David Cohn’s Spot.Us, is featured in a wonderful story in today’s New York Times. Spot.Us is fiscally sponsored by the Center for Media Change,. Inc., the non-profit I created to get ReelChanges.org off the ground. David is really quite brilliant so it is great to see him getting this attention. As you’ll see reading over the blog on his site, he has some very bold and savvy ideas about where journalism needs to go to survive. You can find today’s NYT story here and copied below:
August 24, 2008
By SARAH KERSHAW
You think your local water supply is polluted. But you’re getting the runaround from local officials, and you can’t get your local newspaper to look into your concerns. What do you do?
A group of journalists say they have an answer. You hire them to investigate and write about what they find.
The idea, which they are calling “community-funded journalism,” is now being tested in the San Francisco Bay area, where a new nonprofit, Spot Us, is using its Web site, spot.us, to solicit ideas for investigative articles and the money to pay for the reporting. But the experiment has also raised concerns of journalism being bought by the highest bidder.
The idea is that anyone can propose a story, though the editors at Spot Us ultimately choose which stories to pursue. Then the burden is put on the citizenry, which is asked to contribute money to pay upfront all of the estimated reporting costs. If the money doesn’t materialize, the idea goes unreported.
“Spot Us would give a new sense of editorial power to the public,” said David Cohn, a 26-year-old Web journalist who received a $340,000, two-year grant from the Knight Foundation to test his idea. “I’m not Bill and Melinda Gates, but I can give $10. This is the Obama model. This is the Howard Dean model.”
Those campaigns revolutionized politics by using the power of the Web to raise small sums from vast numbers of people, making average citizens feel a part of the process in a way they had not felt before. In the same way, Spot Us hopes to empower citizens to be part of a newsgathering enterprise that, polls show, many mistrust and regard as both biased and elitist.
Other enterprises have found success with this approach, which, in the Internet age, has become known as “crowdfunding.” This financing model takes its name from crowdsourcing, a method for using the public, typically via the Internet, to supply what employees and experts once did: information, research and development, T-shirt designs, stock photos, advertising spots. In crowdsourcing, the people supply the content; in crowdfunding, they supply the cash.
Charities have used crowdfunding, not necessarily under that name, for years. And one Hollywood studio, Brave New Worlds, is financing its movies by soliciting people over the Internet to pay for them before they are made.
The Spot Us experiment comes, not coincidentally, as newspapers around the country lay off reporters and editors by the hundreds and scale back their coverage to cope with a financial crisis brought about, in no small measure, by the rise of the Internet. Another experimental venture, Pro Publica, a nonprofit group led by Paul Steiger, a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, is being bankrolled by several major foundations to pursue investigative projects that it will then offer to newspapers and magazines.
Spot Us plans to post its articles on its Web site and give them to newspapers that want to publish them. If a newspaper wants exclusive rights to an article, the paper will have to pay for it.
Critics say the idea of using crowdfunding to finance journalism raises some troubling questions. For example, if a neighborhood with an agenda pays for an article, how is that different from a tobacco company backing an article about smoking? (Spot Us limits the amount any one contributor can give to no more than 20 percent of the cost of the story.)
But Jeff Howe, a contributing editor at Wired Magazine whose book “Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business” is being published this month said: “It’s not like the crowd is killing the newspaper. Lots of things are killing the newspaper. The crowd is at once a threat to newsrooms, but it’s also one of several strategies that could help save the newspapers.”
In an early test of its concept, Spot Us solicited ideas on its Web site and raised $250 for an article examining whether California can meet its ethanol demand. That might not pay the weekly phone bill for a lot of reporters. But for its newest project, Spot Us has raised nearly all of the $2,500 it says it will need to fact-check political ads in the coming local elections in San Francisco. “We need 12 more people to donate $25,” the site said on Friday.
Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University who is working with Mr. Cohn and who began his own experimental journalism site last year using the public’s collaboration in news gathering, Assignment Zero (zero.newassignment.net), has been a leading critic of the traditional model of reporting. Now, with the industry’s financial troubles, he may have a more receptive audience.
“The business model is broken,” he said. “We’re at a point now where nobody actually knows where the money is going to come from for editorial goods in the future. My own feeling is that we need to try lots of things. Most of them won’t work. You’ll have a lot of failure. But we need to launch a lot of boats.”
By the way, the Center for Media Change, Inc. finally has its own modest little website, which you can find here.