Spot.us and Fear of Change

As the traditional news business model continues to stumble, what people fear losing most is investigative and enterprise reporting — especially on the local level. This type of journalism is notoriously difficult, time-consuming, risky, and costly. It’s not something that amateurs or concerned citizens can readily handle. If we want it to continue, we need new ways to support it.

That’s what David Cohn is trying to do with Spot.us, which launched yesterday. This project, funded by the Knight News Challenge, is attempting to support local investigative journalism through crowdfunding. Poynter’s Ellyn Angellotti described this project her recent centerpiece feature. Here’s Cohn’s short explanation of how Spot.us will work:

Yes, crowdfunding is a very different approach to journalism. And the unfamiliar always seems potentially dangerous. That’s why most mainstream media articles so far about Spot.us, like this one from the New York Times, include some variation of this caution: “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?”

That’s a valid concern, but I think it must be considered in context…

1. Journalism has always had funding strings attached — often implicit, sometimes explicit. Great journalism has always been subsidized by people, organizations, or sectors with various agendas. And, more often than most journalists would care to admit, this has skewed coverage. This explains why so many newspapers have long offered meaty real estate, auto, travel, and lifestyle sections. It also explains why many news orgs take extra care (including, sometimes, outright avoidance) when covering news that might hurt the economic interests of big advertisers. To navigate this morass, most news orgs have devised processes (including the advertising/editorial firewall) that address internal conflicts of interest — not perfectly, but generally well enough.

2. Could crowdfunding actually work? We don’t know yet — hence, the experiment. And Spot.us is just one experiment; typically several experiments are required to fairly test a hypothesis. Leonard Witt analyzed the prospects of Spot.us according to Clay Shirky’s “three rules of crowdsourcing” test. (See Ch. 11 of Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody.) Witt thinks that so far, Spot.us succeeds on two of Shirky’s criteria: “Is there a plausible promise?” and “Are the tools effective?” Witt says the open question remains on the third: “Is there an acceptable bargain with the users?” I agree: This needs to be a good deal all the way around. That’s why the first few Spot.us projects should offer blatantly obvious value and impact to the Bay Area. Without great content, the model might be unfairly judged.

3. The traditional approach is broken, perhaps beyond repair. It has become glaringly obvious that ad-supported, mass-media news orgs — the key support infrastructure for most investigative and enterprise reporting — are in dire trouble. Alarming numbers of them are shedding staff and cutting costs fast, yet still remain in danger of folding entirely, sooner rather than later. While national-level investigative journalism will probably continue at the major news orgs left standing after this shakeout, local projects are very much in jeopardy. For this reason, more than any other, I think we need experiments like Spot.us. We cannot dismiss a community’s willingness to pay directly for investigative journalism without giving it a serious try.

(NOTE: I originally posted this on Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits.)

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