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June 29, 2009, 10:10 a.m.

Spot.Us, pioneer of crowdfunded journalism, preps for expansion

Spot.Us, the non-profit experiment in journalism funded by readers, plans to expand beyond San Francisco by the end of summer, founder David Cohn tells me in the interview above. Seattle and Los Angeles are the most likely candidates for the site’s next iteration, and in the longer term, Spot.Us is looking to the east coast as well.

I caught up with Cohn at the Knight Foundation’s conference earlier this month. He won a $340,000 grant from Knight last year to develop a local news site that relies on small donations from readers for individual projects by freelance reporters. Since November, the site has funded and published 20 stories that you can read here.

Part of the mission at Spot.Us is to test whether and how the broader notion of crowdfunding might apply to local journalism. One persistent criticism of the venture has focused on its structure: How can you raise money for a pitch before conducting sufficient reporting to know if there’s really a story there? In part to address that concern and to test new models, Spot.Us recently began experimenting with beat pitches: The first is for ongoing coverage of San Francisco’s budget crunch by reporters at The Public Press, a non-profit news site in the city.

Cohn’s blog at Spot.Us is a must-read for its consistent introspection. He is the site’s biggest critic, which is fortunate for those of us watching to see how crowdfunding might fit into the future of news. Recently, Cohn laid out a three-month plan that includes finding the right financial model for expansion.

Spot.Us operates on a lean budget: Users who donate $20 to a news pitch are asked to contribute an additional $2 to the organization, and 90 percent oblige. Cohn says that model might be enough to support infrastructure at Spot.Us as he expands to other cities but wouldn’t be able to support a full-time employee like himself to coordinate pitches, publicity, and partnerships with news organizations.

In our interview, I skipped the basics of Spot.Us and focused on what Cohn has learned since launching in the fall. One key lesson, he said, has been that volunteer editors work better than poorly paid ones. Spot.Us had reserved 10 percent of funding for each story to pay an editor, but that rarely amounted to much. “I’ve found so far that volunteer editors who sort of come in, not because of money but because they just want to be involved in journalism, have been doing much more thorough better job of the editorial workflow,” Cohn said.

A full transcript of the video is below.

David Cohn: To be the Rupert Murdoch of non-profit journalism. No, umm— [laughing]

Title card: David Cohn is the founder of Spot.Us, an experiment in journalism funded by readers.

Title:What’s your next step?

Cohn: The goal is to replicate it in another communities — Los Angeles or Seattle on the west coast, if I were to pick two cities on the west coast that might be on my hit list, or the east coast, Boston, Philly, New York, etc. I mean, we’re — on the three-month goals that we set out, one of them is to expand to a new region.

Title: How?

Cohn: We need to do a more careful analysis what’s really required from the organization. That said, by back-of-the-napkin calculations, if we are in five or six cities — again, this is total back-of-the-napkin — if we’re in five or six cities, having the same or — I like to, I have been factoring in more success, because in theory, they’ll sort of feed off of each other. So the same or a little bit more success than we’re having in San Francisco, we would be — I myself would still be a volunteer, but the organization, in terms of hosting costs, the credit-card fees that we experience, and minor sort of maintenance to the site, would be fine.

Title: What’s the most common increment in which people donate?

Cohn: Most common is $20, but that’s kind of a result of the site itself. We sort of have a suggested, you know, “donate $20” — actually, I should say $22, because in the act of donating, we ask people to give an extra $2 to the organization. So it’s 100 percent transparent what happens to your money. It’s your choice. Some people will decide not to and just give $20. Ninety percent of people give the extra $2, which goes to the organization. But all the money that’s on the pitch, that’s designated for the reporter. The $2 isn’t shown there. So it’s transparent to the individual that they give an extra $2, but it’s not transparent on the pitch how much money was raised for the organization. […]

Title: What types of pitches tend to work best?

Cohn: One, environmental stories have typically done really well. The other thing that I’ve noticed has done really well is less specific and more anecdotal, which is that pitches that have a real anchor — I mean, in truth, this isn’t rocket science, right? Pitches that are relevant, pitches that have an anchor in a geographic or ethnic community that are relevant to people’s lives do a lot better than thought pieces of like, you know, “I’m going to look into the psychological impacts of being laid off,” you know? That’s the kind of story where, in truth where you are saying is, I’m going to go talk to some experts and find the nice quotes and let you know what those quotes are and make it nice. And there is an added value in that. I’m not poo-pooing it, right? But you kind of know that story is going to look and read and feel like.

Whereas the story about, you know, again, the city budgets in San Francisco or — we’ve done another one — city budgets in Alameda or, you know, where does my trash go? I mean, where does my trash go in San Francisco? I don’t know. I don’t know what that story feels or looks like right now. So there’s a real added value. […]

We’re also doing beat pitches as well. This is, we have our first one up right now. It’s going to be covering San Francisco city hall during the budget crunch for the next three months, and if we can raise $5,000, then we’ll cover it for another three months. And we’re not saying — I mean, we’re saying the story’s about the city hall and the budget, but that is, you know, that gives you a lot of room to play with, and so the reporters are going to be sort of discovering the story as they go and doing more sort of daily journalism reporting on it. And that’s going to be what we hold up and say, you know, if we’re going to continue covering city hall, you know — help us out.

Title: What’s your favorite mistake or failure?

Cohn: Well, two come to mind. My favorite failure. Two things come to my mind. One is, with the editorial workflow, and we’re still working on this and figuring it out, really. Originally, what we were doing is taking 10 percent of the money we raised and setting that aside for an editor. But even if we raise $1,000, that’s only a $100. So what we were getting was not that much money for the editors, and therefore we were sort of getting editors that weren’t that motivated, and that didn’t work. I’ve found so far that volunteer editors who sort of come in, not because of money but because they just want to be involved in journalism, have been doing a much more thorough better job of the editorial workflow. That said, editorial workflow is still something we have to figure out, because it’s either volunteer or working with another news organization or, you know — there’s always a lot of cooks in the kitchen. We’re still figuring that out.

Second one, I sort of will mark to the “life happens” category. We’ve had two freelancers who were funded, but the stories didn’t come through. One was for health reasons. The reporter had health reasons. And the other one, though — it’s just my personal story, I was pulling out hair over it — basically went M.I.A. in a weird way. I never actually really got a full explanation from him. I know that he’s still around. I hope that everything is going well with him. But those are sort of, you know — if I were to make a drama show of Spot.Us, that would be a full episode of, like, where’s the reporters? And, again, I think that’s in the life-happens category, and the money went back to the original users, and they reinvested it in another story that they believed in, one that was very similar. So in the end it wasn’t that big of a deal, but that’s something that happens when you’re dealing with freelancers that we have to, you know, be aware of.

POSTED     June 29, 2009, 10:10 a.m.
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