First Look: Spot.Us for Crowd-Funded Journalism

Tired of reading the same old news day in and day out?  Feel like you’re missing out on a great story in your neighborhood – but the newspapers just aren’t covering it?  Imagine a world in which you, an ordinary citizen, could vote (with your money) on which stories get told.  Imagine a whole new newsscape., a new non-profit service designed to collect small donations to fund journalism, aims to do just that. The site officially launches next week, but it soft launched last week and is open for business – so you can be among the first to pitch a story idea or pledge cash there to support journalism.

It’s Crowdfunding

Shortly after crowdsourcing became popular (among the geek crowd, anyway), the concept of crowdfunding began to take hold.  The idea is nothing new; similar to traditional investment, a group of people put their money into something they value, and from which they hope to benefit.

As Tom Powell writes for the web site co>innovative:

No longer focused on commercial enterprises, any enterprise in need of funds can connect the long tail of people interested in a particular topic, play, artist, film, event, political candidate, even a niche knitting and crocheting site to bring together small amounts of money to raise what is needed. Raising money from fans to record an album, for example, would have been prohibitively difficult in the past, but now a band can easily offer free downloads, take payment, show progress, and keep fans abreast of developments.

A variety of organizations use the crowdfunding model, such as (for fashion designers in need of a backer), (where users vote with their dollars for T-shirt designs), and (where up-and-coming rockstars vie for the attention – and money – of potential fans).  Innocentive, a finalist for the 2009 We Media Game Changer awards, pairs “seekers” with “solvers” to answer difficult questions of science.  Kiva pairs entrepreneurs with funders for small loans of all kinds. also bears strong similarity to The Point, a commercial platform for crowdfunding anything – and which used to test its model (here’s an example).

Crowd-funded journalism is next in line, and at the forefront of the movement is Spot.Us, founded by David Cohn, a 2004 University of California at Berkeley graduate – and journalism aficionado – who previously worked for NewsTrust, an experiment in crowd-powered trust metrics for news, and for, an experiment in open source reporting. He also was a We Media Fellow at the 2008 We Media Miami conference.  Cohn launched Spot.Us with financial support from the Knight News Challenge.

On its About page, the Spot.Us process is laid out in four short steps:

  1. A journalist or individual pitches a story.
  2. Community members vote with their money.
  3. A journalist puts the article together, Spot.Us’ fact-check editors approve it.
  4. Spot.Us publishes the story and works with local media to more widely publish the article.

In other words, the process is professional. Every article is edited thoroughly before going live, donors’ money is refunded if a pitch doesn’t receive sufficient funding, and articles can be used, under a Creative Commons license, by mainstream media outlets.

While no one can deny the ingenuity and innovation of Spot.Us, one major question remains: Is the business model sustainable?

Kiva works because it appeals to our emotions; with a tagline like “loans that change lives,” it’s easy to see the kind of difference you could make by putting up a small loan.  And CatwalkGenius and its ilk will likely prove successful within the forward-thinking fashion community.  But anyone remotely involved in journalism is aware of the war between print and online journalism outlets. While it’s clear that journalism has moved online, it’s not so clear that people will be willing to pay for it.  In fact, the greatest achievement of online journalism for many converts is that it’s free.

Still, a quick look at, which officially launches next week, offers hope that it will work.  Detailed pitches have already received significant funding (one, on the safety of San Francisco beaches, is up to $295 already).  And although several of the “tips” appear to be unfunded, a quick signup and login to the site shows that, in fact, the tips have already received donation pledges as well (tips do not publicly show funding until a journalist pitches an article).

What may just keep the site sustainable, however, is what happens to the articles after they’re funded and written.  All articles are licensed under Creative Commons and made available for free to major news outlets.  Those same outlets can obtain first rights to a piece if they fund 50% of it, thus saving money while still commissioning a great piece.

Although it’s too soon to tell if Spot.Us will be a success, it’s fair to say that the interest is out there. If Spot.Us can leverage that interest and turn it into funding for journalism, it could create a new funding channel for journalists, and reduce expenses for mass distribution of journalism through big media outlets.

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