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June 16, 2010, 3:30 p.m.

Knight News Challenge: PRX’s StoryMarket will bring Spot.us-style crowdfunding to public radio

Most of the projects awarded grants in the Knight News Challenge come out on top because they offer something new: they’re innovative, they’re different, they’re unique. One of this year’s crop of winners, though, made a selling point of its similarity to a previous Knight grantee. The Public Radio Exchange‘s StoryMarket project will build on — and collaborate with — Spot.us, one of the best known Knight winners, to bring crowdfunding to public radio.

Per Knight’s official announcement of StoryMarket’s $75,000 grant:

Building on the software created by 2008 challenge winner Spot.us, this project will allow anyone to pitch and help pay to produce a story for a local public radio station. When the amount is raised (in small contributions), the station will hire a professional journalist to do the report. The project provides a new way for public radio stations to raise money, produce more local content and engage listeners.

“This has been an idea that PRX has been kicking around for a while,” says Jake Shapiro, PRX’s CEO and the leader of the StoryMarket project. And it’s one that “really takes advantage of the platform that we have in place.” Which makes the project unique…by way of similarity. As Shapiro told me of the project’s proposal: “This would be one of the first ones, as far as I know, that help anchor a collaboration with another promising Knight investment.” (Another of this year’s winners also has a history of intra-KNC collaboration: Tilemapping has worked with past winner Ushahidi.)

The PRX-Spot.us collaboration will be a core component of the StoryMarket project — in particular, Shapiro points out, “at the code level,” where much of the partnership will be focused. The PRX technology team (some ten members strong at the moment, with an additional six or so working on a contract basis) will work with the Spot.us coders to “add value to the investment made in the open-source code base to date — and increase the likelihood that it’s a worthwhile investment.”

That synergy — wheel-reinvention, in reverse — also means that StoryMarket will be insulated in ways that ground-up, from-scratch projects don’t tend to be. “There are risks in all of this,” Shapiro allows, “but some of the things that are typically risks are not ones for us.”

At the user level, in turn, PRX will adopt much of the Spot.us approach to crowdfunding to raise money for its own stories — a significant shift for the public media platform. “The way that PRX had, for the most part, been available was more as an aftermarket for existing work,” Shapiro points out, “where somebody who had stories and had created documentaries would use PRX as an additional distribution path for broadcast and digital.” StoryMarket is an attempt to make PRX an up-front and active participant in the entire production process. “The fundamental driver of it, and the outcome, was to create original, new stories that are important on a local level,” Shapiro says. Only “instead of having the chain wait until you’ve identified, developed, and produced a story, and then look for a media partner” — the Spot.us model, essentially — we’re beginning with media partners.”

The first of those partners? Louisville Public Media in Kentucky — “a very forward-looking, ambitious station in a smaller market in the South, where historically there’s been less investment in this kind of work,” Shapiro says. Not only is the station not among “the usual suspects, which are the major-market stations that we work a lot with” — and not only is there “no shortage of important stories to be told there,” from mountaintop mining to race relations in public schools — but LPM’s size means that its status as a PRX media partner will offer a challenge. In, you know, a good way. A core goal of StoryMarket, as it is with most Knight winners, is scalabilty — and with LPM’s relatively small number of producers, “it’s going to be an interesting test of how much the network effect will kick in,” Shapiro says.

Helping that effect along will be the Public Media Platform, the behemoth digital distribution network launched on Monday. The platform, a collaboration among American Public Media, NPR, PBS, Public Radio International and, yes, PRX, should amplify StoryMarket’s reach. To collaborate with PRX is to collaborate, in effect, with the entire network.

At the same time, though, StoryMarket will also be a test of local news outlets’ ability to generate financial support for individual stories in addition to their broader, brand-based fundraising efforts. With national public programming widely available, stations now “have an even deeper interest in being relevant locally,” Shapiro points out. Competition means that “they’re increasingly wanting to differentiate themselves by making sure they do good local coverage.” And StoryMarket, for its part, will mean that the public has a new way to express what “good local coverage” actually looks like.

POSTED     June 16, 2010, 3:30 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Knight News Challenge 2010
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