do that and support journalism at the same time. (I also double-dog dare Pew to sponsor a survey on Spot.Us.)


I still don't have a sales team. It's just me emailing people I meet or know.

I am confident this sponsorship model sells, but it doesn't sell itself -- somebody has to be there to make the phone calls and talk people through it.

What next?

Sell more sponsorships any way I can -- without falling into the push/pull trap mentioned above. I think that would be a death-spiral.

We hope to create an affiliate model whereby anyone can sell a sponsorship and earn a commission. I am in talks with Sacramento Press to be the first to try this out. They have a sales team (mostly does local) and if they can sell a sponsorship, I will gladly let them keep a healthy commission.

I also believe that this sponsorship model could be a way to bring in foundation support outside of the traditional foundations that support journalism. It is great that Knight, MacArthur, Patterson, McCormick, Harnisch and other foundations support journalism (they should triple-dog dare their large grantees to let the community decide as well). I believe that by sponsoring quizzes and surveys about topics of interest to them -- we can get more foundations interested in journalism. A foundation that supports child education might not ever see funding independent journalism as high on their priority list. At best they would support journalism about children's education, which, while well-intentioned, misses the point of independent reporting that reflects a community's issues -- instead of trying to dictate concerns.

Through this model that foundation could raise awareness on issues of child education, getting feedback and educating the public and at the same time support independent reporting. it would be icing on the cake.

Finally: We are taking steps on Spot.Us to emphasize the community-focused sponsorships and de-emphasize donating from an individuals own bank account. With our HP sponsorships there are more funds to distribute than we can with our current audience size. It may turn out to be a bad idea. We might realize that by de-emphasizing donations we are leaving money on the table. But so far people have reacted very positively and we should give people more opportunities to support reporting without having to whip out their wallet. We won't remove the ability to donate funds -- it just won't be the first option people see. Rather, they will see the option to earn credits until all those options have been completed.

(UPDATE: The above paragraph turned into a failed experiment, people complained, we reversed).

UPDATE #2: Spot.Us has always said that commission would be "optional and transparent." Well, now it's just transparent. We take 5 percent out of every community-focused sponsorship. Which means when you earn $5 in credits and you start to donate $4.71 goes to the pitch of your choice and .29 goes to Spot.Us. Hey, can you blame us? If so -- let us know in the comments.

We also need to build out the types of engagements we can produce. We started by mimicking parts of a Google Form. We still can't do everything Google Forms offers. But we will get there. There are tons of potential engagement opportunities we could build.

September 21 2010


An Anaylsis of Six Journalism Startups

In the last few weeks there has been some interesting and exciting news in the journalism startup world. I wanted to take some time to highlight new players and provide my own personal analysis.

Collaborative Storytelling: Three New Startups


Kommons was founded by the young Cody Brown who busted into the conversation with some epic blog posts last fall. Brown and his co-founder taught themselves how to code (this is a bootstrapped operation) and iterated like mad. For that, my hat is off. Disclaimer: I've had the chance to chat with Brown a few times and find him to be a brilliant media thinker in part because he has no baggage from past experiences.

Similar to 10questions.com, Kommons is playing in a very interesting intellectual space. The ability to reach people in high positions of power has dropped to a Tweet. The ability to get a response from them has not. More accurately I'm referring to the cost to get their attention. This can be done, however, if enough people chime in as well. Since the collective cost of asking powerful people the same question is a matter of getting the attention of the masses, in theory, the most important questions will rise to the top and the public conversation will become richer.

Kommons reminds me a bit of Yoosk.com, a site I came across when I was editor at NewAssignment.net. I do believe, however, that it has some core strengths that will make it shine. First, it's a growing community. To be a part of Kommons you have to be asked a question. Thus, the goal right now isn't to pressure Sarah Palin to answer a question (at least, not yet); instead Kommons will grow organically and look to include her eventually. This is how Twitter  grew, and Twitter is Kommons' second strength because it means they are working off of a known vocabulary and platform. The @'s need no explanation.

Another key point about this startup is that, unlike some of the others, the emphasis is not, in my interpretation, "journalism." I think this is a strength. Brown is avoiding "journalism" baggage while still providing a community with tools that can serve its news and information needs. As I've said before, we may not call it "journalism" in the future, but if it still meets the news and information needs of a community, more power to it.

My biggest complaint -- nobody has asked me a question on Kommons yet :(


It's hard to offer analysis about Storyful. They have a private alpha I haven't seen and their about page gives only the vaguest of descriptions, which make it sound like it could re-invent the wheel of GroundReport, NowPublic, GlobalPost or others.

My hope is that they break new ground with a compelling feature and test a new method of collaborative storytelling. I bring up Storyful not so much to provide analysis on their product (which I haven't seen) but to comment on the continued state of journalism startups occasionally reinventing the wheel. We do not have a Crunchbase of journalism. The "fog of war," as my colleague Lisa Skube calls it, has us scrambling around with the potential of friendly fire. Again, I know nothing of Storyful beyond their About page, and while I encourage participatory storytelling in any form including pro-am, which is how I interpret them, we need to make sure that new ground is forged.

The Local: East Village

Let's start with a big disclaimer. I used to work for Jay Rosen and I still lovingly call him "Boss Rosen." The second disclaimer is that when I look at The Local: East Village I can't help but see that blossoming from an experience we were a part of called Assignment Zero which had postmortems from several angles (including my own).

I think the fruit of Assignment Zero's perceived failure was a better understanding of what is needed to create what Rosen calls the "Virtual Assignment Desk." It must be clearly articulated, focus on the story, allow for participation that lets people come and go quickly and freely. Most importantly the burden is on communication and how to streamline it. I love that at the end of the video below it states that the assignment desk "is better than sending and receiving 25 emails for one assignment" because that's what I did during Assignment Zero. Somehow I ended up at the center of communications and I would relay messages back and forth for all 90+ assignments. That the Assignment Desk is built in WordPress is a HUGE boon. I think one
might also see the intellectual roots of Spot.Us by examining the Assignment Desk. The two are somewhat similar, though mine has an added focus on participation through funding.

Assignment Desk overview from Matt Diaz on Vimeo.

New Business Models for Journalism: Three New Startups


The quick explanation is that Emhpas.is (pronounced "emphasis") is Spot.Us aimed at photographers.

In their words:

Crowdfunding has already proven successful in other areas, and we believe photojournalism has a large and enthusiastic following that would be willing to contribute financially when given the right incentive. Emphas.is offers this incentive in the form of exclusive access to top photojournalists carefully selected by a board of reviewers composed of industry professionals.

Of course, I view this statement as a HUGE WIN for Spot.Us. Just two years ago I had to yell and scream about crowdfunding at the top of my lungs and still got strange looks. Now it's an accepted norm. The more people that join the space, the better it is for all of us. Even if it means "competition," I welcome folks like Emphas.is with open arms and hope they feel the same towards Spot.Us.

Spot.Us (pronounced "Spot Us") is not centered around a specific medium. We've worked with photographers, videographers, radio and print. Hell, we've worked on strict database journalism projects like LittleSis.org.

That said, photographers do view themselves as a horse of a different color. Some outright hate Spot.Us because historically we've asked them to license their photographs under Creative Commons (we have made exceptions and are still willing to hear folks out). One thing I can tell you right now, however, is that we would never put our content behind a pay wall, which is what Emphas.is sounds like it intends to do.

From my understanding, only people who contribute will gain access to the content from photographers. I assume content will be teased out elsewhere. If not, I highly question the enthusiasm of people to support photographers whose content they haven't seen. The assumption that folks will pony up funds for photographs they haven't seen might be based on a romantic vision of photography hat seems to be expressed throughout the site. I love photojournalism as much as the next person, but that's NOT what the site should emphasize. If it's not in the public interest or perceived as something that can't be gotten elsewhere, it will be an uphill climb. I think the folks at Emphas.is know this, so I imagine they have some idea of how to deal with the pay wall/audience attraction problem.

I will also be curious to see how they work with news publications. On the one hand there is talk of a pay wall, on the other hand there are endorsements from folks at Time magazine saying they "welcome the opportunity to work" with their producers. Well, that would require publishing their work at which point folks paying to get beyond the pay wall might feel like all they are doing is subsidizing Time magazine's photography. If Emphas.is doesn't work with major publications they'll have a harder time finding the top notch photographers they are looking for. This is what makes Spot.Us interesting in my perspective -- we are a three-sided marketplace. I can't tell if Emphas.is is trying to have a triangle marketplace with a pay wall or not.

But the next startup in this space is decidedly NOT a three way market.


Freelancing is an antiquated system. It is a process that happens behind closed doors and is one-to-one communication. What I like about Ebyline is that it's trying to modernize the process of freelancing.

Certainly there are inefficiencies in the freelance process today. Beyond only being able to pitch so many editors at a time, the dirty secret of journalism is that it's an insider's game -- you need to know somebody to get any attention.

Ebyline takes a swipe at this by allowing eager publishers to find new talent, but it fundamentally doesn't challenge the truth that decisions about content should include the public. Ebyline is a B2B play. It will remain opaque to the public. One person with a budget makes the call. It is not participatory.

You can't necessarily knock Ebyline for this. Like I said earlier, they are purposefully not a three-sided market. They are decidedly two-sided, and I believe there is much ground that can be gained in figuring out how to make that marketplace more efficient. More power to them.

My personal bias towards making journalism more participatory and transparent, however, is why Spot.Us pivots around public participation. That could be its strength, it could also turn out to be a weakness -- which is why I'm glad Ebyline is trying the B2B version.


I came across ThankThis.com and have had a back and forth with the founder. There is even the possibility I will join as an advisor (no papers signed yet, so no "official" disclosure as of writing this).

What I love about ThankThis is the idea that advertising can be transparent and participatory. I first wrote about this idea in April and we launched our first attempt at "community-focused sponsorships" in May. In the coming months we hope to have new sponsors and opportunities where community members consciously engage with an advertisement because they will see a direct benefit.

The idea behind ThankThis.com is similar to community-focused sponsorship: to bring some transparency and participation to advertising. At its best, advertising is not adversarial. Coupons are a perfect example of advertisement that we welcome with open arms. Look at Groupon, one of the fastest growing companies on the planet, and tell me that advertising isn't ripe for reinvention.

With ThankThis.com you can click a button, engage with an advertiser and then give your credits to the cause of your choice. Meanwhile the publisher also gets a cut.

I'm biased -- this is similar to Spot.Us' sponsorship model -- so I think this is brilliant. The challenge, from my perspective, is that the founder is a bit of an outsider to the publishing industry. Similar to Kachingle, which CJR profiled recently, it's a chicken and egg game. Spot.Us suffers from this as well, but we actually decided to pick the egg. Our focus has been on independent reporters and news organizations. We would be happy to work with larger publishers -- and we recently put up a pitch from Mother Jones, arguably the biggest organizations we've worked with since the New York Times -- but our core is around small folks. If we can prove the model for them, we can scale around it. If not, we wouldn't have worked for bigger publishers anyway.

Another strength of ThankThis, from what I can tell, is that not only don't you have to pay money out of your own pocket, you don't even have to join anything. To participate in a Spot.Us community-focused sponsorship you have to join our site. This is because we do more than just sell advertisements. But registration is a mental barrier.

ThankThis has the potential to get around it, which would increase participation. If they can find a way to make sure that one person doesn't drain an advertisers account (perhaps by using cookies), then what do they care if you register? (This is all assumption, as I have no idea if they will/won't have registration. But as a potential future adviser, I'd question it as a necessity for them.)

ThankThis.com hasn't launched in full, but I will support their mission whether or not I "officially" become an advisor.

News From The Dead

I wrote this post because I saw all these startups come out in the last few weeks. I wish them ALL well. Seriously. Even those which could be seen as competition. But we need a more robust conversation to keep track of journalism startups and the lessons each of them hold. Not too long ago I wrote five lessons learned from NewsTilt's closing. When this happened Paul Biggar emailed and told me he would have a personal blog post out soon. Well here it is. And with it some analysis from Lois Beckett at SF Weekly, GigaOm and probably others.

No matter what you think, it takes guts and a reflective personality to try and grasp and articulate ones own failings. I hope Paul recognizes that this is a service to other entrepreneurs (whether in journalism or not).

Back From The Dead

I also found out that the Printed Blog, which was closed last year, re-opened in the past month. They have a new vision and revenue model. Whereas before their aim was to play the role of newspaper, providing up to date content funded by advertising, the Printed Blog is now looking to be a niche interest weekly magazine that people will subscribe to.

It looks to me like they are taking some ques from LongShot Magazine and others, which also share revenues from sales with the contributors.


How Filmmakers Use Crowdfunding to Kickstart Productions

art machine grab.jpg

According to the crowdfunding pitch for the film "Art Machine," a $1 donation will buy you "love and respect from the cast and crew." And if you give $1,000, you get perks like a DVD and a speaking role in the film. That's the promise from director Doug Karr and Chop Wood Carry Water Productions for anyone who supported his film, which raised more than $26,000 using Kickstarter.

Two startups, Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, have jumpstarted online crowdfunding for filmmakers. Kickstarter describes itself as "a new way to fund and follow creativity," while IndieGoGo says that it's "a collaborative way to fund ideas." A mix of the two taglines defines crowdfunding, allowing the audience to fund films with small donations.

I spoke with Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler and received feedback from IndieGoGo CEO and co-funder Slava Rubin about crowdfunding, their respective sites and how filmmakers can effectively raise funds and awareness through them.

The Crowdfunding Comparison

Strickler called Kickstarter a flexible tool and resource for filmmakers that, thanks to its integration with social networks, is "an easy way to aggregrate all the love and support that a filmmaker has in the world." Kickstarter aims to be "a place for artists to build a community" and where filmmakers "get to control what success is and talk to their audience the way they want to."

Kickstarter homepage.jpg

Kickstarter's supporting film role:

  • A total of $6 million has been raised for film projects since April 2009
  • More than a dozen filmmakers have successfully raised $40,000 (the maximum individual donation is $10,000)
  • 2,500 film projects have been supported so far
  • 45 percent of filmmakers successfully reach their funding goal
  • What Kickstarter gets: a 5 percent, one-time fee
  • Filmmakers only receive their funds if they reach the set goal

IndieGoGo calls its crowdfunding approach as "Do It With Others" (DIWO) fundraising, giving any ideathe tools and process to raise money, offer perks and keep 100 percent ownership. Rubin said that filmmakers on the site "range from Sundance award winners to college students making their first film."

IndieGoGo homepage-thumb.jpg

IndieGoGo's supporting film role:

  • Hundreds of new film projects are launched on the site each month
  • One film was able to raise more than $70,000
  • The "sweet spot" for films raising funds on the site is between $2,000 and $13,000
  • The average funding contribution is $84
  • What IndieGoGo gets: 4 percent fee if filmmakers reach their goals or a 9 percent fee if they don't
  • Filmmakers are able to keep the funds even if they don't achieve their goals

Both sites have grown more than 400 percent over the past year, while Kickstarter has attracted seven times the number of unique monthly visitors as IndieGoGo. Kickstarter also has doubled site traffic in the past six months, according to Compete.com.

Perks for Pledges

Both Kickstarter and IndieGoGo give filmmakers the freedom to add incentives to encourage various levels of contributions and a larger number of funders. "With a good pitch, proactive marketing, and some cool perks, it's amazing the support the film campaigns have been getting," Rubin said.

Strickler highlighted three categories that filmmakers should consider when offering perks or rewards for participating in the funding process:

  1. A token of recognition: A credit or some form of acknowledgment that the funder is part of the project
  2. Physical products: DVDs or props from the film, for example
  3. Creative experiences: Participatory opportunities such as watching the dailies, meeting the director, attending the premiere or even having a role in the film

For film enthusiasts interested in funding projects, the opportunity to play a pivotal role in the production and post-production processes can be a reward in itself. On the other hand, filmmaker Bill Delano will actually give you a prayer flag blessed by a guide named Karma, for a pledge of $300 to support his "Karma Walkers" film.

Karr, the writer and director for the Chop Wood Carry Water Productions film "Art Machine," used Kickstarter to raise "an eighth of the production budget" because "it seemed like the perfect mix of crowdsourcing, marketing and fundraising."

"I can't emphasize strongly enough how palpable the mix of awareness-raising tied with people helping to get the film made with even just a few dollars," he said. "It's really a fantastic way to open up the whole process."

Nick Mendoza is the director of digital communications at Zeno Group. He advises consumer, entertainment and web companies on digital and social media engagement. He dreamstreams and is the film correspondent for MediaShift. Follow him on Twitter @NickMendoza.

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September 15 2010


PRX Story Exchange, Spot.us Bring Crowdfunding to Public Radio

Story Exchange (formerly Story Market) is a way for local public radio stations, producers, and listeners to pitch, find and fund documentaries and stories on important local issues. We're also one of this year's winners of a Knight News Challenge grant.

Here's how we envision it working: Let's say that in Kentucky the issue of mountaintop mining needs a deeper investigative look. On Story Exchange, the Louisville public radio WFPL station can invite producers to bid on reporting the story, ask listeners to contribute funds as well as ideas, and see the story through to completion for broadcast and digital distribution.

You can also watch this video to learn more:

Story Exchange has deep roots as an idea at Public Radio Exchange. Since we first launched in 2003 the core service of PRX has been an open online marketplace for public radio stories -- audio documentaries, interviews, features, and other pieces that might have already aired somewhere locally or nationally but have continued value in distribution. Over time we have built a robust market where today over 2,500 local stations, independent producers and others regularly buy, sell and distribute tens of thousands of stories (over 8,300 purchased so far just this year), reaching millions of listeners through broadcast and digital channels.

PRX Today

PRX's approach has been to create efficient tools for distribution and discovery that reduce barriers and friction, establish incentives for participation, and increase the overall pool of talent, content, access, and reach. (PRX has expanded its services and recently announced a significant round of funding.)

But even as this has succeeded on PRX.org, we see ongoing gaps in supply and demand, and new ways to use PRX's growing community and platform to connect stations and producers -- and the public -- around issues that need coverage.

Today a typical transaction on PRX might consist of a local public radio station looking for an hour-long documentary on, say, urban agriculture. They search the site, find a handful of results, audition them and then license one for broadcast. PRX charges a license fee and pays producers royalties when their work is used.

If the results turn up empty, or stations wants something customized for local use, the most PRX can typically do is help connect them with producers as a kind of talent broker. (Producers maintain LinkedIn-style resumes and portfolios on PRX.)

But what if stations, producers, and listeners themselves could use PRX as a way to seed, surface, and fund original content matched to a direct distribution opportunity? What if donations from "listeners like you" weren't just for the news you already use, but for what's missing?

This is the idea behind Story Exchange.

Story Exchange

When we were gearing up to pitch Story Exchange as a News Challenge project, we came to an interesting conclusion. While we had been kicking around the idea for several years, by now there were similar projects taking shape. Some were in adjacent fields like indie music (i.e. Sellaband), and one in particular in journalism (Spot.us, a previous and prominent News Challenge winner).

The News Challenge states up front that criteria for selection include innovation and originality. Rather than try to claim Story Exchange as a unique insight, we stated what our idea had in common with Spot.us and proposed a code-level collaboration as a signature approach of the project.

By joining the open source development of the Spot.us codebase we're going to help develop and extend the platform, integrate it with PRX's own services, and add functionality specific to the public radio system. We see this as a unique opportunity to build on a promising new model with an open source approach.

Knight's commitment to open source software sets an important threshold, but while there's important value in ensuring that investments in software stay accessible, most open source projects fail to attract a community of developers beyond the project's original team. A benefit of PRX joining forces with Spot.us is the greater likelihood that the codebase will evolve and stay relevant as ours and other projects incorporate it.

Story Exchange is just getting under way, we're planning our first pilot later this year with our partners at Louisville Public Media. Right now we're working out the details of various APIs and user authentication integration with our friends at Spot.us (If you're a coder you'll be interested to know that Spot.us and PRX are both using Ruby on Rails -- one more incentive for our collaboration -- and you'll be able to track our progress on GitHub).

We anticipate (and will blog about) some of the challenges to come, including the ways that Story Exchange runs counter to some of the ingrained public radio culture, the obstacles we encounter integrating a new model into the existing PRX system, the tech partnership, and the overall merits and successes of the emerging crowdfunding model for journalism. Stay tuned!

September 13 2010


Photojournalism site Emphas.is wants to leverage the crowd through the romanticism of its craft

If times have been tough for journalists who write, they’ve been no better for photojournalists. Magazines and newspapers have cut staff positions and freelance budgets. And the Internet has given rise to free or inexpensive substitutes, like Flickr and iStockphoto. A new startup launching this winter hopes it has come up with a way to solve some of the field’s financial problems, while giving world-class photojournalists a new level of freedom in telling stories and interacting with their audience.

The site, called Emphas.is, will be a platform that looks to the crowd to fund photographers’ work in dangerous places around the world. Similar to other crowdfunding sites like Spot.us or Kickstarter, photojournalists will post trip pitches with a fundraising goal. If that goal is reached, backers will get access to postings from the photographer about his or her experiences and the photographs and videos that are filed along the way. The photos will be initially available to only to backers, but photographers will be free to distribute them as they please — Emphas.is will not own the photographs.

“We’ve been badly hit and we need a solution,” says the site’s founder Karim Ben Khelifa about his work as a photojournalist. In the last 12 years, Khelifa has photographed stories in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somaliland, Kashmir, Kosovo, and other war-torn and dangerous places. His cofounder, Tina Ahrens, is also an established photojournalist. Khelifa’s reached out to elite photojournalists around the world to join him in launching the project. He says plenty of his colleagues are eager to give the idea a try. “We have the top of the top,” he says.

The platform is not a distribution tool meant to reach media outlets, but an experiment in storytelling that will let the photographer take on a more central role.

“The project comes out of frustration,” Khelifa told me. “Having a double-page [photo display] in Time or Vanity Fair…it doesn’t give me a point of view. You might have seen my photographs in Time magazine, but you don’t know me. And I don’t know you.”

And maybe that doesn’t make sense. Photojournalists, particularly war photographers, have a certain allure, one Khelida hopes is the basis for a business model. “We have a romanticism around our profession,” he says. “We realized that our work isn’t the end product, but how we got to it. This is what we expect to monetize.”

Khelifa says he’s often asked how he manages to move around a war zone, or join up with groups like the Taliban and photograph them from the inside. That backstory will be the draw, he says. Backers on Emphas.is will get to meet the photojournalist and then ride along virtually as they sneak through border check points and embed themselves with rebel groups. (Imagine getting a text message from the photog you’ve funded: I’m entering a dangerous region of Yemen, will check back in three days.) The experience will drive how the audience consumes the story.

Khelifa also says that it’s a good opportunity for photographers passionate about injustice in far-flung places. A crowd of funders can support a trip in a way only a few magazine photo editors could before.

But that doesn’t mean media isn’t interested the project. Khelifa is rounding up endorsements from top photo editors and directors at outlets like Time and agencies like the VII and Magnum. For them, the platform offers the potential for both more and lower-cost high-quality photography.

Once the site is launched, photographers will bank on the public pledging small amounts to back their ideas. Khelifa says one of their strategies for reaching those potential donors is through NGOs with large email lists. (NGOs themselves will only be allowed to fund 50 percent of any single project.)

For now, Khelifa has raised his own startup funding from a number angel investors. The next few months will be about getting the details in order, including finishing the platform and bringing on photographers. He hopes to see the site go live in January 2011.

August 02 2010


HelpMeInvestigate.com looks at campaign expenses after Goldsmith case

Crowdsourcing website HelpMeInvestigate.com has launched probes into MPs’ campaign expenses. The move follows Channel 4′s investigation into Zac Goldsmith, who is alleged to have exceeded the spending limit set for his Richmond constituency.

So far, the focus has fallen on the closely-fought Edgbaston race, where Labour’s Gisela Stuart held her seat with a reduced majority of 1,274, but investigations have also begun in other Birmingham constituencies and in Brighton.

Posting on the HelpMeInvestigate.com blog, the site’s founder Paul Bradshaw said he was undergoing this investigation after Goldsmith and the Conservative Party claimed that they were justified in only accounting for election materials that were used in the campaign, as opposed to materials that were not used as they had become out-of-date.

“We want to see if this is true. Are other candidates not claiming for the expense of ‘unused’ materials? Or is Goldsmith an exception?” writes Bradshaw.

“We’ve started one investigation in Birmingham but would really welcome sister investigations in other towns and cities.”

The website is currently in beta testing, meaning new users can only access the site after requesting an invite.

HelpMeInvestigate on campaign expenses at this link.Similar Posts:

July 27 2010


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.

June 30 2010


Spot.Us Lessons: Journalists Work in, and For, the Public

In a previous post I introduced the most significant findings from my recent case study of Spot.Us, a crowdfunding platform for journalism. In this post I discuss what my findings mean for journalism, and for the role and the work of a journalist.

Renegotiating the Role of a Journalist

A crowdfunded journalistic process brings a new element to a journalist's job: Pitching in public. Traditionally, a journalist pitches his or her story directly to an editor. The journalist doesn't need to think about marketing the story to the readers.

In a crowdfunded model, a journalist has to be willing to raise awareness about the pitch in order to attract donations. That means they have to assume responsibility for the marketing of the pitch by convincing the community of the significance of the story topic.

However, Spot.Us reporters expressed discomfort with pitching their stories in public and with asking for donations. To this end, the element of pitching in public brings new requirements and shifts the nature of the journalist's role.

Similar shifts are occurring in creative industries as brands and institutions such as record labels and media institutions lose power. According to Mark Deuze, an associate professor in the Department of Telecommunications at Indiana University, creativity and commerce in cultural work are increasingly coming together.

This development presumes that creative workers see their skills, ideas and talent in commercial terms. Traditionally, journalists have embraced creative autonomy and peer review rather than market appeal. In crowdfunded journalism, however, market appeal and readers' opinions become more important than peer review.

These new requirements challenge the traditional journalist's self-perception as that of an independent creative worker whose story topics are first and foremost accepted by colleagues, rather than by the public.

Participatory Culture Motivates Journalists

On Spot.Us, a participatory culture manifests itself in many ways: Community members (readers and donors) can donate money or talent for a pitch, they can leave a comment, submit a tip, or take on an assignment that a reporter has assigned to the readers.

These options for participation -- particularly reader donations for a story -- have a strong, positive impact on a journalist's motivation to work. One of the Spot.Us reporters I interviewed said it was "beyond professionally motivating" the see that the public is willing to support her work by donating money.

From the journalist's perspective, the act of donation creates a strong connection between the donor and reporter. Reporters find it rewarding to have a direct link to readers. This connectedness also creates a strong sense of responsibility for the story.

Typically, though, donors prefer to participate solely by donating; they are not eager to leave comments or submit tips, nor do they get engaged in the story process to the extent that they closely follow any story updates. For the most part, donors feel that they've done their part by offering up money.

Spot.Us: A Journalist's Personal R&D Lab

For Spot.Us reporters, this platform is more than just a way to finance their work; they see it as an opportunity to experiment with new methods of journalism, for example in reader engagement.

The reporters also see Spot.Us as an opportunity to experiment with tools such as video and infographics. The site gives them the freedom to experiment that they seem to have been longing for. They feel there is a lack of opportunity to try new things when working for traditional news operations.

Reporters also consider Spot.Us as a good way to find partners for collaboration.

Donating for a Better Society

spotusdonor.jpgDonors don't seem to be contributing to a specific journalistic piece as much as they are donating for the common good. Donors rarely follow up with the stories they help fund, and they might not even check up on the finished story.

For them, it's not about the story; they want their donation to be a catalyst for change in society. They're hoping the story helps make this happen.

This notion provokes a question about journalism's role in society. Is the role of journalism only to inform people about issues and problems? Or should journalism also give the public a chance to make a difference, to attempt to solve a problem? If the latter is valid, then perhaps advocacy, cause-driven, or problem-solving journalism is more meaningful for the community than neutral, objective journalism that provides information but not the means to solve problems.

An example of problem-solving journalism is Huffington Post Impact, where journalism is married to causes. The stories on Huffington Post Impact report on issues like hunger at schools, or the misery of a family that lost a home in a flood. At the end of the story, the reader is given a chance to donate to a non-profit organization that can help alleviate the problem.

Based on my findings, at least some people consider journalism to be a means for contributing to social change. Therefore, journalism organizations should embed tools similar to SeeClickFix or new Knight News Challenge winner CitySeed, which allow the public to contribute to the betterment of the community with one click. Readers want constructive ways to participate, and journalism should give them the tools.

Journalism Aligned With Cause Marketing

Because the public donates for a cause, and not necessarily for journalism, the pitches on crowdfunded journalistic platforms such as Spot.Us should be more aligned with the features of cause marketing, a term applied to marketing efforts by non-profits working for social change.

In this era of declining media conglomerates, journalism organizations should have a clear message to readers as to why their stories matter, and how a reader can make a difference in society. It is important to note, though, that the strategy of cause-marketing works only for certain types of topics and journalism, such as the field of investigative reporting.

Participation as a Tool for Identity Building

In crowdfunded journalism, people share more than just the actual story -- they share the story of their participation in the process by tweeting and Facebooking. This act of participation binds people together. As one donor put it: "I felt I belonged to a community when I donated."

When Spot.Us donors spread news of their donation, they are also building their own identity. It says something about them, and they want to share that. That's a significant result and benefit for donors. As a result, journalists should think of how they can provide the public with ways to link identity and causes to reporting.

For more information about the study, please contact me at tanja.aitamurto at gmail.com, or on Twitter @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 18 2010


MediaShift: What are the effects of crowdfunding journalism?

Over on MediaShift, PhD student Tanja Aitamurto shares the first of five posts detailing some of her research findings in ‘collective intelligence’ in 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 [to] study how crowdfunding impacts journalism and the role and work of a journalist.

She offers five observations “on how the crowdfunded process impacts journalism from the reporter’s and donor’s point of view”.

Full post at this link…

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