Creating a New Platform to Support Reporting
‘My sole and motivating mission is to figure out how reporting can thrive as we witness the death of the institutional model that traditionally supported it.’
In the midst of my work building Spot.Us, a nonprofit project to pioneer a platform for community-funded reporting, I often imagine what my career would have been like had I been born a few decades and years earlier.
At this point 40 years ago, I would be a 26-year-old midlevel reporter, finally graduated from my cub police beat. I’d still be an eager overachiever, probably trying to get that next scoop in the hope that it would earn me recognition from my editor and perhaps someday the prestige of an award. If clichés held true, I’d wear a fedora hat and call my friends “buddy” or “mack.” At night I’d probably drink too much, but every morning I’d walk into an office with dozens of other reporters running around, shuffling papers, making phone calls, all in the service of filling tomorrow’s news hole.
As luck (yes, luck) would have it, my career is blossoming in a time of uncertainty. I never had the stability of that office job, but I have had the opportunity to define my own career path. The opportunities that abound in the wild west of the Web, still an open space to be tamed, have allowed me to be my own boss. And I believe journalists 40 years from now—yes, there will be journalism then—will experience to an even greater degree circumstances similar to mine. I’m lucky to be part of this first pioneering batch of independent reporters as we figure out the tools and platforms that we need to develop to ensure journalism thrives in the future.
Striking gold in our digital age will happen for those who create platforms upon which acts of journalism can be performed. While YouTube and WordPress have blazed large trails creating such platforms, there are plenty of unexplored side trails that could lead to much larger areas where journalists could make their mark.
Right now, journalists are fleeing newsrooms—either being pushed out through buyouts or choosing to strike out in new directions—and by doing so creating a diaspora, of sorts, as they search for a new home. The question is whether a viable platform can be found to offer at least a modicum of job security so journalists can get back on track doing what they believe in—keeping the public well informed.
For me, trying to meet this goal means working on Spot.Us (www.spot.us). In the late spring of 2008, I received a $340,000 grant from the Knight News Challenge to test the idea of what I call “community-funded reporting.” To do this, I am working on building a platform that allows freelance journalists to pitch their reporting ideas directly to the public, and in doing so create tools that an individual journalist can use to shape his or her own career in reporting.
The idea for Spot.Us stems from my work in citizen journalism but can also be attributed to an “aha” moment I had while being a research assistant on the book, “Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business,” written by Jeff Howe. When I was working on background research for his chapter on crowdfunding, I learned about Web-based microphilanthropy sites, such as Kiva, DonorsChoose, and others, which have been incredibly successful in targeting contributions to specific projects in their respective fields.
In October, the 1.0 version of Spot.Us went live. In reaching that point, I spent many hours working with lawyers on the terms of service agreements; I also acted as a project manager between those involved in design and those in development. The payment gateway I constructed had to meet my hosting requirements and build an audience around the concept of community-funded reporting. Even though these tasks—along with the vast majority of the myriad of my other start-up duties—don’t come close to resembling shoe-leather reporting, I never lose the sense of myself as a journalist. The reason: My sole and motivating mission is to figure out how reporting can thrive as we witness the death of the institutional model that traditionally supported it.
Essential to understand, however, is that Spot.Us is not a news organization. Nor am I an editor. Spot.Us is a platform and, along with others who have worked with me on this project, I am its creator. What it will be is a collaborative marketplace that favors public participation in the process of producing journalism.
Until its October launch, by using just a wiki and a blog, Spot.Us managed to fund three journalists’ investigative reporting projects in the San Francisco Bay Area, the city where our initial effort is taking place. The most successful of these projects was a series of articles that fact-checked political advertising for the November San Francisco election. To support this reporting, 74 people contributed an average of $33, and the total came to $2,500—which was the target amount this reporter needed to do this work.
To build Spot.Us, we’ve used an iterative approach, taking what has worked well in each step along the way and adapting it to the next level based on feedback we receive and the exchanges we observe. In doing this, we look for the path of least resistance, test our ideas, then make the solution a stable element of our design. Our 1.0 version, for example, was informed by the wiki, which demonstrated moderate success. At first, the 1.0 site, while stable, will be bare, but in time new features will be added to suit the marketplace. This approach relies on constant growth that exists as a response to user feedback. And it is this feedback that informs and fuels our iterative process, constantly seeking the path of least resistance and stabilizing new elements. Rinse and repeat, as long as we can. If Spot.Us is never “finished,” then I’ll know it’s a complete success.
There are many obstacles in our way, and I don’t ever try to sell Spot.Us as being a silver bullet. There is no such thing. But Spot.Us should give us a way to find out whether people are willing to put a direct monetary value on what journalism provides. In some respect, our pitch to potential donors is as simple as this: “Upset that your local news organization isn’t covering an issue you’re passionate about? Donate $25 to a reporter who will!”
By tracking what happens on Spot.Us, we might find apathy among the public in their willingness to shrug off any contribution, choosing to wait for “free” reporting, the kind supported by advertisements, donated by citizen journalists, or perhaps paid for by a nonprofit organization. If Spot.Us reveals this, I will feel that we, at least, will have learned what the marketplace will—and will not—support. If this enterprise fails, then it might be possible to conclude that direct microphilanthropy is not among the feasible options for enabling journalists to keep doing their work. But it would be a great disservice to journalism to at least not try to find out whether the public is willing to support this approach.
While Spot.Us might not hold these answers, I am confident it will assist in our search for new ways to enable journalism to thrive. With the old strategy of relying on advertising and classifieds vanishing, I am relieved that most news organizations are exploring this new territory. As one avenue of exploration, I invite them to join with Spot.Us as we try to expand community-funded reporting beyond the San Francisco Bay Area into other regions of the country.
David Cohn is editor in chief at BrooWaha, a citizen journalism network, and has written for Wired, Seed, Columbia Journalism Review, and The New York Times. He served as editor of NewAssignment.Net, focused on citizen journalism and news organizations’ exploration of the social Web, and worked on organizing the first Networked Journalism Summit to bring together the best practices of collaborative journalism.