News Leadership 3.0

November 10, 2008

Spot Us: Re-connecting the public to local journalism

The experiment in ‘community funded reporting’ invites the public into journalistic decision-making and asks the public to underwrite stories directly.

Spot Us, which officially launches today, is a Web site where people, including journalists, propose reporting projects in the San Francisco Bay Area, and members of the public vote with their pocketbooks on which ones get done. The project is the brain child of journalist David Cohn and is funded with a grant of $340,000 from the Knight News Challenge.

The process is simple: People offer story tips and journalists propose stories, pledges of contributions to pay the reporter determine what stories get done, and the stories are distributed via the Web.  Here’s the New York Times writeup.

Example: A pitch from one reporter to explore “How safe are San Francisco Bay beaches and water a year after the Cosco Busan oil spill?” carries a price tag of $445 and it’s about 75 percent funded. Another pitch—“When The Longevity Revolution Hits Your Town.” A three-part series—is asking $330 for the reporter and has a ways to go.

I like Cohn’s idea because it:
—Tests the notion that people will pay for journalism, one story and one small contribution at a time. This approach reduces the cost of journalism to its essence—a transaction between an information-seeking collection of people and an information-finding journalist.
—Injects community priorities into a decision-making process that has been dominated (and not always to the best effect) by a professional class of journalists. In a way, the process gives journalism access to a broader group of community sources and a way to gauge which issues are most pressing. As more people in a community vote for certain stories—and perhaps reject some journalist pitches—journalism gains a window into community concerns and priorities.

Spot.Us is piloting in the San Francisco Bay area, and by definition, the experiment is local. The model might work at a national level too—I cannot count the times I have been willing to contribute a few bucks upon reading a really good New York Times investigation even though I do not want to subscribe to the newspaper. But I think the local focus promises the truest test of the ability of the model to work and to create journalism that reflects community concerns and taps a local market of freelance journalist expertise. Cohn says the project is committed to local journalism and San Francisco is just the start.

Local news organizations can be part of the effort as well. Most stories will be available for publication at no charge. A contribution of 50 percent assures first publishing rights to a story. A contribution of 100 percent assures exclusive rights.

Spot Us, like any big experiment, is bound to engender skepticism, especially from established news organizations. But Spot Us seems like a worthy partner for organizations that are now struggling to cover local issues. I hope some Bay Area news organizations will join the promising experiment.

Update: Amy Gahran addresses skepticism about community funded journalism here.


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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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