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Spot.us: the ‘crowdfunded’ journalism site

May 23rd, 2008Posted by in Journalism, Online Journalism

How to find the funds to keep your site running is the needle in the haystack for most citizen journalism start-ups.

Speaking after the closure of his own citizen journalism project, Scribblesheet, founder John Ndege wrote on Journalism.co.uk:

“Here lies a major problem for citizen journalism start-ups. It’s difficult to add value on top of news unless you have an attractive website that really connects with the wider web. However, as time passes even that is not going to save your site.”

Not wanting to be all doom and gloom, Ndege said the idea of networked journalism could forge a brighter future for citizen news with a collaboration between the amateur and the professional.

Enter: Spot.us – a community news site financed by ‘crowdfunding’.

The site, which is the brainchild of David Cohn, proposes to keep the finances on a even keel using this model.

But how will it work? The site explains:

  1. An individual or journalist creates a pitch that outlines an untold story in a local community.
  2. Members of your community vote, with their money, on what stories are most important to them.
  3. A journalist researches the facts and puts together an article. Editors provide check-and-balance on the story.
  4. Spot.us publishes the story in its news feeds and works with local media outlets to have the articles published more widely.

The site is yet to go live and the model yet to prove itself, but it was enough to convince judges at the Knight News Challenge to award the project a grant for $340,000 in its latest round of funding.

“It’s unknown whether people will be willing to put 10-25$ down for journalism. I think they will if the pitch is right. So – in the beginning I’m just going to focus on getting a few good stories funded and published,” says Cohn in an interview with Innovation in College Media (ICM).

Cohn, who will initially focus the site on the San Francisco area, hopes Spot.us will also provide a platform for freelance journalists looking for projects.

In a blog post, Rick Burnes, says building a ‘critical mass of funders’ is the main challenge facing the site and suggests that putting an upper limit on donations, as successful projects will then require wider backing from the audience and says there should be no upper limit to contributions.

“Why put limits on how much one person can contribute? By doing so, you raise the bar for success. It means you have to get a lot more active funders on the site before you start paying journalists.”

To my mind an upper limit would also prevent projects being skewed by contributors, who could potentially stand to gain from a pitch being pursued.

However, as Cohn says in his comments on Burnes’ post, Spot.us should not become a tool for ‘axe grinding’ between journalists and subjects:

“I want to make the site such that – it will be empowering for an individual who otherwise wouldn’t be able to hire a journalist – but would be a hassle for somebody who has a spare 5k to spend on a journalist. Spot.Us works better and achieves more of its mission – if the person with 5k is only able to donate $400 and to make up for it – has to send an email to 10 of his/her rich friends. It’s to ensure that there really is an interest in this story from a group of people – so journalists don’t turn into errand boys writing press releases.”

I’ll be following Spot.us’ progress, in particular to see what type of content receives funding and how many contributors get behind the project.

Will residents of the San Francisco bay area feel compelled to ‘employ’ journalists to report on local issues? To me it depends what value they place on the role of the journalist and whether they will see more value in that investigation than any which they could conduct for free by themselves.

The value I suppose will be that this is not a private detective-style of journalism, but is intended to enable those who don’t have the time or funds to pursue local things that matter to them to invest in the newsgathering process.

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