Excitement, Questions About Spot.us

Of all the great Knight News Challenge winners this year, I’m most excited about Spot.us.
It’s a community funding model for local news — a non-profit
marketplace where journalists will be able to propose stories, and
communities will be able to fund them. David Cohn, the man behind the plan, is using the fantastic Kiva.org as a model for Spot.us.

This
is a very important project because it addresses a core local news
problem — funding — with a potentially elegant solution — a simple
marketplace.

So what are the challenges
for Spot.us? Probably not story proposals. There are plenty of
freelancers with great stories to tell looking for the money to tell
them.

The challenge will be building a critical
mass of funders. It’s hard to get people to pay attention to local
news, it’s going to be even harder to get them to pay for it.

I’m optimistic that David will be able to solve these problems, and in this interview on Future Tense he explains what he’s thinking.

I think the project has great potential, but I have two questions about David’s current approach:

(1)
Why focus on local? This may be a News Challenge requirement, but I
don’t see anything in the Spot.us model that makes it better suited for
local news than national, international, or non-place-based news. If
you look at the tools that are changing local journalism — Blogger,
Drupal, WordPress, Google Reader, Twitter, YouTube — most have no
specific connection to place.

Why not
setup Spot.us as a site where individuals can propose stories and
funders can fund them, without any restrictions on location? This would
open the site to millions of new potential users without reducing its
value to local users.

(2) Why put limits
on how much one person can contribute? By doing so, you raise the bar
for success. It means you have to get a lot more active funders on the
site before you start paying journalists. Also, who’s to say the model
will work best with small funders? Maybe it works best with a few big
funders. Or maybe it will work differently for different types of
stories. What is there to gain from picking one approach at the outset?

In
the radio interview I linked to above, David explains that some of
these restrictions are related to concerns about Spot.us becoming a
platform for issue advocacy. Why worry about that? Great tools like
Blogger, Drupal and Twitter are content-agnostic. They enable great
content to be published precisely because they have few restrictions on the type of
content that can be published.

A better way to control the quality of content on Spot.us is via a
robust reputation management system. If the relationships between
journalists, their stories and their benefactors is clear, who cares
what’s published?

Spot.us could help define a new era of quality, independent
journalism — but it will do so as an open marketplace, not a
highly-managed assignment desk.

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5 thoughts on “Excitement, Questions About Spot.us

  1. As for the first: I totally agree that Spot.Us could provide value as an international marketplace. In fact, that’s a reaction most people have. But for the Knight News Challenge – they are only interested in funding projects that will impact local journalism. So – local journalism it is!
    In some respects this is just as large a market. As local newspapers cut back they are increasingly unable to cover the important issues in an area – like a school district, a hospital or local business, etc.
    The good news: Spot.Us will be built open source and I intend to have an open API. So – I don’t think it’ll be hard for somebody else to make an international version on top of it. I’d welcome that.
    As for the restrictions. Right now the best thing Spot.Us has is its integrity. Whenever I describe Spot.Us to people, especially journalists, the FIRST thing they ask is how I will ensure this doesn’t become a tool that is used for people with an axe to grind. It’s very easy for company A to hire a journalist to write a story about company B.
    Truth is: Company A can do that without Spot.Us – they don’t need to use my site to organize that. In fact, it’ll be a hassle. I want that. I want to make the site such that – it will be empowering for an individual who otherwise wouldn’t be able to hire a journalist – but would be a hassle for somebody who has a spare 5k to spend on a journalist. Spot.Us works better and achieves more of its mission – if the person with 5k is only able to donate $400 and to make up for it – has to send an email to 10 of his/her rich friends. It’s to ensure that there really is an interest in this story from a group of people – so journalists don’t turn into errand boys writing press releases.
    I never like the word “restrictions” – I’m a big believe that information wants to be free and open, especially on the web. But this is certainly new territory for journalism – so, we are going in one step at a time. I certainly can imagine a future where there are several different Spot.Us type sites: some with less restrictions than others – international scopes, etc.
    I’m ready to test this method – and I’m honored to have the Knight Foundation backing me up.

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  2. I should follow all that up with saying: I LOVE constructive criticism – so by all means, bring it on. It helps me think through some of the many issues that are ahead of me.
    So thanks Rick!

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  3. David — Thanks for the answers. They make sense. Sounds like you’re doing what you have to do, given the constraints you have to work with.
    A couple notes: I think the “axe to grind” question is a classic reaction of journalists. They’re used to control over content and have concerns about letting go of the reins. This attitude doesn’t work well when you’re building a tool. It adds unnecessary complexity. This is one reason technology companies, not media companies, build most of the tools news organizations now use.
    The Knight Foundation restriction is a bummer. The News Challenge program is absolutely wonderful and very, very important. That said, it’s becoming clear that the tools to bring us into the next generation of local news won’t be exclusively local tools.
    One last thing: I hope it’s clear that I’m a huge fan of the project and want to see it succeed. I ask these questions not as criticism, but as a way of helping you think things through. Out of discussion comes truth, no?
    Good luck!

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  4. 100% agree. I am mulling over (in a good way) your last comment: “Spot.us could help define a new era of quality, independent journalism — but it will do so as an open marketplace, not a highly-managed assignment desk.”
    From what I understand – mine was the most contentious of all the grantees this year. I’m under the impression that a lot of people are waiting for the first sign that Spot.Us could be used improperly – so they could start wagging fingers. That’s something I’m very conscious of as well. I’m trying to figure out the proper balance.

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