For individuals working in the journalism industry, the “what next” conversation is reaching a feverish pitch as revenues continue to shrink. It was only 10 months ago that I launched Spot.Us, an experiment to fund journalism through crowdfunding, initially supported by the Knight Foundation.
Spot.Us is a not-for-profit organisation in San Francisco, trying to pioneer “community-funded reporting,” the act of distributing the cost of hiring a reporter across many different people. As an example, if just 17 people donate $20 each we can fund an investigation into what chemicals end up in our foods. When put in plain terms, it seems feasible. I can only imagine that there are at least 17 people reading this who wonder about the ingredients in their processed foods. If we band together — we can find out together.
But normally those 17 people would have to wait for an editor to make the choice about whether or not a story is covered. That is how .0001% of the population has controlled the news agenda; because editors were the only ones with a freelance budget. But through Spot.Us the public can have a freelance budget as well.
Spot.Us is an interesting experiment that has received attention beyond our local reach in the Bay Area. This is not because we have blown the lid of a Watergate-sized scandal (although we did recently help expose San Francisco City Supervisors skirting the law).
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Instead, I believe the reason we’ve merited attention is because it brings a new level of transparency to journalism. The entire process of a story, from start to finish, is public through Spot.Us. That is radically different to how journalism is traditionally done with emphasis on “the scoop” and hording information until the last minute. We believe scoops have the half-life of a link. We believe transparency is the new objectivity. By doing our work in public that is the standard to which we are held.
I would never claim that we’ve found an answer to solve journalism. In fact, anyone who claims to “have the answer” is lying to you and themselves. But I do believe that experiments such as Spot.Us are part of the solution. Journalism needs 1000 start-ups. Of those, 800 will fail. Another 150 or so will teeter for a few years and 50 will emerge as the digital equivalent of The New York Times.
I was happy to find out last week that an Australian Foundation emerged, which will be part of the start-up revolution. I am honored that the Foundation for Public Interest Journalism is looking to do something similar to the Spot.Us model.
Whether or not the Foundation for Public Interest Journalism uses our methods exactly, I do have a few words of advice. Something tells me, however, that these concepts and lessons I’ve learned through Spot.Us are already part of their strategy.
- Be transparent. If it is journalism for the public interest, don’t prescribe that, find out what the public is interested in.
- Be bold. Try new things. Otherwise, what’s the point?
- Be nimble. If your organisation is bold, there is a high chance of failure. It is better to fail quickly and learn from it (six weeks of effort) than to be slow and fail (six months of effort).
David Crohn is the founder of Spot.Us
Disclosure: Crikey editor Jonathan Green, bloggers Melissa Sweet and Margaret Simons are board members of the Foundation for Public Interest Journalism.