My friend Dave Cohn (aka DigiDave) thinks he can save serious investigative journalism from its current economic and social woes -- or at least give it a new model for support and growth. Cohn's new nonprofit site Spot.Us officially launches today, with the goal of empowering ordinary readers to chip in small sums of money to cover the hard-hitting reports they want to see, in a similar spirit to the way Howard Dean and Barack Obama raised record-breaking sums and energized a movement.
It has often been reported that investigative journalism is in decline in America and across much of the world, in no small part because it is rarely very profitable. Muckraking reports can alienate advertisers, draw lawsuits (even if unfounded) and enrage special interest groups. Investigative work is time-consuming and expensive, often requiring travel, expert analysis and other fees, and there is no guarantee that the results will be something that captures public attention, or even gels into a coherent story.
Particularly when it comes to international stories, editors often find to their dismay that an increasingly distracted, fragmented, polarized public just doesn't seem to care. In fact, coverage of foreign affairs has plummeted by 70% to 80% during the past 15 to 20 years, reports the LA Times. That makes it harder to justify expensive overseas or satellite bureaus, especially when an increasing number of journalists are being kidnapped, harassed, barred access and murdered in much of the world. It's easier, and cheaper, to run another story on Brit or Angelina, some missing white girl or a sex scandal, or get some talking heads to shout at each other for an hour.
When I was asked in 2005 to write a story on the decline of serious environmental reporting for the now-defunct Clamor magazine, I was told by many in the field that shrinking ad revenues, public burnout on green, greenwashing and competing interests have taken their toll (by the way, it was Clamor I wrote for, not Glamour, no thanks to a certain book copy editor).
Now, Spot.Us hopes to bring the awesome power of the Internet to reverse this trend. The goal is to pioneer "community funded reporting," distributing the cost of collecting the news across lots of different people. "We believe that journalism is important for our local democracies and we want to support independent journalists to do important reporting," Dave Cohn told me in an email. "Spot.Us is an attempt to help [journalists] make a fair wage while working on important stories by asking their readers to chip in for specific investigations," he added.
Cohn, who is 26, received a $340,000, two-year grant from the Knight Foundation for Spot.Us. The website is clean and straightforward, and getting involved is simple. Anyone can sign up and suggest stories they want to see or questions they want answered. Journalists can then upload detailed pitches (which can include video), as well as bio and background info. The public can then easily chip in toward the estimated cost of the piece.
If a news organization funds 50% or more towards a story, then they get first publishing rights for several weeks. If the news organization waits until the community has already funded 51% of the story, then the only way to get exclusive rights is if they fund 100% of the pitch. Any story that is 100% community funded is made available for free to news organizations via a Creative Commons License.
The innovative model builds on the success of such crowdsourced efforts as Amazon's Mechanical Turk, wikis, social media sites and social news sites, something Cohn in particular has had a lot experience with, both as a top submitter and commentator.
"You can almost think of Spot.Us as a reverse Digg," Cohn told me. "On Digg you submit stories that you liked, and if it gets enough votes, then it goes to the homepage and more people see it. On Spot.Us, you submit stories that you want to see and vote with your dollars." Cohn hopes his project will help bring the fast-changing world of social news to a new level of content creation, as well as promotion, and a new level of maturity to something that has thus far often been associated by critics with goofy videos, the latest tech toys and political mudslinging.
The New York Times recently argued that models like Spot.Us may contain some risks, including that the story suggestion and payment process could get abused and manipulated by a subset of readers with an agenda. That seems like a reasonable fear, given widespread angst about voting rings, power inequality and accusations of paid gamers on Digg and other social sites. However, Spot.Us does limit the amount of support an individual can make to 20% of a story's budget. It should also be noted that the system is set up to encourage transparency by journalists, who must list their names and credentials before earning support. That alone should help build credibility and accountability, particularly when you consider that social news sites have a high degree of anonymity, with most users appearing only as avatars.
Further, with a crowdsourcing model, readers will have much more ownership over the content they paid directly for, and that should build another layer of accountability to the reporting. In addition to not wanting to disappoint bosses or media owners (such as shareholders), reporters will not want to disappoint paying readers. The distribution model also means editors will be vetting stories before they associate them with their brand, and a writer that lets them down is unlikely to receive further chances (on the flip side, writers who perform may earn additional assignments directly from traditional editors).
It's definitely a tumultuous time in journalism, and Spot.Us offers an exciting new potential for engaging readers (who are flocking away from serious reportage in alarming numbers), as well as getting important stories produced.
Help Support Coverage on Home Solar Power
For example, one current Spot.Us proposal TDG readers may be interested in supporting is "Solar Power: When will it be affordable for homeowners." A journalist with 22 years of experience, Aaron Crowe, offers to write a 1,000-word story looking into the costs of solar power and why more isn't being done in the Bay Area to increase solar power usage by homeowners. According to Cohn, all that is needed now are 30 people to donate just $25 to help make this story a reality.
I've pledged my $25. So why not get involved in this historic, groundbreaking project, and bring more environmental reporting to the people?
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