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.
is a very important project because it addresses a core local news
problem — funding — with a potentially elegant solution — a simple
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
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 think the project has great potential, but I have two questions about David’s current approach:
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.
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?
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
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.