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Nov. 23, 2010, 10 a.m.

A handbook for community-funded journalism: Turning Spot.Us experience into lessons for others

In creating a new system to fund reporting directly by donations from a geographic or online community, Spot.Us broke some of the traditional rules of journalism — namely that reporting is funded through a combination of advertising dollars and subscriptions.

That was two years ago, and now a network of individual journalists and small news organizations are attempting to use Spot.Us as a model to find new ways to fund their work and strengthen their connections to the community. And what they need are a new set of rules.

As part of his fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, Spot.Us founder David Cohn is developing a handbook for community-funded reporting that will cover everything from how reporters can pitch stories to establishing partnerships in the community to learning whether crowdfunding is right for your project. I spoke with Cohn and Jonathan Peters, who are working together on the project. In their eyes, it’s as much an assessment of how Spot.Us methods work as it is a handbook.

“I don’t want it to evangelize Spot.Us,” Cohn told me. “I want it to evangelize the type of community-funded reporting of Spot.Us.”

Spot.Us has worked with more than 70 organizations, from MinnPost and Oakland Local to The New York Times. “In my experience so far, it’s been the journalism community that has been adopting the Spot.us model, not the journalism industry,” Cohn said.

Which is why the book will serve not only as a how-to, but also something of a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the (Community-Funded Journalism) Galaxy, pointing out what has (and hasn’t) worked for Spot.Us, introducing the new players in community journalism, new methods of generating funding and a helpful glossary of terms (the difference between micro donations, crowdfunding and crowdsourcing for instance).

What they did not want to do, Peters says, is try and create a paint-by-numbers book that applies the same method to every community. “The community-funded model relies wholly on a very local focus, not only in the reporting that sites provide, but also in the structure of the site,” Peters said, adding that what works for one site may not work for another.

Only a few months into the project (they expect to be done by the spring), Cohn and Peters have found that one of the biggest questions the handbook can answer is how to explain the way community-funded reporting — and Spot.Us — works. For their research the two are surveying reporters who have worked with Spot.Us to fund and report stories. “The most interesting thing to the two of us was the majority of reporters who talked to us could not give an elevator speech to someone who does not know what Spot.Us does,” Peters said.

Making a pitch to an editor and convincing groups of people to help pay for a story are different things — largely because reporters tend to think journalism should be supported simply because it’s journalism, Cohn said. This is where a little entrepreneurship and the art of the sale come in, teaching journalists to articulate their goal and show their work meets an identifiable need. Just as important as the pitch is knowing how much of a story to tease out when trying to get funding. Cohn said reporters need to show what an investigation could reveal instead of giving up all the information their story will hold. Why would anyone pay to fund your story if you tell them the whole thing during the pitch?

Becoming something of a salesman and being more transparent in reporting are part of a broader question the handbook will deal with: Is community-funded journalism right for you? Those considerations, along with the amount of time it takes to raise money for reporting and having regular interaction with the audience, are key to whether a reporter will be successful working in Spot.Us model, Peters said.

Just as important is being able to navigate the playing field. Peters said its important for journalists to be aware of the varying options for getting funding for the work, whether it’s Kachingle and Kickstarter or GoJournalism (for Canadians).

Cohn and Peters say they don’t expect the handbook to be the definitive resource on community-funded reporting, but they expect it can help people who are curious. (As far as the actual book part of the handbook, they expect to publish it online.) Cohn said a large part of what he does now is talk to others about how Spot.Us works and how it can be applied elsewhere. Now all of that will be in handy book form.

“The audience is — as far as we can tell — writing for reporters who want to work with people like Spot.us or GoJournalism, and don’t know what it’s like,” Peters said. “We can knock down barriers and misconceptions.”

POSTED     Nov. 23, 2010, 10 a.m.
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