Spot.Us: Show Me the Money

Most of us have heard of crowd-sourcing in the news: stories developed through user-generated content, aided by social networks. If journalists can tap into the wisdom of the crowds, can we also tap into their wallets?

Crowd-funding is making a spash in media circles, and some in public radio are giving it a try, with mixed success. Crowd-funding turns the traditional public radio funding model around. instead of waiting for on-air beg-a-thons to invite listener support, the crowd-funding model puts the story pitch out to the public and invites up-front investment to enable the reporting to happen. 

Spot.Us is leading the way in this new media economic experiment. Spot.Us was developed by whiz-kid entrepreneurial journalist David Cohn, made possible with a $340K grant through the highly competitive Knight News Challenge. In a climate where journalism is struggling to survive, Cohn had faith that the public would be willing to directly support investigations that improved their communities. All you had to do was ask. Micropayments could add up to fully-funded reporting. And, if you’re concerned about conflict of interest, as all journalists should be, well, contributions are fully transparent. Cohn calls this “community-powered reporting.”

Spot.Us – Community Funded Reporting Intro from Digidave on Vimeo.

Left Coast Right Idea

Spot.Us is primarily a West Coast operation, with projects going in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, and a new foray into Seattle. But stories really could be pitched from anywhere and the model is likely to spread far and wide. It even recently launched in Italy

In the public radio world, Spot.Us has partnered with KALW, Free Speech Radio News (FSRN), Making Contact, and KPFA.

KALW News used Spot.Us to raise matching funds for its Crime, Courts and Communities beat. Here’s an example of the pitch successfully used to raise $2000.

KALW: Crime Courts and Communities from spotus on Vimeo.

Holly Kernan, News Director at KALW says, “We’ve had terrific experiences with Spot.Us and hope to use it more in the future. So far, we’ve mostly been experimenting with how best to use it. We promote it on air, but not too much, we send folks to the link on our site.”

Spot.Us offers media organizations a widget they can post on their websites to draw attention and click-throughs for donations.

Another KALW + Spot.Us success story was a two-part series on homelessness in California by Thea Chroman. “Return of the Hooverville: Car and Tent Cities on the Rise in San Francisco” was also produced for Roxbury News. Check out her powerful audio slideshow.


If You Build It, Will They Come?

Freelance reporter Erica Gies is currently working on a story for Spot.Us about waste from the Solar Energy industry.  So far, she’s raised $230 of the total $900 she’s asking for.

Gies, who also works with Spot.Us partner SF Public Press says she’s been busy with other deadlines and hasn’t blogged the story to death yet in order to inspire contributions.

Gies says Spot.Us is a sign of hope for independent media, “As we all know, journalism is undergoing a tectonic shift right now. It’s a scary time with strapped budgets and few assignments, but it’s also exciting because there is a lot of entrepreneurial energy and creativity, and the future of news will likely arise from this experimentation…I hope can remind readers of both the public service that journalism offers and that that service costs money and is worth paying for.”

In Los Angeles, freelance audio and video journalist Patrick Burke was able to raise $500 for his reporting on American Apparel’s firing of 1800 immigrant workers in Los Angeles. 

Burke says, “Making Contact supplied $250, and with quick descriptions of the project and my credentials, plus two video teasers of my best interviews, I soon had several small contributions that provided the other half. David [Cohn] also worked with me on trying to place the video piece when the project was done. In the end, everyone was happy, except the former American Apparel workers.”

Icing American Apparel from Patrick Burke on Vimeo.

Eric Klein is a reporter for KPFA News. His pitch to report about Google Book Search and reader privacy netted $210 for a 10-minute story. He had hoped to raise $400, but decided to go ahead to produce the story anyway. It took him a week’s work to crank out the piece.

Still, Klein says it was a worthwhile experience. He offers this advice, “A reporter needs to be their own organizer and advocate to generate interest and financial support for their own work. It was not one of my strong suits. I plan to pitch a hyperlocal story next time, and then reach out to a group of people I have connections with in my community to help get it fully funded.”

Spot.Us isn’t the only option out there for freelancers and independents seeking to get work, assignments, distribution and money.  Here are a few others to consider, all which have different models and missions. 

Spot.Us is decidedly committed to community-powered, nonprofit journalism in the public interest. Spot.Us has an open-the-gates, open-source vibe, inviting the public into the process, demystifying and democratizing journalism along the way. Plus, it also allows the public to track stories as they develop and contribute non-monetary support, such as expertise and ideas.

According to Spot.Us founder David Cohn, PRX may use Spot.Us as a model to launch a similar service for crowd-funding radio projects. What do you think of crowd-funding? Do you plan on giving it a go?