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May 28 2013


Spending Stories' 'Data Expedition' Tackles Tax Avoidance and Evasion

The Spending Stories team mentioned earlier in the year that we were looking into ways of helping journalists negotiate tricky financial topics. We're pleased to announce our first pilot "data expedition" on the topic of tax evasion and avoidance -- it aims to help reporters negotiate the key decisions made when writing on this highly contentious topic.


Want to dig deep into tax avoidance and evasion? We have gathered a wide range of data on this sensitive topic, and for one afternoon we'll guide you through some of the key decisions to think about when writing a story on it. With tax evasion and tax avoidance currently such a hot topic in the media, it's crucial that people can understand the difference between the two terms as well as the mechanisms by which they happen.

When: Thursday June 6, 12:00 BST to 17:00 BST (link to your timezone)

We'll be looking for projects such as:

  • Exploring the tax avoidance schemes used by Apple, Google, Amazon, or Starbucks;

  • Looking at data gathered by tax-collection authorities and patterns of avoidance that emerge from that dataset;

  • Creating a "most wanted" list tax evaders for future research;

  • Your project here!

Sign up here for the Data Expedition!

Please note that limited space is available. For more information about the Data Expedition format, we encourage you to read this article.

How can I participate?

To get involved either:

  • Lead a team (up to six hours) -- Are you able to help to coordinate a team on the day? This involves helping your team understand the options and research that's been conducted and starting a discussion about the choice of story and how to construct a plan for making the story happen. The School of Data team will hold a specific hangout for team leads on Monday, June 3 at 12:00 BST to prepare for Thursday's activities. Please email schoolofdata [at] okfn.org if you are interested in getting involved.

  • Offer an expert introduction (up to one hour) -- We're looking for experts who understand the loopholes or tactics used by companies in different countries to offer quick introductions 5-30 minutes long to get the expedition started.

  • Join us as a participant on the day (3-6 hours) -- You will need to be prepared to brainstorm ideas with others in your group and ultimately explain your choice of story. There will be two roles you can take on the day -- either getting stuck into the data (analyst) or writing (storyteller).

Aims of the expedition

We will aim to give people:

  • A clear understanding of the difference between tax evasion and tax avoidance;
  • A key understanding of a few schemes via which people engage in them;
  • Perhaps also a few story ideas!

How to get involved

Please make sure you are registered here and that you select "Tax Avoidance/Evasion" in the "I'm Interested in..." section. Please note: You will need to be available for at least three hours during the expedition period and spaces will be limited, so preference will be given to those who can definitely commit to the expedition. Spaces will be confirmed shortly before the expedition.

Stay up to date with the latest data expeditions

Want to be informed anytime there is a new data expedition? Join the School of Data announcement list to get notifications of the expeditions as soon as they are announced.

Lucy Chambers is a community coordinator at the Open Knowledge Foundation. She works on the OKF's OpenSpending project and coordinates the data-driven-journalism activities of the foundation, including running training sessions and helping to streamline the production of a collaboratively written handbook for data journalists.

April 17 2012


Pay Walls and Social Media Could Shift the Public Agenda

If conversations around digital journalism have been dominated by anything in the first quarter of 2012, it's probably been about subscriptions, also known as pay walls. Walls are going up at the L.A. Times and Gannett papers, and getting higher at The New York Times. And the editor of The Guardian asked his readers, "What would you give the Guardian? Money, time or data?"


At the end of last year, Raju Narisetti proposed a pay wall alternative he dubbed the "'Why don't we pay you?' pay wall" ... and then left the unwalled Washington Post for the walled Wall Street Journal.

The conversation all this time has been focused on whether the shift toward digital subscriptions will save the news business. But the more interesting and important question is whether and how it will change the news content and public discourse.

There's never been a question that people will pay for digital content. Give people information they need to profit professionally or enjoy personally, and they will pay for it. But what about all the boring and bad stuff? What about the kind of iron-butt reporting that has journalists cover legislative subcommittee meetings just so powerful people know the public is watching? And the quarter million-dollar investigations that find the hidden winners and losers?

That news doesn't entertain; it doesn't give me a competitive edge; and it doesn't save my family money in the short run. Those kind of stories make big waves every now and again, but no matter how high the pay wall, once the story is out, it spreads via broadcast news, social media and word of mouth. Even those who don't pay for it get to benefit from its impact.

social media's role

The role that social media plays in the subscription pay model isn't fully understood -- by me at least. I'd like to find the time to ask about whether paying subscribers share more or different stories than non-subscribers.

In any case, with a pay wall in place, subscribers will -- as always -- set the agenda more than non-subscribers. Some subscribers will be more influential than others, either because they have more followers or because they provide a better filter. In either case, the future of public discourse lies with subscribers. We need to know more about who they are and how their desired public agenda differs from non-subscribers.

It's easy to suspect that only the elite would pay for news -- only people whose personal social and economic decisions are determined by taxpayer money and public markets -- and that the topics that interest those folks may not be particularly populist.

But then I stumbled across a January 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center that seems to indicate that the willingness to pay for news may not be as elitist as I originally thought: African Americans and Hispanics are significantly more likely than whites to say that they would pay a monthly subscription fee if that was the only way to get full access to their local newspaper online. But there's no significant difference among any age groups under 65, nor is there a difference between men and women. On the other hand, college grads and people who make more than $75,000 a year are more likely to say they would pay for online local news than people who make less and have less education.

So does the public discourse look different if the people who subsidize original reporting -- and then share it -- are rich, educated, racial and ethnic minorities? After paying to see the news, what would they share? And who would they share it with?

the social distribution of news

The democratization of publishing means that alternative points of view would always be waiting in the on-deck circle anytime the paid-stream media misses a story its audience cares about. So it's also important to predict what kind of effect the audience's sharing patterns would have on journalists who want to make sure their pay walled reports remain valuable enough to make ends meet.

The social distribution of news has two benefits for news organizations -- they sell advertising against each unique visitor, and they have an opportunity to convert the social media samplers into paying subscribers. But if the role of advertising at news organizations becomes a significantly lower share of revenue, then eyeballs alone won't matter as much. News organizations might be less interested in running "water cooler" stories that are cute and fun alone. And they might be more inclined to run stories that target an audience that wants more than 140-character summaries.

Research collaborations between academics and industry could help us make better guesses -- and making good guesses on this topic will be important for any news organization that understands it doesn't sell ads or subscriptions, but trust and influence.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Aunty P.

Sponsored post

January 19 2012


Why PRX, Knight Created an Accelerator for Public Media

We announced PRX's partnership with the Knight Foundation to create the Public Media Accelerator about a month ago. Since then, it's become clear that the accelerator concept is new to many people in the non-profit and public media worlds, even as tech folks fret that accelerators have jumped the shark.


Our tagline for the Public Media Accelerator is "seeking mission-driven entrepreneurs changing media for good." We're in a time of remarkable technology innovation, and our goal is to channel the forces driving that growth towards public service media.

The two forces, the tech sector and public media, need each other: The tech sector will gain from public media's high-quality content, commitment to community, and public service mission; and public media will gain from technology's network efficiencies, professional and social connections, and radical new distribution paths.

As we spend the early weeks of this venture fleshing out our thinking and surveying the landscape, I thought I'd share both a snapshot of the accelerator scene and some of the issues triggering discussion at the Public Media Accelerator.

What's an accelerator?

Accelerators are organizations focused on early stage investment in technology startups, providing a mix of financing, mentorship and other support to help launch new companies with the potential for explosive growth.

Most accelerators boil down to a few essentials:

  1. Funding -- Typically for-profit accelerators provide $20k-$50k and take approximately 5% in equity.
  2. Founding teams -- The participants are small teams, often 2-3 people, who are proto-founders of a company organized around a product/service vision.
  3. Program and process -- The accelerator creates a structure and curriculum, typically offered in an intensive residential 2-3 month sprint.
  4. Networking and expertise -- There's enormous value in the accelerator's ability to match teams with experienced mentors, advisers and investors who assist the teams on design, product, marketing, business development, and more.
  5. Space and logistical support -- Often there is co-working space and light infrastructure support for the teams during the in-person sessions.
  6. Demo day -- The process culminates in a showcase of the team's products at a "demo day" for investors and press.

Accelerators are popping up all over. TechStars, one of the leaders in the field, has even franchised the model to support new accelerators around the world. Xconomy tracks 64 of them in its latest annual report. Budding entrepreneurs, faced with so many options, can use the "Unified Seed Accelerator Application" form to apply to numerous accelerators in one fell swoop.

A growing trend that includes the Public Media Accelerator is "vertical" accelerators that focus on a particular industry, platform or other niche. Examples include Rockhealth, which targets startups in health care and FinTech for financial tech. There are a growing number with social missions, including one of my favorites, the Unreasonable Institute. And just last week Code for America announced a forthcoming accelerator targeting "civic startups."

accelerators shifting into high gear

With so many groups with money and advice to give, are there enough takers? The answer is yes -- plenty, in fact -- although there is growing competition for the best teams and ideas. The fact is that today the costs of creating a startup are much lower by virtue of cloud computing and other tech efficiencies; the growth of Internet and mobile access has created a global market and means of distribution; entrepreneurial culture has taken root among enterprising developers; the high-profile successes of Internet startups and Y Combinator/TechStars alumni have inspired follow-on models.

The most obvious and meaningful benchmark of success is the number of companies in the accelerator's portfolio that secure follow-on financing, and, further downstream, a successful "exit" in an acquisition, IPO or profitability.

While the ingredients for what goes into an accelerator can be broken out and reassembled, the special sauce is the unique mix of the accelerator management team's judgment, talent, relationships, experience, and pure luck of the draw in shepherding companies through to further funding, growth and profit.

It's clear that public media needs its own accelerator -- attuned to the needs and assets of the industry and connected to the talent and energy in the broader technology and media world.

The PRX Knight team has our own special sauce, but our measure of success is not profits and exits per se -- it's furthering the values and impact of public service media, with sustainability and revenue being critical to create a lasting effect. We decided early on that the Public Media Accelerator would look for both for-profit and non-profit opportunities (something Knight Foundation has started to explore recently through its Enterprise Fund).

There are a number of for-profit organizations in public media -- production companies, service providers, subsidiaries, etc. But the vast majority of the system -- local stations, distributors, and national networks including PRX itself -- are non-profits. And many of the sources of revenue are contingent upon non-profit status -- CPB grants, foundation and government funding, individual donations, FCC-regulated broadcast sponsorship. To my knowledge, there are no venture-backed companies focused on public media, in part because a traditional definition of the market is too small to target.

finding the right mix of for-profit and non-profit

So why would the Public Media Accelerator be open to for-profit investments? Would the same ingredients hold together in a purely non-profit context? How do we harness the for-profit energy that attracts top talent and aligns incentives in the standard accelerator model, while advancing the mission-driven principles at the core of the venture?

First, while we will not restrict the accelerator to one funding path, we recognize that for-profits and non-profits require different structures and approaches to be effective. In some cases we will help pioneer new hybrid models that straddle both.

Second, we want to overcome the inherent weaknesses of the grant-driven, project-based funding that has been the means of innovation funding in the industry to date. These efforts tend to be incremental, short-lived, and at best result in "sustaining" rather than "disruptive" innovation (using Clayton Christensen's well-known construct). It's not hard to see why disruptive innovations tend to come from outside successful organizations and industries rather than from within. The Public Media Accelerator has the opportunity to change this dynamic: Knight and PRX have significant standing and relationships in public media, but are also accomplished risk-takers without the legacies and limits of many public media institutions.

Third, we see the accelerator model as a way to attract new talent into the field. While we anticipate working with a number of the current forward-leaning teams within the industry, our opportunity is to expand the pool, and inspire and enable a new cadre of public media entrepreneurs (also address the developer gap I blogged about here recently). We take our own inspiration from Mozilla, Wikipedia, Code for America, and the growing number of mission-driven technology efforts that aspire to and achieve success on an Internet scale. Technologists and entrepreneurs want to make meaningful things, and public media should embrace them.

What are we looking for?

We've said two areas of interest are mobile and monetization, but we are also intentionally leaving a wide open door for ideas that break the mold. Our evolving list of criteria includes:

Mission-driven: The ideas should encompass public media's mission and values as an impact goal, not merely a side effect.

Disruptive: We're excited about ideas that change the game through some systemic or business model insight, more so than smart improvements to the way things already work.

Scalable/replicable: Ideas should have the potential to scale to significant impact and business sustainability or be replicable by others.

The Public Media Accelerator is not a content fund, but we'll seek to connect content in ways that deepen its value and impact and address the business model of its production and distribution.

We still have a number of open questions as we get underway, but rather than attempt to answer them all, we're taking our own advice and launching the Public Media Accelerator as a lean startup of its own -- building as we go, trusting in a talented team, being ready to pivot, actively networking and learning from advisers and mentors, and relentlessly focused on the mission of transforming public media. (We are still accepting applications for the director position, a terrific opportunity to help lead the media revolution.)

Follow us on Twitter (@publicmediax and on the Public Media Accelerator site.

December 27 2011


Public Media: A Wish List for 2012

What's the No. 1 innovation that's needed in public media in 2012?

I posed that question to the public media group on Facebook, as well as to some additional colleagues via email. The responses ranged from a focus on cultivating a culture of innovation, to calls for more innovative content approaches, to the need to grow public media's audience to provide greater support for our existing innovations. And according to some, what's needed more than anything -- more than any individual innovative approach -- is a shared, collective vision of where public media needs to go next.

Here's a selection of the responses I received:

"I think what's still needed most is a change in the culture so that innovation and risk-taking are supported and encouraged." - Ian Hill, community manager, KQED

Several people agreed with Ian, only some of whom were comfortable being quoted in this piece. Adam Schweigert, who recently departed public media (a temporary hiatus, he insists!) after 7-plus years in the system, said creating a culture of innovation "will do a lot to help recruit and retain new voices, increase diversity, (and) lead to further innovation in content and technology ..."


Need for Resources

Veteran journalist Max Cacas, currently defense editor at Signal Magazine, but with long ties to public media, argued that a culture of innovation is well and good, but we first need the resources to support such a culture. He offered a specific recommendation:

"I think what is needed is an 'innovation seed bank' that public radio/TV/media outlets in smaller markets can tap into so that they can make efforts to serve new audiences without compromising their existing and ongoing services."

Which raises a great question (one that was still being debated on Facebook, last I checked): Does building a culture of innovation create resources to support said innovation ... or do the resources indeed need to come first?

Kelsey Proud, online producer at St. Louis Public Radio, noted, "Some things can be done without money, but others, like equipment purchases, simply cannot."

Yoonhyung Lee, director of Digital Media Fundraising at KQED, feels that we have plenty of innovation in the system ... What's needed are bigger audiences to help translate innovation into sustainability:

"(Innovations) don't necessarily pay the bills. And they don't necessarily garner the kind of audiences that ONE prime-time program, ONE hour of drive-time listening would. Innovations are great, but if we can't find the audiences to support them ... well, does that falling tree make a sound if no one is listening?"

Tech Not Always the Driver

Of course, when you ask a question about innovation, people tend to respond with their own definitions of the admittedly broad term. Some emphasized that while "innovation" often connotes "technology" in this day and age, technology should not necessarily be the driver:

"While it is a significant driver of change, technology for technology's sake has little meaning. Our imaginations must lead technology. Media makers must first decide what difference they want to make, and for whom -- then figure out the tools to get them where they want to go." - Sue Schardt, executive director, AIR

On Facebook, producer Stacy Bond agreed, voicing her opinion that we should be using technology "to innovate on-air (and in ways that are truly cross-platform, not just safe ways of paying lip-service to cross-platform)." Scott Finn, news director at WUSF in Florida, wants to see expanded digital reporting and original investigative reporting at the state and local level; "then," he said, "we need to develop the digital infrastructure to share stories across stations and with NPR."

Public media veteran Michael Marcotte agreed that sharing was key, but wants to see it on an even broader scale. While he agrees resources and culture change are key issues, he thinks the main innovation needed in 2012 is a shared vision, and a plan to go with it:

"We share the mission of public media, but we don't act in coordinated fashion for the long-term success of the entire system. I think 2012's innovation should be a national, collective, shared effort to define and refine the vision that drives strategy, policy and investment approaching 2020."

In a recent piece for Current, Melinda Wittstock -- founder of Capitol News Connection, a startup that recently closed its doors -- called public media a "cozy, clubby world," where "risk is a four-letter word." What do you think? Is public media risk-averse? Do we need to begin taking more risks in 2012? If so, which risks should we take?

What risks will you be taking in the new year?

Amanda Hirsch is a writer, online media consultant and performer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. The former editorial director of PBS.org, she blogs at amandahirsch.com and spends way too much time on Twitter.


This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on the Integrated Media Association's Public Media Innovators Project, a weekly blog series about the people and projects that are helping make public media a relevant and viable media enterprise for the 21st century.

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

March 29 2011


Why the New York Times' Pay Model is Similar to NPR and Spot.Us

From the launch of Spot.Us, I've always said the following:

  • Anyone can tackle the crowdfunded journalism model. In fact, NPR could do it tomorrow and blow me out of the water. It's just about being transparent and giving up control over how donation money gets spent.
  • This model would have more success at the national or international level.
  • This model would have more success if a known brand took the lead. (Again, I always tend to cite NPR.)
There has been much opining about the New York Times pay wall that went up this week. I was quoted in a Neiman Lab post on the topic; I wrote about it for the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I'm currently a fellow; and I was a guest on WNPR, an NPR station in Connecticut, to discuss the topic with other news professionals.

Here's one thing that I previously haven't said publicly: Whether or not they know it, and without identifying it as such, the New York Times has taken a big step towards the NPR model. And that puts them just a stone's throw away from the Spot.Us model. In some respects, I actually think they are closer and more likely to pull it off than NPR.

Subscription Plan Isn't About Access

Let's start by calling a "duck" what it is. The "pay wall" is not a "wall." It's incredibly porous. A savvy reader can find a dozen ways around it, from finding a Tweet of the story you're interested in to removing part of the Times' URL. In other words, the subscription plan is not about access. People that think the fee is about access are the same folks who think they have to pay AOL for Internet access in order to keep their AOL email address. Savvy readers will know it isn't about "access" but rather something else. For starters, it benefits the print subscribers, who pay less for digital access than all-digital subscribers. Fair enough.

But I am willing to bet a LOT of people will pay for a "subscription" not for access and not because it comes with their print subscription, but for something else.

Donation Driven Journalism

If there is one thing that Press+ has taught us (aside from the fact that really rich folks can hype up a technology product and sell it off for millions of dollars) it's that, yes, people will pay for news even if access to is never truly restricted. That's a limited audience/market, but it exists. Interestingly enough, the price point doesn't matter as much as one would think. That audience will pay $5 if you ask, and they'll pay $15 if you set that as the benchmark.

National Public Radio has known about this small market for a LONG time. I could have told you this within 10 minutes of launching Spot.Us. But at least today we can see it as more of a given for the conversation. There is an audience that will pay for content. It's small, and not a replacement for advertising, but it's there.

The NYTimes.com subscription plans are not enough to sustain the entire organization, but it is a new revenue stream that didn't exist before. You can call it a "pay wall" or a "metered wall" but, again, I think we should call a duck a duck. This is a donation system, plain and simple. News organizations don't want to refer to "metered walls" as "donations," and I understand why. I'm happy to stroke their hair as they cry into their ink-stained hands. We can call it whatever they want, but it's a donation because there is no HARD reason for anyone to pay it other than because they want to or are too uninformed about how to get around it.

A Modest Proposal

Assuming the New York Times doesn't want its future tied to the technical ignorance of the masses the way AOL currently does with its dial-up customers, the next question is: What can the Times give to its new donors? As Dave Winer and Steve Outing have both said:

"Wouldn't it have been wise to, at this juncture, offer something to sweeten the deal. Something truly exciting and new that you get when you pay the money. Something that makes your palms sweat and your heart beat faster?" (Dave Winer)
Tote bags? Bumper stickers? Membership to a wine of the month club (with wine reviews from the Times sent along with every bottle)?

These incentives are necessary because the Times needs to find other ways to keep a paying customer on board. Where one month somebody might pay, the next they'll slap their face and say, "Why am I doing this? It's certainly not for access."

These tote bag gifts mimic NPR fundraising. But let's think even further. What could be an incentive that would increase transparency and participation in journalism and not cost the NYT organization infrastructure costs (ie: purchasing and shipping thousands of tote bags)?

Imagine if along with every $15 monthly "metered access" payment a NYTimes.com reader also got five NYT Points. After three months they've accumulated 15 NYT Points. Those points can then be used to vote on topics, areas of coverage, or redeemed for the tote bag mentioned above (an excellent plan B).

Again, NPR could do this tomorrow, except -- believe it or not -- NPR is a bureaucratic nightmare when it comes to how donations are handled. Remember, each NPR station is unique and the mothership NPR, aside from being caught in a culture war, is not allowed to fundraise from individuals the way independent stations are.

But the Times doesn't have this hangup. Whether they admit it or not, they've begun fundraising efforts this week. So will the NYT find something to make it fun for donors? Or do they think that the false claim to "access" is enough?

Opportunity to Interact with the Times Community

I think there are a lot of smart folks at the Times and they'll be watching how people react and pay/don't pay for this subscription system. For those that do pay it one month the question is, will they continue to pay? For that, they need to be purchasing something. Call them "NYT Points," call it "NYT Membership" -- I don't care. But I think a part of it should include giving those members a stake in how the funds from their subscription are spent.

In other words, there could be a new sense of transparency and participatory control in how a news organization spends its funds. With their new metered pay wall, the NYT is just one incy-wincy step away from cracking the code to crowd-funded journalism. Why do I want to pay my $15 this month? Because then I can vote on next month's NYT coverage. This would be the NYT using a kind of Spot.Us model.

And if that day ever comes, you won't find anyone happier than me.

February 22 2011


Help Spot.Us Find a Path to Financial Sustainability

Spot.Us recently launched a new design, so this is an opportune time to write a "State of the Spot" post -- something we haven't done since the website was six months old. I hope to lay out how far we've come and what's on our plate and make a call to arms to the Spot.Us community and anyone else interested in the future of journalism.

In the two years since our site has launched, we've funded over 160 projects with the help of 5,000 contributors, a fifth of whom contributed more than once. We've done this in collaboration with 95 organizations, and our reporting projects have won eight journalism awards.

In short, we're making a difference. Whether it's funding FOIA requests, exposing the lies of a sheriff, or providing a deeper understanding of those less fortunate in our society, the stories we fund make a difference.

I earnestly believe in the power of an informed democracy. The guiding principle at Spot.Us is to make the process of journalism more transparent and participatory -- not merely to inform but to engage. Our site is a testament to the notion that people can take ownership over their information needs if there is a platform to support it.

Partnerships make our impact bigger. Take Oakland Local, for example, which has invested $700 into Spot.Us pitches and received $7,000 worth of reporting in return. Whether it's Mother Jones, The UpTake, WitnessLA or the myriad news organizations (many of them non-profit or community-based) we've collaborated with, our collective efforts allow stories to gain a wider audience, and we empower partnering organizations to do the fearless reporting that our communities need.

Room for Improvement

With all that said, I'm not satisfied. As Clay Shirky noted, our communities can become rife with "casual endemic corruption" if we don't figure out how to keep the public informed and engaged. The Spot.Us platform can and will improve to continue this fight.

Our redesign is an example of forward momentum, and now it's time to tackle the next hurdle: How can Spot.Us become a fully sustainable organization and increase the number of stories we support? Although 2011 looks to be promising, I'm already taking time to look to 2012 and beyond.

Running a startup organization means making choices. This is my attempt to explain to the Spot.Us community, journalists, and others who follow us what choices I'm debating, what obstacles we're facing, and to ask for your advice.

One of the biggest Spot.Us. opportunities is its unique sponsorship model. I've written about this at length before -- from announcing the idea to launching it to seeing early success. As far as I know, we are the only media organization experimenting with the idea of letting the public manage our advertising budget. It's our budget, but your decision. In many ways, this idea is as revolutionary as Spot.Us itself. Community members can fund a story without spending any of their own funds. Meanwhile, sponsors get meaningful engagement from community members, which can turn into tangible return on investment. Our advertising is transparent, participatory and therefore jibes with the mission of Spot.Us to get the public involved in the process of journalism. We are just acknowledging that advertising is part of that process.

Our sponsorship feature has created an important revenue stream for Spot.Us. At the moment, however, it doesn't offset our burn rate. The challenge is getting enough sponsors when we have no sales team (my spare time doesn't really count). We also need to find the right sponsorships which will engage community members so they continue to come back. This is compounded because our model is unique. I haven't found a media planning and buying agency to take it on, even though I'm offering a higher-than-normal commission.

How You Can Help

Tackling this challenge is one of the things I'm working on during a good chunk of my remaining time at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. Any help from a community member on the below action items would be greatly appreciated:

  1. Join Spot.Us and try our latest sponsored survey (free credits) and give me feedback on the experience. Take the challenge of doing the next three sponsorships we have planned (the next one will be sponsored by us to get feedback on how to better sell these).
  2. Help create the sales material for our sponsorship model -- maybe even find an individual or agency to take on the process of selling for a commission.

  3. Draft a long-term business plan with a road map for how Spot.Us would have to scale to become sustainable.
  4. Write a handbook for community-funded reporting, which would be a gift to the larger journalism community.
  5. And finally -- an A.P.I. with PRX, ASAP.

The Nitty Gritty

Allow me to elaborate. First, in regards to the material to sell sponsorships, our current sponsorship page doesn't do the concept justice. I can talk almost anyone's ear off about this model. We have some data about our users, but it hasn't been presented in any kind of media kit. Hopefully, a media planning/buying agency or an independent ad-sales person could use this material. I'm comfortable sharing a healthy commission, but we should provide them with the best sales material possible.

If you are an ad salesperson interested in working on an innovative project, let me know. If you want to contribute some pro-bono time to help us create the material, your karma will increase 13.6 points!

Up next is a business plan that shows a path to sustainability. I've played with some numbers and believe it's wholly possible if Spot.Us can grow its sponsorship model. It's a bit of a supply-demand issue. If we get more sponsorships (supply), I believe we can support more pitches and increase the number of surveys taken (demand). If either side falls short, we fail. At the moment, our demand is much higher than the supply. If somehow tomorrow we got our ideal number of sponsorships, I am not sure if we could hit the demand numbers, but I do believe these numbers are possible by 2012 with the right messaging and if the sponsorships are coming in regularly. The supply-demand conundrum is a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario. If one side doesn't come through, the circle of life won't continue, and Spot.Us lets one side down.

The business plan I intend to lay out will show what numbers we'd need to hit on both sides to reach a sustainable equilibrium, one that funds stories, provides sponsors with an appropriate amount of engagement and leaves Spot.Us as a strong forward-leaning non-profit.

The community-funded reporting handbook is being led by Jonathan Peters, under my supervision. The handbook will be informed by Spot.Us experiences, but my hope is that it becomes a resource for anyone, regardless of a relationship to Spot.Us.

In regards to the application programing interface, it's important to remember that Spot.Us is not a news site but a news platform. In that same vein, we don't have to be a destination site. If partnering sites can use our back-end to fundraise for projects on their sites, then more power to them. But first we have a few technical hurdles to overcome.

Luckily, PRX is a willing guinea pig I mean, partner. ;) If we are able to create a seamless A.P.I. that integrates into a site, we can scale up the number of pitches (demand) Spot.Us has in its stables whenever we get a new sponsor. In some respects, this turns Spot.Us into a 21st-century advertising network in addition to inviting the public to support journalism.

So what now?

Obviously, we don't have a shortage of things to do. I remain encouraged both by the journalism community that supports our work and the public at large that has shown it supports quality reporting -- stories that need to be told, stories that can make a difference in the lives of individuals and the communities we live in.

Although that is exciting, I remain humbled and don't want to lose sight of what is at risk.

In the 1985 film "Brewster's Millions," Richard Pryor's character spends millions of dollars designing a room he could "die in." The designer goes through various iterations, each time getting closer and closer to the goal but never hitting the nail on the head. Eventually, the designer gets it right. This happens just as we find out the main character is broke, and an army of movers come to collect all the furnishings.

Aside from being one of my favorite comedians, Pryor, with the tip of his hat, touches on one of my biggest fears with Spot.Us. This new redesign leaves the site looking awesome. All the pieces are on the table, and the puzzle is coming together and beginning to show a beautiful image of a community-powered site. If Spot.Us isn't able to reach this dream, it would pain my heart, but I feel I could tip my hat in just the same way. Still, I feel we have a dragon by the tail and the tools in hand to bring it down.

Why I'm Sharing This

  1. Spot.Us as an experiment has always been about openness. As the journalism industry rants and raves about experimentation, I still don't see it happening, at least not at the level I think is possible. The more I can show what I'm doing -- the success, challenges, failures, and fears -- the more I hope others will follow, even if it's not "the industry" but rather lone and brave individuals. The water is fine, and I truly believe it is what we need.

  2. Somewhat selfishly, I think there are ways the Spot.Us community can help push us forward, especially with finding sponsors. Our current sales material is all here (it'll get better, promise), and we do offer a commission to anyone who lands a sponsor. I'm happy to give anyone the talking points.

  3. A similar plea is for any folks who want to dive into the numbers with me and come up with a long-term business plan and a proposal for funding. How I feel about the foundation world is a post in itself. Suffice it to say, it takes money to make money, and any funding we seek would have to abide by the old proverb of teaching people how to fish rather than giving them free meals. Again, we have a tangible revenue stream, but we need to shore up. As a non-profit, we can't get VC funding -- unless it's the kind the Texas Tribune gets), so we'd have to look to philanthropists.

I certainly can't predict what will happen. I never could. But that's what makes this an exciting ride and what I believe empowers the Spot.Us community. We've come this far only because you see value in our efforts. Together, we've funded meaningful stories in partnership with nearly 100 publications. I'm happy to say that I've seen many of them make a real impact in how our communities function.

I'm excited to tackle the future. I hope you'll be there with me

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.

November 15 2010


The Pros and Cons of Using Kickstarter to Fundraise

We recently ended our first big fundraising drive for the LocalWiki project and wanted to take a moment to step back and reflect.

In particular, we'd like to talk about the funding platform we used, Kickstarter, and its advantages and disadvantages. While we already had a grant from the Knight Foundation to develop the LocalWiki software, we need to raise more money to go beyond just the software and help us do community outreach, coordination and education to ensure our project's success.

What is Kickstarter?

Kickstarter describes itself as "a new way to fund creative ideas and ambitious endeavors." It works like this:
  1. You post a project description on Kickstarter. You make a pitch video. The video isn't a strict requirement, but almost all funded projects have a video. You come up with a set of "rewards" for different pledge levels on the site. You set a funding goal and a time frame for your project.
  2. Kickstarter staff look at your proposed project and provide feedback. Then they (hopefully) approve your project and it's posted on the site.
  3. Your project goes live.
  4. If you don't hit your funding goal in the specified time frame, no one's cards get charged and you don't receive any of the funds.

Sounds simple enough, right?

An almost remarkable percentage of Kickstarter projects reach their funding goal. How's this possible? There are a few reasons why Kickstarter appears to be such a successful fundraising platform.

1. Staff Filtering

As mentioned before, the Kickstarter staff review postings before they appear on the site. In our case, it took a few days of back-and-forth with Kickstarter staff for our project to get a green light.

In our case, Kickstarter staff were concerned with our initial reward selections. Kickstarter wants you to have a rich selection of rewards that provide a lot of value to pledgers. For instance, something that seems like it ought to be worth $50 should be priced as close to market value as possible in the reward selection. We almost gave up on using Kickstarter because the approval process appeared to be pushing us toward a reward selection that would really cut into our real, post-reward funds.

That raises another important point: Kickstarter staff wants your project to succeed. Their filtering process helps Kickstarter ensure high quality (lots of successful projects!) and also lets them push project creators to maximize their chances of success (well priced rewards!). The main reason Kickstarter staff wants your project to succeed, though, is because Kickstarter takes a 5 percent cut of your funds.

So, in our case, we ended up paying Kickstarter $1,316. That's fairly significant, but it may be worth it.

2. The Kickstarter "Mold"

Launching a Kickstarter project means you're going to have to do certain things if you want to meet your funding goal:
  • Produce a video about why you want to raise money. This helps you focus your message into a couple minutes. This helps you fundraise.
  • Write about, and provide updates, why you want to raise money. Again, this forces you to focus your message.
  • Widely publicize your project. This is magnified by the next point ("All-or-nothing").
Your project will also be sitting alongside lots of other interesting projects, so just "hanging out" on Kickstarter may help your fundraising effort seem more legitimate. However, you may not get many pledges from traffic originating from Kickstarter.com -- this really depends on what type of project you have. In our case, probably 90 percent of our pledges came directly from folks browsing Davis Wiki.

Having to fit into this mold means you're going to have to do the kinds of things that organizations that fundraise successfully do. Which is great, because you might not have done all these things otherwise.

3. User Interface

When we decided to launch our outreach/education fundraiser we didn't have a lot of time to prepare a fancy fundraising site. We knew the Knight Foundation grant announcement would generate a fair amount of press and we wanted to capitalize on that excitement and energy. We had a couple days before we had to be in Boston for the announcement and most of our time was spent making our fundraising video. So having a pre-built, well designed fundraising site like Kickstarter really helped us.

Here's what you see when you click the usual Paypal "Donate" button on our site:

and here's what you see when you click "Pledge" on Kickstarter:

While we could have crafted our own pledge drive interface on top of a payment gateway, using Kickstarter saved us a lot of time.

4. All Or Nothing

Kickstarter pledge drives are "all or nothing," meaning that if the goal isn't met by the specified time then no one's credit cards are charged and the project doesn't get any of the pledged funds.

Surprisingly, the all-or-nothing nature of Kickstarter is its greatest asset in ensuring projects hit their funding goal. Once a project has reached a certain threshold of funding, the project creators (and pledgers!) feel an intense desire to "unlock" the money. In fact, word has it that something around 90 percent of projects that reach 25 percent of their funding goal are eventually fully unded.

Having projects be all-or-nothing was probably a decision made by Kickstarter to support projects that need to meet a concrete goal, such as printing the first major run of a new book. These are, by and large, the sort of projects Kickstarter excels at funding -- projects where, if a certain amount of money isn't raised, the project simply isn't possible, or isn't worth it.

But what about projects that deviate from this format? Projects that need to fundraise money but aren't goal-or-doesn't-matter? For more general fundraising projects, the all-or-nothing property has an interesting effect: It functions as a sort of "matching donation" multipler. In traditional fundraising, matching donations -- where an individual or organization pledges to donation $X but only if $X is raised independently -- are a common and successful way to drum up contributions. With Kickstarter, a donation of $50 with a $10K goal can be thought of as being "matched" by 199 other $50 contributions!

The all-or-nothing characteristic is a way to create a big "matching donation" pool and helps drive pledges even for projects that could make do with less than their goal amount.


It's not all milk and honey, though. There are some hidden drawbacks and costs to using Kickstarter.


Kickstarter takes a 5 percent cut of your pledges and Amazon will take an additional amount (around 2 percent) on top of that. If your margins are slim, this could be significant.

You should think about it like this: I'm paying Kickstarter 5 percent of my pledge goal if we make it. Is the Kickstarter service worth the 5 percent? In particular, you should think about 1) The pre-built platform you get with Kickstarter; 2) the publicity of being on Kickstarter; 3) the "mold" that Kickstarter forces you into and the value of that.

#1 is worth it if you don't have a lot of time or resources to build something yourself. We certainly didn't.

In some cases, #2 is really valuable. Obscure, quirky projects can get amazing press just by being a part of Kickstarter. But if you're doing something more like a traditional community-based fundraiser you probably won't get much from #2. For us, the publicity of being on Kickstarter didn't drive a lot of pledges, but it did give us some valuable exposure.

I think everyone can benefit from #3 unless you're a large organization with a track record of successful fundraisers. In that case you've already got methodology, fundraising materials, and probably a big existing donor base.

It's hard to take Kickstarter fundraising offline

We held a couple of offline events during our pledge drive (a bar night and a silent auction). Unfortunately, it's pretty difficult to move offline funds back onto Kickstarter. You're not permitted to "pledge" toward your own project, which means you need to find a trustworthy third party to agree to pledge any offline funds. This also means the offline donors won't be noted on Kickstarter.

For local community-based fundraising efforts this can be problematic.

The all-or-nothing system is a bit confusing

Unfortunately, the all-or-nothing pledge system can be a bit confusing. Many folks we talked to thought they had already given us money before we hit our funding deadline.

Our fundraising period was 90 days -- the longest allowed by Kickstarter -- and so there were lots of people who'd simply forgotten they'd pledged by the time their cards were charged. Thankfully, Kickstarter is astonishingly good at collecting funds (they pester pledgers with an email every day for a week if their card is declined), and we only saw a few pledges that never came through.

Many successful projects are basically product sales

Despite the perception of Kickstarter as a fundraising site, a large number of high profile Kickstarter projects are, at their core, product sales. What do I mean by product sales?

Well, all Kickstarter projects have rewards. And unless you get remarkably lucky, you're going to have some cost associated with acquiring, shipping, and dealing with that reward. For folks in the non-profit world, we're all very familiar with the standard tax-deductability formula that's on donation receipts:

(Amount contributed) - (Value of goods or services given to donor) = Deductible amount

This isn't just some tax mumbo-jumbo -- it tells that the donor intended to give at least the deductible amount to the organization or project itself. But this formula doesn't tell us everything. After all, oftentimes we get goods or services donated to us and then, in turn, give them away. We're still bringing in money, either way. So the important missing part here is the cost to us of those goods or services, right?

(Amount contributed) - (Cost to us of goods or services given to donor) = Our profit

The first formula is still useful for differentiating these "I'm basically selling something" Kickstarter projects from "I'm doing something amazing, help us!" projects. So let's call the first formula the "Donation amount" and the second formula the "Profit amount."

How do projects measure up?

Methodology: I calculated Profit and Donation amount by using my best guess of production cost and resell value of the rewards (to an interested party). For instance, a T-shirt is counted as having little or no value (unless the project is all about T-shirts). This is roughly how the IRS counts things.

I also subtracted estimated Kickstarter and Amazon fees from total profit. I also factored in over-pledging and "no reward" choices.

The following are projects I've heard about recently, either because they got widespread press or because they touched my social circle in some way:

  • Vuvuzelas for BP: Raised $6,846 with a pledge goal of $2,000. Estimated Profit: $5,437. Estimated Donations: $6,846. Profit percentage: 79%. Donation percentage: 100%.
  • NIMBY - Industrial Art and DIY Space: Raised $17,897 with a pledge goal of $17,255. Estimated Profit: $16,161. Estimated Donation: $17,823. Profit percentage: 90%. Donation percentage: 100%.
  • Hollaback!: Raised $13,560 with a pledge goal of $12,500. Estimated Profit: $12,241. Estimated Donation: $13,466. Profit percentage: 90%. Donation percentage: 99%.
  • Decentralize the web with Diaspora: Raised $200,641 with a pledge goal of $10,000. Estimated Profit: $135,905. Estimated Donation: $180,051. Profit percentage: 67%. Donation percentage: 90%.
  • Embodiment: A Portrait of Queer Life in America: Raised $12,568 with a pledge goal of $10,000. Estimated Profit: $11,397. Estimated Donation: $10,848. Profit percentage: 90%. Donation percentage: 86%.
  • Punk Mathematics: Raised $28,701 with a pledge goal of $2,400. Estimated Profit: $20,224. Estimated Donation: $17,225. Profit percentage: 70%. Donation percentage: 60%.
  • Power Laces: Raised $25,024 with a pledge goal of $25,000. Estimated Profit: $12,429. Estimated Donation: $12,904. Profit percentage: 50%. Donation percentage: 51%.
  • Designing Obama: Raised $84,613 with a pledge goal of $65,000. Estimated Profit: $24,717. Estimated Donation: $30,010. Profit percentage: 29%. Donation percentage: 35%.
  • Coming and Crying: Real stories about sex from the other side of the bed: Raised $17,242 with a pledge goal of $3,000. Estimated Profit: $10,773. Estimated Donation: $6,144. Profit percentage: 62%. Donation percentage: 35%.
  • Glif - iPhone 4 Tripod Mount & Stand: Raised $137,417 with a pledge goal of $10,000. Estimated Profit: $98,950. Estimated Donation: $15,467. Profit ratio: 72%. Donation ratio: 11%.
  • Lockpicks by Open Locksport: Raised $87,407 with a pledge goal of $6,000. Estimated Profit: $64,043. Estimated Donation: $4,922. Profit percentage: 73%. Donation percentage: 6%.

This is hardly a proper random sample, and all of these projects were successfully funded. Many projects on Kickstarter never reach their funding goal. Unfortunately, it's difficult to search Kickstarter for unsuccessful projects for more data points.

Additionally, there are other costs associated with shipping rewards and time spent drumming up pledges, processing shipments, etc. Theses costs weren't included, but some costs (like time) are very real.


So, is Kickstarter good for running fundraising drives? Well, let's take a look at this graph:

That big spike is the Diaspora project, which had a few extraordinary factors working in its favor -- perfect timing, massive public backlash against Facebook, and a huge NYT piece. Ignoring that spike, it's clear that the projects which have the highest Kickstarter totals are those that are actually getting the least amount in donation-like pledges.

So while Kickstarter has many high-profile, successful pledge drives under their belt, the campaigns that raise the most cash tend to not look much like traditional donation drives.

All-in-all, we're happy we used Kickstarter. It helped us raise significantly more than we would have otherwise. It has drawbacks, though, particularly for non-profit organizations wanting to run somewhat traditional fundraising drives.

September 27 2010


Local News Needs 'Bottom Up' Structure to Survive

This week Orkney Today announced it was closing. The paper, which served the small islands of Orkney just off the Scottish coast, was -- like countless other local papers -- battling against declining circulation and disappearing ad revenues. "Orkney Media Group management and the newspaper's excellent staff have tried a number of initiatives to reverse the fortunes of the newspaper," the paper reported, "but to no avail."

If the news industry as a whole isn't exactly the picture of good health, local news is in the emergency room. News problems at a national level -- falls in circulation, and collapse in classified and advertising revenues -- are acute at a local level.

This has serious political implications, particularly in terms of who acts as the democratic watchdog, which is why this concerns not only news bosses but also politicians.

"We are concerned that ... the problems in the local media industry are leading to a scrutiny gap," read a report, Future for Local and Regional News, from the Parliamentary Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport.

Defining Local

The problem is, when thinking about what to do about it, how do you define local? For Orkney Today this was pretty easy. It served a clearly defined geographic area -- the Orkney isles -- that is run by the Orkney local council, and that has a long established sense of community. But what about places that aren't surrounded by sea, that don't have a single local authority, and may not have such a long established sense of community?

This isn't an academic question. In political -- i.e. public policy -- terms how you define local will determine what you do and how you do it. How can a government, for example, even consider direct or indirect subsidies, for example, without knowing who to give them to and what parameters to set?

Boil it down and you can probably define "local" in three different ways: Politically, economically, or socially. (I'm deliberately ignoring random geographic boundaries even though that's how regional broadcast news appears to be defined right now). The way you choose to define local then has fundamental implications for the type of journalism you end up with.

If you're in government you're probably most worried about the health of democracy and so it makes logical sense to define "local" in political terms -- i.e. at the ward level, or the local authority or county council boundary, or the constituency. This way you highlight the watchdog role of journalism. You make clear that, as a society, you believe in the idea of a "Fourth Estate" -- a section of society whose role it is to scrutinize local politics, uncover corruption, and tell truth to power.

The problem with this is that political boundaries don't necessarily make economic sense or correspond to what people think of as local. Take my ward in England, called "Kingham, Rollright and Enstone." I don't live in Kingham, Rollright or Enstone, I live just outside Chipping Norton. So a news service called The Kingham, Rollright and Enstone Times wouldn't seem very relevant to me. On top of which my ward is pretty spread out (it's rural) and there are only about 4,000 people in it in total. That's too few for most professional news organizations to bother with, unless they can get costs close to nil.

Because if you're a news organization then while you're thinking about local politics you're also thinking economics. You have to be if you're going to survive. You have to think about how many eyeballs you need to make enough revenue via circulation, subscriptions, classifieds, etc. You're making a calculation that, say, you need to sell 10,000 print copies a week to get by. With 10 percent penetration that means you need to serve an area of about 100,000 people. Multiply the numbers considerably for bigger publications or for broadcast. But the problem with an economic definition of local is that it's unlikely to match the public's perception.

If you're a member of the public then local probably means your street, your neighborhood, your town. What the news industry likes to call hyper-local. As a participant in a recent Birmingham focus group said, "If it's not within a 10 mile radius, it's not local news as far as I'm concerned ... it might as well be national." That quote comes from "Meeting the News Needs of Local Communities," a research report released this month by Media Trust. News at this level is great for building community cohesion and for making people feel a part of a bigger society, but it's hard to imagine anyone but volunteers and non-profits providing it in a sustainable way.

Recipe for Success

That's why it's so hard for a government, or a news organization, to know what to do. You can't create this sort of genuine hyper-local news service from the top down. Neither the government nor a news organization can direct the public to produce news about where they live. This sort of news has to be from the ground up. It has to be participatory. It has to be by and for the local community.

Which is why the local news organizations/co-operatives/forums most likely to work are those that start from the bottom, and that build participation, collaboration, mutualization, and partnerships into their DNA. This is very hard indeed for legacy news organizations to do. And it means that the best a government can do is to create a framework in which people are able to fill the vacuum being left by the disappearance of local news, rather than trying to subsidize the existing industry or provide top-down direct support.

September 17 2010


5 Mistakes That Make Local Blogs Fail

So you're thinking about starting a local blog. Maybe you're a reporter tired of office politics and lowest-common-denominator assignments. Maybe you're a neighborhood gadfly who wants to create a new place for locals to gather. Maybe you're a realtor who wants to generate new leads.

Either way, your local blog, like most new things, will probably fail.

It will fail to support you. 

It will fail to win an audience. 

It will fail to have real impact in your community.

I meet a lot of local bloggers and people thinking about starting local blogs who ask me for tips or for feedback.  After having several of these conversations, it seems useful to pull these conversations together in one place modeled after a great piece Paul Graham of YCombinator wrote back in 2006. He found 18 mistakes that kill startups. I think the mistakes that kill local blogs can be condensed down to five.

Let's break them down.

Five Mistakes

#1. You're doing it alone.

The first reason your local blog will fail is because you don't have the right people working on it. Notice I said "people." No, you will not succeed working on this alone.

As a solo local blog founder, you alone will be responsible for creating the content, editing it, distributing it, selling ads around it, promoting it, collecting payment, accounting for the money collected and spent, and then covering all your legal bases. That's an incredible amount of work. More importantly, any time spent on any one of these tasks is time NOT spent on the others. If you go it alone, your business will be single-threaded. Everything will have to run through you before it can happen and you can't always be available. In a single-threaded business, if the one agent needs to take a break, everything else grinds to a halt. 

As Graham puts it: "When you have multiple founders, esprit de corps binds them together in a way that seems to violate conservation laws. Each thinks "I can't let my friends down." This is one of the most powerful forces in human nature, and it's missing when there's just one founder." If it's really just you, then your team is weak and your blog will fail.

#2. You don't know your market.

The next reason your blog will fail is because you didn't do your homework. In the case of the local reporter who's been covering her beat for a few years, yes, she knows her subject matter inside and out, but that's just the tip of the iceberg of necessary knowledge for building a business around it. For example, does she know:

a. How many people are actively looking for coverage of her beat?

b. The average incomes of those people?

c. How many of them have Internet access?

d. How much time they spend online?

e. What businesses or organizations would like to reach those people?

f. How much money they spend annually in doing so?

I could go on. My experience has been that very, very few local bloggers have answered any of these questions or have any intention of answering them in the course of working on their blog. And these are not tricky, obscure questions. These are questions that any business founder would need to answer in order to be taken seriously or stand a chance at success. If you don't know these things, then you didn't do your homework and your blog will fail.

#3. Your content is weak

The third reason your blog will fail is because your content stinks. It stinks because it lacks a point of view and it fails to address a real, general human problem.

Whether you're a trained journalist, a neighborhood gadfly, or a realtor, your content probably lacks a point of view. As a newspaper reporter, you were trained to be objective. As a gadfly, you have relationships around the community that you have to protect and worry about. As a realtor, you will never say anything bad about the community you cover and therefore will be a bore.

Your blog has to have a point of view and a voice because people only engage with things they can wrap their heads around and get familiar with. Your local blog will only succeed if it wins an audience. You win an audience by building relationships between your stories and readers. No one relates well to something they don't know and understand. Your blog has to have strong, easily remembered stances on local issues people actually care about or it will fail. Groupon is a company that sells deals, not local news per se, but they have a phenomenal grasp of the voice and point of view of their content. Read their style guide here.

Which brings us to the other reason your content is weak. It's weak because no one wants to read it. And no one wants to read it because it doesn't address any real, general human problem. For all the bluster about hyper-local coverage and blogging in the last five years, as someone who runs a city-specific social news site where people vote for the stories they actually are interested in, it seems pretty clear that most people don't give a fig about what's happening day in and day out in their local elected bodies. That stuff matters a great deal to other elected officials, people who do business with elected officials, and the political/news nerds in your community, but that's it. 

If your local blog is focused on covering local government, it should be a subscriber-only, paid newsletter that goes out to just those people. It should only be a public blog if there's mass interest in the subject matter, which there just isn't for a lot of the stories showing up on hyper-local blogs. If your content lacks a point of view and is centered around things that the general public isn't interested in, it will fail.

#4. You haven't thought through your business model

Let's assume you figured all this stuff out. Now how are you going to make money? Ads, you say? Okay, great. Have you answered these questions?

 -What kind of ads? Banners? Text links?  Sponsored posts? Real-time ads?  

 -Who's going to sell them?

 -How are they going to sell them?

 -What are you going to charge? 

 -Who are you going to sell them to? 

 -What's the value proposition of buying your ads over someone else's?

 -How many ads do you need to sell to cover your costs?

 -What the heck are your costs?

Until you answer these questions and more like them, your blog will make no money and it will fail.

#5. You have no distribution strategy

Finally, your local blog is going to fail because you can't distribute it to enough people. If your local blog is ad-supported, then your ads are your product and your content is a marketing tool created to bring people to look at your ads. In order for you to sell ads, you need to have people coming to look at them. You need eyeballs on your blog. How will you get them? 

Twitter and Facebook are good but not great answers here. Both can drive significant traffic but require a lot of work on your end. Also, their purposes are at odds with yours. Facebook and Twitter are your competitors. They sell ads to the same people you probably want to sell ads to. They would be perfectly happy if you didn't start a blog at all and just started a Twitter/Facebook account and posted your content there. If you are a local blogger, Facebook and Twitter, not your local paper, are your biggest threats. Why should someone visit your blog when they can read your headlines alongside other neighborhood headlines over there? They are useful but can't be your main tools.

Search could be a win for you, but have you devised a search engine optimization strategy?

Partnering with established sites could produce regular traffic and great visibility, but have you had formal conversations with other publishers about that? These things don't just happen.   Unless you have a formal, structured plan for how people are going to find you and see your ads on a regular basis, your local blog will fail.


In the end, the main mistake is looking at it wrong. You are not starting a blog, you are launching a small business. You are no different from the guy opening a bar up the road. You are both starting small, local businesses. You need to know something about blogging and social media, yes, but what you really need to bone up on is what it takes to run a small business. Instead of going to the local blogger meetups in your city, you should go to the local small business owner and entrepreneur meetups. Instead of following the latest social media news, you need to read up on the latest advertising, marketing, and search strategies showing results for actual media entrepreneurs in the field. This is the main mistake local bloggers make that dooms their efforts.

But if you can avoid this and the other five listed above, you'll have a chance to start something that will sustain you and have a real impact on your community. That's a special thing. 

There are opportunities out there for local blogs, they just need to be considered and approached with the right frame of mind. 

Thanks to @tracysamantha, @kiyoshimartinez, and @annatarkov for reading drafts of this.


Financial protection for NCTJ courses

Rachel McAthy at journalism.co.uk chips in to the recent NCTJ debate asking NCTJ accreditation: essential or an outdated demand? She reports on the recent meeting of the NCTJ’s cross-media accreditation board where the answer is an emphatic, if predictable, yes.

Most interesting for me though was a quote from the report of the meeting by Professor Richard Tait, director of the Centre of Journalism Studies at Cardiff University:

While the NCTJ is quite right to insist on sufficient resources and expertise so that skills are properly taught and honed, education is a competitive market, and NCTJ courses are expensive to run. In the likely cuts ahead, it is vital for accredited courses to retain their funding so that they are not forced to charge students exorbitant fees; otherwise, diversity will be further compromised.

On the face of it a reasonable demand. But one that in turn demands a lot more clarification.  Who should be offering that financial security?  The universities, the industry or the NCTJ who take a fee.

Some more NCTJ bursaries perhaps….

July 09 2010


Where Did We Go Right? How to Be a Successful Entrepreneur

Imagine a well-known Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Wanting to repeat his success, he scrutinizes all his articles and discovers they contain the letters "E" and "R" 10 times more frequently than any other letters. In his next article, he focuses on increasing the use of these letters, and then plans on teaching his new-found secret during his journalism seminar next fall.

More than likely, his success as a reporter is due to a combination of talent, hard work, circumstances, personal relationships and some luck. Which means that evangelizing the benefits of proper letter frequency is irrelevant at best and probably harmful to his journalism students.

Entrepreneurial Mortality

Successful entrepreneurs make this same mistake. New ventures are born every day and the sad fact is most die young. Yet the causes of startup death are predictable: Lack of cash, lack of funding, arriving too early or too late to market, insufficient experience or talent on the team, or just plain bad luck.

In a startup, you may not be able to avoid death, but at least you'll know what killed you. Triage is easy on a corpse; it's a lot harder to dissect a healthy Olympic athlete to understand what makes them a champion.

Entrepreneurs who experience failure usually have lots of time to ponder the question "Where did we go wrong?" in order to learn from and avoid making the same mistakes. It's much harder for them to figure out "Where did we go right?" so success can be repeated.

Success As Poison

Before becoming entrepreneur-in-residence at the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, I spent my career as a serial entrepreneur. I was surrounded by entrepreneurs who had worked on as many successes as failures. Some of these entrepreneurs are very well known and have achieved legendary status, while others are just starting to become the next generation's Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Failures, fizzles, flameouts and near misses are the norm -- and in Silicon Valley they are rites of passages for every entrepreneur.

Experience gained from failure is more valuable than an Ivy League M.B.A. and can serve as a passport for long-term success. Misinterpreting prior success factors can doom the entrepreneur, as well as infecting all other ventures they mentor. Yes, early success can be worse than failure -- just ask any child star.

Many entrepreneurs who taste success attribute it to their own intelligence, vision, creativity or business savvy. They ignore the critical influences of timing, circumstances and luck. In many cases I've seen people ignore an inheritance, an influential relative or a family name when they take stock of their success. This brush with success poisons future attempts.

Snake-Oil Success

Far more dangerous are former entrepreneurs who have one success to their credit and spend the rest of their career imparting (or worse, selling) their secret to wide-eyed aspiring entrepreneurs everywhere. The books and seminars shout, "Be like me! Use more E's and R's than your competition and you'll be successful."

Being an entrepreneur is often like driving a half-built race car 200 mph in a thick fog -- and not being sure if the steering wheel works. There are lots of voices in the crowd telling you which direction to drive, but who can you trust? Even if one of the voices belongs to an experienced racer, they have not been successful in these exact same circumstances -- so their advice could be fatal.

Success is Simple. It's Just not Easy

Mark Zuckerberg's path to success was different than Steve Jobs' path. They are different people with different backgrounds and situations, so trying to copy their path and methods is probably futile. A more reliable way is to look at the majority of success stories and find out what they had in common, and apply the lessons to your own situation.

Great entrepreneurial success often looks like a combination of luck, timing or brilliance -- or sometimes sheer genius -- but when you dissect it, there are really just two groups of entrepreneurial success factors:

1. Personal Factors:
  • Hard work and commitment
  • Sufficient intelligence
  • Interpersonal skills/relationships
  • Location and proximity to resources
2. Circumstantial Factors:
  • Economic and business situation
  • State of technology
  • Social trends
  • Customer wants/needs/behavior
  • Competition

When looking at these two groups, notice that all the personal factors are within your control, and the circumstantial factors are the same for every other entrepreneur. So what's the catch? The best entrepreneurs play to their strengths on the personal factors and develop a particular clarity on the circumstances and leverage them to their advantage. Most successful entrepreneurs actually have one key personal factor and one key circumstantial insight that makes all the difference in their success.

Now we can better understand what appears as luck, timing and brilliance:

  • "Luck" is when any of the personal or circumstantial factors are stronger without any extra effort. Recognize it, embrace it and use it -- but don't count on it.
  • "Timing" is when several circumstances are aligned with the entrepreneur's interests. Wait for it, recognize it and move fast when it happens.
  • "Brilliance" is when you are aware enough to take advantage of luck and timing.
  • "Genius" is when the entrepreneur overcomes the personal and anticipates the circumstantial.

Where Did You Go Right?

As an entrepreneur, what can you do to make these success factors work for you? First, take a look back on any success you've had in the past -- no matter how minor -- and ask, "What did I do right?" Think about which personal factors were your strengths, how you can use them again, and which personal traits need more work.

Next, take a look at the circumstances surrounding your prior success. Which of them were you able to foresee or even predict? Perhaps you have a special gift or insight in that area. Are you particularly observant as to customer needs, or can you understand technology or spot trends better than most? These are your success factors, and they don't come out of a bottle sold by someone else.

All entrepreneurs, and potential entrepreneurs, have the necessary success factors -- personal traits and circumstance. The key is being aware of which are your own relevant success factors, and which ones are someone else's snake oil.

July 08 2010


News Organizations Must Innovate or Die

People in news don't generally think of innovation as their job. It's that old CP Snow thing of the two cultures, where innovation sits on the science not the arts side. I had my own experience of this at the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference in Washington a couple of months ago.

After one of the sessions I spotted an editor whose newspaper had adopted hNews (the Knight-funded news metadata standard we developed with the AP). "How's it going?" I asked him. "Is it helping your online search? Are you using it to mark up your archive?"

Before I had even finished the editor was jotting something down on his notepad. "Here," he said, "Call this guy. He's our technical director -- he'll be able to help you out."

Technology and innovation still remain, for most editors, something the techies do.

So it's not that surprising that over much of the last decade, innovation in news has been happening outside the news industry. In news aggregation, the work of filtering and providing context has been done by Google News, YouTube, Digg, Reddit, NowPublic, Demotix and Wikipedia...I could go on. In community engagement, Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter led the way. In news-related services (the ones that tend to earn money) it has been Craigslist, Google AdWords and now mobile services like Foursquare.

Rather than trying to innovate themselves, many news organisations have chosen instead to gripe from the sidelines. Rupert Murdoch called Google a "thief" and a "parasite." The U.K.'s Daily Mail has published stories about how using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer,, referred to someone as a "Facebook killer" (as in murderer), and runs scare stories about Facebook and child safety. And let's not even start to take apart various news commentators' dismissive attitude towards Twitter.

When they have seen the value of innovation, news organizations have tended to try and buy it in rather than do it themselves, with decidedly mixed results. Murdoch's purchase of MySpace initially looked very smart, but now, as John Naughton wrote over the weekend, it "is beginning to look like a liability." The AOL /Time Warner mashup never worked. Associated Newspapers in the U.K. have done slightly better by making smaller investments in classified sites.

Most news organisations do not see innovation as a critical element of what they do. This is not that unexpected since they spend their day jobs gathering and publishing news. Unfortunately for them, if it doesn't become more central to their DNA they are liable to become extinct.

Speed and Unpredictability of Innovation

At last week's Guardian Activate Summit, Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, was asked what kept him awake at nights. "Almost all deaths in the IT industry are self-inflicted," Schmidt said. "Large-scale companies make mistakes because they don't continue to innovate."

Schmidt does not need to look far to see how quickly startups can rise and fall. Bebo was started in 2005, was bought by AOL in 2008 for $850 million, and then was sold again this month to Criterion Capital for a fee reported to be under $10 million.

The problem for Schmidt -- and one that is even more acute for news organizations -- is the increasing speed and unpredictability of innovation. "I'm surprised at how random the future has become," Clay Shirky said at the same Activate summit, meaning that the breadth of participation in the digital economy is now so wide that innovation can come from almost anyone, anywhere.

As an example he cited Ushahidi, a service built by two young guys in Kenya to map violence following the election in early 2008 that has now become a platform that "allows anyone to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web and visualize it on a map or timeline." It has been used in South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Pakistan, Gaza, Haiti and in the U.S.

He might also have cited Mendeley, a company which aims to organize the world's academic research papers online. Though only 16 months old, the service already has over 29 million documents in its library, and is used by over 10,000 institutions and over 400,000 people. It won a prize at Activate for the startup "most likely to change the world for the better."

The tools to innovate are much more widely available than they were. Meaning a good idea could be conceived in Nairobi, Bangalore or Vilnius, and also developed and launched there too, and then spread across the world. "The future is harder to predict," Shirky said, "but easier to see."

That's why Google gives one day a week to its employees to work on an innovation of their choice (Google News famously emerged from one employee's hobby project). It is why foundations like Knight have recognized the value of competition to innovation. And it's why Facebook will only enjoy a spell at the peak.

Some Exceptions

There are exceptions in the news industry. The New York Times now has an R&D department, has taken the leap towards linked data, and published its whole archive in reusable RDF. The Guardian innovated with Comment is Free, its Open platform, and the Guardian Data Store. The BBC developed the iPlayer.

The Daily Telegraph had a go, setting up "Euston Partners" under then editor Will Lewis. (Although setting up an innovation center three miles away from the main office did not suggest it was seen as central to the future of the business.) The project was brought back in-house shortly after Lewis left the Telegraph in May 2010 and has been renamed the "Digital Futures Division."

But mostly people in news don't really do innovation. They're too focused on generating content. But as the Knight Foundation has recognized, doing news in the same old way not only doesn't pay -- it doesn't even solve the democratic problems many of those in news are so rightly concerned about. For some people FixMyStreet.com or its U.S. equivalent SeeClickFix is now more likely to give them a direct relationship with their council than the local newspaper.

News and media organizations have to realize that they are in the communications business, and being in that business means helping people to communicate. Giving them news to talk about is a big part of this, but it's not the only part. The sooner they realize this and start to innovate, the better chance they have of surviving the next couple of decades.

June 28 2010


Crafting a Simple Elevator Pitch for the Public and Investors

A Knight Foundation grant is a wonderful gift, but in our case at CityCircles (and for many projects), the grant only lasts for one year. Because most of that year may be spent on programming, this gives winners very little time to craft a pitch.

By "pitch" I mean: How do you explain this to your audience in 10 seconds or less (i.e., an elevator pitch)? How do you explain this to people who may want to work with you after the grant ends?

We've finally found an approach that seems to be working for CityCircles, so let me save you some time by presenting two options to consider.

Pitching the Audience

First, let's start with our audience -- the people we want interacting with the site via their phones. These are folks who either ride light rail, live by it, or have a business near the tracks (within five blocks, to be exact). We've built a website and mobile site that lets them post news, events, classifieds, promotions, resumes, and community projects. Journalists can also contribute stories to the community.

Earlier in the grant period, I would give people what I thought was a clean, concise-yet-explanatory pitch about what we are and how we work. As time went by, it became shorter and shorter, and the look in their eyes seemed more attentive. I was on the right track. At some point, I tried this pitch:

It's called CityCircles. We're like Craigslist for the light rail community -- with a splash of journalism.

That's it. Done. Pause two seconds to see it sink in, then add a few details to fill in the blanks.

Now, I'm not advocating for making your project sound like a cocktail with a weird twist. But I am advocating for using a comparison to something that already exists, closely relates to your project and is widely known. It helps get the point across quickly. Choose wisely.

Detractors might ask, "Why would you want to promote someone else in your pitch?"

To which I respond: If the other project already has an established community "feel" to it, then it may help your chances. In our case, Craigslist is a universally known example, and it resonates immediately. The "splash of journalism" adds context and meaning.

Investor Pitch

Now let's look at the investor pitch. These are the folks who will keep your project going after the grant expires. We're solely focused on making our project a success in Phoenix, but reality dictates that we plan ahead. To do this, we're considering "sponsors" in other markets.

Instead of trying to find one large-scale investor, you might consider a "sponsorship" from someone who needs/wants some additional street cred.

One thing I am looking at is last year's green company rankings from Newsweek. Since we're a platform that encourages civic involvement and mass transit in the inner city, someone toward the top of the list could add us to their "green portfolio" if they support our expansion (in exchange for a promotional advertising presence on the site, like NPR's "brought to you by..."). Conversely, those companies toward the end of the list may want to use us as a means to advance up the rankings.

And like the audience pitch, choose wisely.

June 21 2010


FeedBrewer Pays It Forward to Knight Media Innovation Fund

Last week at MIT's annual Future of News and Civic Media conference, I stood on the stage with Knight Foundation CEO Alberto Ibargüen and made an announcement.

FeedBrewer Inc., a new company I co-founded with two other Printcasting team members, is donating 6 percent of its corporate stock to a brand new Knight Media Innovation Fund. Our hope is that our future success can also enable success for others who, just as we did with the Knight News Challenge, will receive grants that allow them to create new innovative media tools and programs. You can read more about our company and the donation on our site and at the Knight Foundation blog.

After the announcement, I got two reactions from conference participants. The dominant reaction was very positive: "Way to go!" "You did the right thing!" "That's awesome."

But there was also another, more pragmatic reaction. A few asked me point blank, "What are you getting out of this?" "Is there any new funding attached?" "What motivated you to do something you didn't have to do?"

What Are Your Values?

The second question is the more interesting one, because I think it speaks directly to the real value the Knight Foundation has created through four years of the Knight News Challenge. this value has nothing to do with money. But just to be clear, the answer is that no, there is no new funding attached to this donation (which would make it a purchase versus a donation), and there is no tangible, quid pro quo benefit.

But we feel we are definitely getting something out of this. We're showing with our actions that we want to remain a partner with the Knight Foundation and its community of media entrepreneurs in writing the story of innovation -- whether or not they're writing us more checks.

Empowering Publishers, and Future Innovators

Just as we've used Printcasting to empower new local publishers, and will use FeedBrewer to expand that mission to mobile and eBook publishers, we hope that we can one day say that FeedBrewer's financial success helped empower new innovators. And in the spirit of open source, we also know we may benefit from their contributions just as they may with ours (Printcasting code was open sourced on Drupal.org this month).

I think this is a really important thing for future media entrepreneurs to understand, because ultimately it comes down to values.

I've been going through a tech entrepreneur training and mentoring program called The Founder Institute in Denver, and every Tuesday night we hear presentations from successful CEOs and entrepreneurs. I was struck by what Bruce Dines, a principal at venture capital firm Liberty Global Ventures, recently told us.

"What is your culture, and what are your values? Make sure your behavior is consistent with your values," he said. "You are building a corporate identity that is consistent with your brand. Everything impacts your brand. It is a precious thing that can be destroyed in a minute."

I found it interesting that this was coming from someone who manages an investment portfolio for the purpose of getting a hefty financial return, which for VCs is typically five to 10 times their initial investment. What this says is that values are important even in the context of making money, and that bad values can hurt your bottom line.

I wish more newspapers had paid heed to this over the last 20 years. Falling circulations led many to capitulate on core values -- for example, the now widespread practice of charging for obituaries that were previously seen as a core community service. Values and brands are tightly connected, and once you lose your brand, you're toast.

How Equity Works in Incubators

I'm learning a lot of great lessons through the Founder Institute, just as I did through the Knight News Challenge. The Founder Institute also has its own "pay it forward" concept. If I proceed to graduation in two months, I and my board will sign a document giving the institute a warrant to take 3.5 percent of FeedBrewer stock in the event that we receive significant future funding.

That isn't unique to the Founder Institute. Most tech incubators, such as Y Combinator and TechStars, require some sort of equity in exchange for funding, training and connections. However, the Founder Institute is unique in that every graduate also shares in a pool from that 3.5 percent.

Up until very recently, the Knight Foundation required nothing in terms of equity, etc. in return for the grants it gave out, but it is moving in that direction with the Knight Media Innovation Fund. I think that's a good thing, so I'm glad to support it up front with this first, non-mandatory equity donation.

FeedBrewer's Road Ahead

So what's ahead for us with FeedBrewer? Riches? Fame? Glory? Not initially, if ever, but there will be a lot of hard work as we strive to achieve our vision for simple multi-platform publishing solutions. And if we succeed in that vision, whatever else comes after is icing on the cake. We're running a startup because we think we can do a better job achieving our vision than if we were operating in a large company, not because we anticipate an immediate windfall.

The other thing I've learned through the Founder Institute is that I am a hair short of insanity for starting a new business. My co-founders and I are already bootstrapping our path to the future, taking on consulting projects that leverage our expertise while keeping a percentage of our time free to work on our own concepts (such as BookBrewer -- more on that later!)

Contrary to what you may think, the vast majority of startups do not attract enormous multi-million dollar investments or acquisitions. They work project by project, sale by sale, and some result in sustainable businesses. (Shameless plug: yes, we have room for more consulting projects. Learn more about that here).

The Real Value of the Knight News Challenge

The bottom line is that without the Knight Foundation's support, I would never have had the time to study and learn what I have through Printcasting, and FeedBrewer simply wouldn't have been possible due to lack of confidence. I also wouldn't have had the opportunity to share my thoughts with the large audience that this Knight-funded Idea Lab blog provides, or present my wacky ideas at countless conferences around the world. And I doubt I would have had the honor and privilege to be part of such a fun and inspiring Knight News Challenge community.

So I want to thank the Knight Foundation and its late creator John S. Knight -- who it turns out shared my birthday -- and all of the innovators past, present and future that emerged as part of his legacy. That community is the real value of the Knight News Challenge. I'm looking forward to seeing more projects pay it forward like we have done.

June 16 2010


Knight Announces News Challenge Winners for 2010

knight placard.jpg

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. -- I am at MIT for the announcement of the latest round of News Challenge winners. First up is the president and CEO of the Knight Foundation, Alberto Ibarguen. (Note: The Twitter widget on Idea Lab is now a feed taken from the conference's hashtag: #fncm.)

Alberto Ibarguen, Knight Foundation CEO: We didn't have a clue as to how to deal with the changes in the media business, so we started the News Challenge. We've had thousands of applicants. It was designed to be open, and was meant for news and information to be shared in a community using a digital platform. We got sidetracked looking for technical innovation but righted the ship by looking at information that engages communities.

We're actively engaging community foundations. Have of the community of foundations in the U.S. have applied to a separate contest we have for them to meet the needs of communities. It's also open ended, and we match funding they get. The Knight fellows program at Stanford, where we have no power, has also shifted onto an entrepreneurial, digital-based solutions. We also gave a grant to NPR to train all of their personnel on digital, and are about to do a second round with them, trying to bring NPR into the digital age.

We are about to enter our fifth year for the contest, but we will remain committed to innovation in the field after that.


Here's the full list of Knight News Challenge winners for 2010, the fourth year of the contest that awards grants to people who are helping to reinvent community news. The winners will be blogging here on Idea Lab over the next year or more, so you'll get to know them even better.

Award: $400,000
Winner: Eric Rodenbeck, Stamen Design
Web URL: http://stamen.com; http://crimespotting.org
Twitter: @stamen
Location: San Francisco
Summary: To make municipal data easy to understand, CityTracking will allow users to create embeddable data visualizations that are appealing enough to spread virally and that are as easy to share as photos and videos. The dynamic interfaces will be appropriate to each data type, starting with crime and working through 311 calls for service, among others. The creators will use high design standards, making the visuals beautiful as well as useful.

Bio: Eric Rodenbeck is the founder and creative director of Stamen, a leading mapping and data visualization design studio based in San Francisco. Recent Stamen projects for the London 2012 Olympics, MSNBC and the City of San Francisco push the boundaries of online cartography and design. In addition, the studio's contribution to open source mapping projects are helping to make possible a bottom-up revolution in how maps and data visualization are made and consumed. Rodenbeck led the interactive storytelling and data-driven narrative effort at Quokka Sports, illustrated and designed at Wired magazine and Wired Books, and was a co-founder of the design collective Umwow. His work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Rodenbeck received a bachelor's in the history and philosophy of technology from The New School for Social Research in 1994. In 2008, he was named one of Esquire magazine's "Best and Brightest" new designers and thinkers, and one of ID Magazine's top 40 designers to watch. He is on the board of directors of the Kenneth Rainin Foundation.


The Cartoonist
Award: $378,000
Winner: Ian Bogost and Michael Mateas
Web URL: http://www.gatech.edu
Twitter: @ibogost
Location: Atlanta
Summary: To engage readers in the news, this project will create a free tool that produces cartoon-like current event games -- the game equivalent of editorial cartoons. The simplified tools will be created with busy journalists and editors in mind, people who have the pulse of their community but don't have a background in game development. By answering a series of questions about the major actors in a news event and making value judgments about their actions, The Cartoonist will automatically propose game rules and images. The games aim to help the sites draw readers and inspire them to explore the news.

Bio: Ian Bogost, a videogame designer, critic and researcher, is associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and founding partner at Persuasive Games. His research and writing considers videogames as an expressive medium, and his creative practice focuses on political and art games. Bogost is the author of "Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism," "Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames," the co-author of "Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System" and the forthcoming "Newsgames: Journalism at Play." Bogost's videogames cover topics as varied as airport security, disaffected workers, the petroleum industry, suburban errands and tort reform. His games have been played by millions of people and exhibited internationally.

Michael Mateas is an authority on artificial intelligence for games and interactive entertainment. His research group at the University of California, Santa Cruz, The Expressive Intelligence Studio, is one of the largest technical game research groups in the world. He holds the MacArthur Endowed Chair and helped create the first game design program in the University of California system. With Andrew Stern, he created the award-winning Façade, the first artificial intelligence-based interactive drama.


Local Wiki
Award: $350,000
Winner: Philip Neustrom and Mike Ivanov
Web URL: http://daviswiki.org
Twitter: @philipn; @mivanov
Location: San Francisco
Summary: Based on the successful DavisWiki.org in Davis, Calif., this project will create enhanced tools for local wikis, a new form of media that makes it easy for people to learn -- and share -- their own unique community knowledge. Members will be able to post articles about anything they like, edit others and upload photos and files. This grant will help create the specialized open-source software that makes the wiki possible and help communities develop, launch and sustain local wiki projects.

Bio: Philip Neustrom is a software engineer in the San Francisco Bay area. He co-founded DavisWiki.org in 2004. For the past several years he has worked on a variety of nonprofit efforts to engage everyday citizens. He oversaw the development of the popular VideoTheVote.org, the world's largest coordinated video documentation project, and was the lead developer at Citizen Engagement Laboratory, a nonprofit focused on empowering traditionally underrepresented constituencies. He is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with a bachelor's in mathematics.

Mike Ivanov is a software engineer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He co-founded DavisWiki.org in 2004. He, along with Philip Neustrom, was awarded the Excellence in Community Involvement Award by the City of Davis for his work on the DavisWiki, an honor usually reserved for traditional local media formats such as radio and television. He is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with a bachelor's in mathematics.


windycitizen profile.jpg

WindyCitizen's Real Time Ads
Award: $250,000
Winner: Brad Flora, WindyCitizen.com
Web URL: http://nowspots.com
Twitter: @bradflora
Location: Chicago
Summary: As a way to help online startups become sustainable, this project will develop an improved software interface to help sites create and sell what are known as "real-time ads." These ads are designed to be engaging as they constantly change -- showing the latest message or post from the advertiser's Twitter account, Facebook page or blog. Challenge winner Brad Flora helped pioneer the idea on his Chicago news site, WindyCitizen.com.

Bio: Brad Flora is a journalist and entrepreneur in Chicago. He is the founder and president of WindyCitizen.com, which gives Chicagoans a place to share, rate and discuss their favorite local stories, events and deals. His work has appeared in Slate magazine and Chicago-area newspapers. He was a 2008 Carnegie-Knight News 21 Fellow and is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.


GoMap Riga
Award: $250,000
Winner: Marcis Rubenis and Kristofs Blaus, GoMap Riga
Web URL: www.gomap.org; www.KristofsBlaus.com
Twitter: @kristofsblaus; @MarcisRubenis
Location: Riga, Latvia
Summary: To inspire people to get involved in their community, this project will create a live, online map with local news and activities. GoMap Riga will pull some content from the web and place it automatically on the map. Residents will be able to add their own news, pictures and videos while discussing what is happening around them. GoMap Riga will be integrated with the major existing social networks and allow civic participation through mobile technology. The project will be tested in Riga, Latvia, and ultimately be applicable in other cities.

Bio: Marcis Rubenis is a social entrepreneur in Riga, Latvia. In 2006, he initiated the first non-governmental organization (NGO) network in Riga, to foster greater transparency, sustainability and public participation in large-scale development plans in the capital. Rubenis is a multiple business competition award winner, including garnering second place in the biggest international student team business competition in Europe in 2006. Rubenis is also the founder of the crowdsourcing organization, "House of Ideas," and the co-founder of the event format, idejuTalka (ideaCamp), which uses crowdsourcing to fuel grassroots solutions for business and society. Rubenis studies economics at the University of Latvia and is researching how crowdsourcing, open source and similar models of social organization can benefit real world communities and businesses.

Kristofs Blaus is a European entrepreneur managing various innovative businesses in the Baltics. Since 2007, he has successfully worked with teaching-aid software for mobile phones, advanced marketing solutions, payment systems and delivering advanced IT services. Blaus, the winner of various business competitions in Latvia, is founder and CEO of Education Mobile Ltd., Technology Mobile Ltd. and Politics Mobile Ltd., and founder of the Society Technologies Foundation. He has lectured and presented to young entrepreneurs, teachers, young leaders and business students across the Baltic region.


Order in the Court 2.0
Award: $250,000
Winner: John Davidow, WBUR
Web URL: www.wbur.org
Twitter: @johndavidow
Location: Boston
Summary: To foster greater access to the judicial process, this project will create a laboratory in a Boston courtroom to help establish best practices for digital coverage that can be replicated and adopted throughout the nation. While the legislative and executive branches have incorporated new technologies and social media, the courts still operate under the video and audio recording standards established in the 1970s and '80s. The courtroom will have a designated area for live blogging via a Wi-Fi network and the ability to live-stream court proceedings to the public. Working in conjunction with the Massachusetts court system, the project will publish the daily docket on the web and build a knowledge wiki for the public with common legal terms.

Bio: John Davidow was named WBUR's executive editor of new media in July of 2009, where he has overseen the growth of the award-winning wbur.org. Davidow joined WBUR as news director/managing editor in 2003 after spending more than two decades as a journalist in Boston. Davidow's work has been recognized with regional awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association, the Associated Press and UPI. He has also recieved a number of regional Emmy Awards. Davidow graduated cum laude from Tufts University with a bachelor's in economics.


Front Porch Forum
Award: $220,000
Winner: Michael Wood-Lewis, Front Porch Forum
Web URL: http://frontporchforum.com
Twitter: @MichaelFPF
Location: Burlington, Vt.
Summary: To help residents connect with others and their community, this grant will help rebuild and enhance a successful community news site, expand it to more towns and release the software so other organizations, anywhere can use it. The Front Porch Forum, a virtual town hall space, helps residents share and discuss local news, build community and increase engagement. The site, currently serving 25 Vermont towns, will expand to 250.

Bio: Michael Wood-Lewis has been pulling neighbors together into community since his Indiana childhood spent organizing ball games and visiting neighbors on his evening paper route. Decades later, he founded Front Porch Forum, which hosts a pilot network of 140 online neighborhood forums that blankets 25 northwest Vermont towns. More than 18,000 households subscribe to Front Porch Forum. The resulting news sharing and community building is attracting recognition from PBS MediaShift, the Vermont legislature, the Rural Telecom Congress and the Case and Orton Family Foundations. Previously, he led an innovative trade association of New England utilities. Earlier, he guided a Washington, D.C.-based consortium of U.S. municipal leaders in developing environmental technologies, building on his experience as an inventor of high-tech recycling equipment. He earned a master's in engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as well as an MBA.


Award: $202,000
Winner: Teru Kuwayama
Web URL: www.novembereleven.org; www.lightstalkers.org/teru
Twitter: @terukuwayama
Location: Chicago
Summary: Broadening the perspectives that surround U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, this project will chronicle a battalion by combining reporting from embedded journalists with user-generated content from the Marines themselves. The troops, recently authorized to use social media while deployed, and their families will be key audiences for the online journal -- steering, challenging and augmenting the coverage with their feedback. The approach will directly serve the stakeholders and inform the wider public by bringing in on-the-ground views on military issues and the execution of U.S. foreign policy.

Bio: Teru Kuwayama is a photographer who has spent most of the past decade reporting on conflict and humanitarian crisis. He has reported in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir and Iraq - traveling both independently and as an embedded reporter with military forces. His photographs have appeared in publications including Time, Newsweek, Outside and National Geographic. Kuwayama is the co-founder of Lightstalkers.org, a web-based network of media, military, aid and development personnel serving more than 40,000 members. He is currently a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University. Kuwayama received a bachelor's degree from the State University of New York at Albany.


Award: $200,000
Winner: Nonny de la Peña and Tom Grasty, Stroome
Web URL: http://stroome.com
Twitter: @nonnydlp; @stroome
Location: Los Angeles
Summary: To simplify the production of news video, Stroome will create a virtual video-editing studio. There, correspondents, editors and producers will be able to upload and share content, edit and remix with friends and colleagues -- all without using expensive satellite truck technology. The site will launch as eyewitness video -- often captured by mobile phones or webcams -- is becoming a key component of news coverage, generating demand for supporting tools.

Bio: Recently named an "Innovator to Watch" by the University of Southern California's (USC) Stevens Institute for Innovation, Tom Grasty is an entrepreneurial digital and media strategist with a diverse, 15-year background across the entertainment, advertising, public relations and Internet industries. Most recently, Grasty was head of creative development at Blaze Television, where he was responsible for the company's digital media operations. Grasty has a degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a master's from USC's pioneering program in online communities.

Nonny de la Peña is a senior research fellow in immersive journalism at the University of Southern California (USC) Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. At USC, she is pushing boundaries for entrepreneurial and technologically innovative journalistic endeavors. A graduate of Harvard University, she is an award-winning documentary filmmaker with 20 years of journalism experience, including as a correspondent for Newsweek magazine and as a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Premiere magazine and others. Her films have screened on national television and at theaters in more than 50 cities around the globe, garnering praise from critics like the New York Times' A.O. Scott, who called her work "a brave and necessary act of truth-telling."


Award: $90,000
Winner: Retha Hill and Cody Shotwell, Arizona State University
Web URL: www.painteddesertmedia.com; http://codyshotwell.com
Twitter: @codyshotwell; @rethahill
Location: Phoenix
Summary: To inform and engage communities, CitySeed will be a mobile application that allows users to plant the "seed" of an idea and share it with others. For example, a person might come across a great spot for a community garden. At that moment, the person can use the CitySeed app to "geotag" the idea, which links it to an exact location. Others can look at the place-based ideas, debate and hopefully act on them. The project aims to increase the number of people informed about and engaged with their communities by breaking down community issues into bite-size settings.

Bio: Retha Hill is the director of the New Media Innovation Lab and professor of practice at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The innovative laboratory conducts research and development for the media industry. She joined the Cronkite School in fall 2007. Previously, Hill was vice president for content development for BET Interactive, where she was the executive in charge of content strategy, convergence and integration with the BET Network. She worked for The Washington Post Company in a variety of capacities, including as a reporter and a founding editor of Washingtonpost.com. Hill also is the owner of Painted Desert Media, LLC, a Phoenix-based media consulting company.

Cody Shotwell has lived in downtown Phoenix since 2008. A fresh graduate of the Masters of Mass Communication program at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the Seattle-area native keeps his fingers on the pulse of the journalism community through his day job as web coordinator at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.


PRX StoryMarket
Award: $75,000
Winner: Jake Shapiro, PRX
Web URL: www.prx.org
Twitter: @jakeshapiro
Location: Boston
Summary: Building on the software created by 2008 challenge winner Spot.us, this project will allow anyone to pitch and help pay to produce a story for a local public radio station. When the amount is raised (in small contributions), the station will hire a professional journalist to do the report. The project provides a new way for public radio stations to raise money, produce more local content and engage listeners.

Bio: Jake Shapiro is CEO of PRX, The Public Radio Exchange, an online marketplace connecting stations, producers and the public. Since its launch in 2003, PRX has been a leading innovator in public media, pioneering new digital distribution models and social media applications. In 2008, PRX received the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. Prior to joining PRX, Shapiro was associate director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, where he remains on the Fellows Advisory Board. Shapiro is also an independent musician and has recorded and performed on guitar and cello with numerous groups, most frequently with original rock band Two Ton Shoe.


Award: $74,000
Winner: Eric Gundersen, Development Seed
Web URL: www.developmentseed.org
Twitter: @ericg
Location: Washington, D.C.
Summary: To inspire residents to learn about local issues, Tilemapping will help local media create hyper-local, data-filled maps for their websites and blogs. Journalists will be able to tell more textured stories, while residents will be able to draw connections to their physical communities in new ways. The tools will be tested in Washington, D.C. Ushahidi, a 2009 Knight News Challenge winner, used a prototype after the earthquake in Haiti to create maps used to crowdsource reports on places needing aid.

Bio: Eric Gundersen is the president and co-founder of Development Seed. Over the past seven years, Gundersen has developed communications strategies and tools for some of the largest international development organizations in the world, in addition to working with U.S.-based public health and education organizations. He is especially interested in improving information flows within large organizations and visualizing information in actionable ways.

Gundersen, a 2009 winner of the Federal 100 award for his contributions to government technology, earned his master's in international development from American University in Washington, D.C., and has dual bachelor's degrees in economics and international relations. He co-founded Development Seed while researching technology access and microfinance in Peru. Before starting Development Seed, Gundersen was a journalist in Washington, D.C. writing on the environment and national security.


What do you think about the winning grantees? Which are you most excited about? What do you think is missing among the winners? Share your thoughts in the comments.

June 12 2010


Social Media and Corporates -- the#Promise Conference

A few days ago Vince Stehle from the Knight Foundation invited me to the Think Social's The #Promise conference in New York, and so i organized babysitting for my new son and came for the day. The conference was about how companies are using social media to advance their goals, and many people (mostly very attractive people, I would add too!) from NGOs, design firms, the corporate world and others turned out to hear the likes of Pepsi, Nokia, MTV, GE and others present their beautiful glossy social media campaigns. It felt like the "place to be" in New York yesterday.

For me, the highlight was MTV's A Thin Line campaign, which aims to reduce cyber harrassment amongst teenagers. This seemed a brilliant campaign because the issue is so totally unusual (at least to someone like me who has no teenage kids), which will certainly make it more fresh for the audience. They shared stats about the incredibly high correlation between cyberbullying and suicide, for instance, and about how often teenagers are forwarding naked pictures of their peers (very often.) MTV's online campaign had some very original pieces to it -- for instance, a digital, teen-made Bill of Rights where teens could work out together what their "community" considers acceptable and not. There is a portion of the site called ""over the line" ":http://www.athinline.org/overthelinewhere kids share stories of cyberharrassment and other kids vote on whether it is "over the line" or acceptable. One girl's story jumped out. She wrote on facebook about her father committing suicide, and kids from her school wrote comments on her fb page like, "if you were my daughter I'd kill myself too." How tragic, the moderator asked, was it that she had to even ask whether those comments were "over the line?" This is one of the most original online campaigns I've seen because it is not about people simply supporting an issue, but people collaborating to come up with an ethical framework in a new area of civic life -- the internet -- where such things don't exist. And that it's being done by teenagers is simply great. Well done MTV!

Moving on to other panels and speakers... I was glad that the conference addressed (at least in one of the panels) the issue of corporate whitewashing (the motivation for many companies in the world to do CSR initiatives) head on. The speaker Douglas Rushkoff presented his book Life, Inc. and made some great comments. He talked about how the core of a company's business should be doing good, so companies don't need to have separate social initiatives. it shouldn't be that a company makes things they are not proud of, and then does social investments to feel better about it. The business itself must be good for the planet.

One thing the companies all talked about a lot is transparency, and how in the internet age companies can't hide or lie or keep their employees quiet. I find it quite disingenuous when people say this, because the old rules do still apply and people will still get fired for speaking badly about their companies. The number of internet leaks or internet whistleblowers is tiny compared to the number of employees who are angry about something the public would find juicy. So I wonder how much the internet is really creating greater transparency about companies? If the live twitter feed running behind the speakers (with only positive comments for all the companies) is anything to go by, people are still concerned that they might actually have a real world reason to stay in their good books -- like a future job, for instance.

For a nonprofit media organization like this, a conference like this is both heartening and frustrating. It's heartening because one sees new ways of using online media, and new metrics of success, and so one get lots of new stories to add weight to one's own beliefs. And sometimes you see really usable ideas -- like Ed Norton (the actor's) new fundraising tool Crowdrise. But it's frustrating because a lot of it is still "old media" simply being pushed out via the internet -- really flashy funny video, written by comedians whose other jobs must be at ComedyCentral.) This is all extremely expensively produced, glossy, and beautiful. What I want to see are the successes of social media campaigns that cost next to nothing, and, ideally, could be replicated. Those are the kinds of things News Challenge winners can try to democratize.

April 02 2010


What Kinds of Experimental Ads Are Local News Sites Using?

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

April 01 2010


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

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

Community Centered Advertising

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

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

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

Perhaps Levi's provides survey questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Journalists Awash at Sea

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

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

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

Craigslist as Counter-Factual; GroupOn as Factual

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

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

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

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

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

Re-inventing our Relationship to Advertising

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

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

NYT register.jpg

Now you can stop scratching your head.

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

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

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

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

So Now What?

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

February 05 2010


Moving on After the Knight News Challenge

In 2008, the Open Media Foundation (then Deproduction) received a $380,000 Knight News Challenge award, and it was a major turning-point for our organization. We added staff, formed new partnerships, and maintained a level of growth that had us approximately double in size each year over our first five years after forming in 2004.

The Open Media Project grant is for a four-part effort that began with a re-building of the software we developed to automate an unprecedented approach to user-generated and community-powered TV. The second phase saw our team implement this re-built Drupal software and business model in six additional public access stations across the country. Third, we took the lessons learned from the beta-test implementations and released an installation profile that incorporates the contributions and lessons learned in the seven beta-test sites.

The fourth and final phase has our team focused on content-sharing among these stations, enabling us to cooperate as a true network by sharing the top-voted content from each station, and building a collection of truly engaging content unlike anything else you can find on TV. As we tackle this fourth phase, we are also facing the challenge of sustaining this project (and our team) without ongoing support from the Knight Foundation.

Earned Income

From the beginning, we anticipated that the long-term sustainability of the Open Media Foundation would be based primarily on earned income. We hoped the success of the Open Media Project would generate a strong demand from public access TV stations and other organizations looking for support in implementing a similar model. This approach enabled Denver Open Media to thrive even without the general operating support most public access TV stations enjoy from their local government or cable operators.

Our first such client arose in San Francisco after the city drastically cut operating support for public access and then selected the Bay Area Video Coalition to launch their new public access TV stations, SF Commons. We have found a great partner in BAVC. They are now poised to set a new standard for participatory, community media, and are committed to be a part of an open source movement that has each of us benefiting from the investments of the others. The earned income from this project (and others to follow) will hopefully help our team sustain its success and continue to build upon the expertise we've gained over the past five years.

Cooperation and Partnerships

No successful open source project can be carried by a single organization. The Drupal modules we've developed have been downloaded by over 100 organizations, ranging from public access TV to community colleges. Several of these partners have contributed back to the software in ways that are benefiting the entire community. But this hasn't come about easily.

Over the past decade, many public access TV stations have developed open source software, but few projects are built in a way that enables the software to be truly useful in other environments. Our initial foray into Open Media Project tools included myopic code and assumptions that made the software more difficult to leverage in than if we'd started from scratch.

Developing the code in a manner that makes it useful in diverse environments involves a sacrifice that few organizations have been willing or able to make. It requires investing resources in development that we hope will pay off in the future when partners use and contribute back to the code.

Early partners made the same mistake as us, investing hundreds of thousands of dollars into code that is practically useless in any setting other than their own. The Knight News Challenge award enabled us to take the time to better collaborate with the Drupal
community, host code sprints, attend conferences, and, ultimately, back-track and re-design a more extensible code base.

With our grant period soon coming to an end, we have a number of partners poised to take the reigns and collectively help ensure the continued growth of the project. Davis Media Access in California has devoted significant time to improving the code and is a clear success story. Their work has, among other things, extended the OMP code to integrate with a new broadcast server.

Our growing relationship with Tightrope Media Systems, and their recent commitment

to open source software
, can largely be credited to the efforts of Darrick Servis and Davis Media Access. Other successes and failures of the beta test process are equally valuable. Ongoing cooperation with Boston Neighborhood Network, Channel Austin and others will continue to yield benefits to the project.

We're most excited about our newest partner: the Bay Area Video Coalition. They bring a commitment to open source collaboration that we've not yet seen in previous partners. Everything about their SF Commons effort gives us confidence that they will set a new example for the next generation of networked, user-driven public access TV. Though their operating support is meager, they have strong, visionary leadership in Ken Ikeda and Jen Gilomen. They also stand to benefit from their close proximity to organizations like Archive.org, Creative Commons, and the Wikimedia Foundation, all of whom inspired our software and business model from the beginning.

Even if the Open Media Foundation were to shut our doors, I'm confident that organizations like BAVC would keep the project alive and growing... of course, we're working on making sure that isn't the case.

Expanding the Open Media Project

While earned income has the potential to maintain the level of activity we've enjoyed here for the past two years, our true vision of building an entirely new kind of participatory media network is going to require a significant ramp-up of the project. The Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program funding available through the stimulus plan represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do just that.

We partnered with Free Speech TV, the Alliance for Community Media, and 20 other public access TV stations across the country to apply for $2.2 million to expand the Open Media Project. The proposal addresses the many lessons learned from our Knight-funded beta test, and proposes a more self-contained and supported solution that can transform a wide range of public access TV stations into gateways for broadband adoption for disconnected communities.

Statistics show that the primary factor preventing individuals from using broadband is not a lack of infrastructure, but the perception that the Internet is not relevant to their life. Our partner stations will encourage and support these communities by conveying the relevance of broadband access from the perspective of those communities. Together with Free Speech TV, we will collect the best of this content and provide national exposure to perspectives on broadband's relevance that simply haven't been seen before.

In case our first round application doesn't receive funding, we've invested heavily in planning an application in response to the second BTOP opportunity for funding. I encourage other Knight News Challenge grant recipients (and rejectees) to read the Notice of Funds Availability and investigate if their Knight News Challenge project would be a candidate for BTOP funding.

Regardless of future grants and funding, we are optimistic about the future of the project. We've had our share of pitfalls, but that's to be expected when you're pioneering new territory. The Knight News Challenge experience has opened doors and helped our organization grow in a way that will forever alter our work. If we can sustain the project beyond our KNC award, we'll be part of an entirely new kind of non-commercial media system, serving interests and engaging communities that are left out of the commercial media conversation.

Every change begins with a new conversation.

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