So – I thought I’d take a post to look at how Witt defines Representative Journalism.
It is very much in-tune with Spot Us. In fact, whenever I explain Spot
Us – I also bring up RepJ as an experiment playing in the same space.
In my mind the only real difference between RepJ and Spot Us is the
scope of what we are trying to raise money for. More on that below.
The quick and dirty definition of RepJ (and Leonard Witt may chime
in if I get it wrong): If you have a “community” (loosely defined) of
1,000 people who each donate $100 a year (that’s only $8.30 a month)
that’s enough to hire a journalist or two to provide the news and
information needs of that community for one year.
This is very similar to how I often explain Spot Us: “If you get 100
people to donate $20, that’s enough to hire an investigative journalist
to report on a topic that is important to those 100 people.”
The main difference between Spot Us and RepJ is between funding a
beat and funding an individual story. Now, obviously it’s good to think
big. And I do see advantages to funding a beat rather than a story. As
I see it the two big advantages are….
A) You can do breaking news stories.
B) Since beats are broad like “education” or “the environment” the
specific stories aren’t known yet – which means accusations that money
is influencing content are less potent (once again, I must point out my response to this innate fear from journalists).
But – as with all things there is no black and white answer. The downsides to funding a beat as I see it are…
A) Less connection to what people are funding ie: the value
proposition is watered down. Journalism is still a finished product
that is handed over and the public is less involved.
B) More susceptible to glossy coverage. Journalists will still be
chasing views – to ensure their readers are happy and they get more
Another recent example of funding a beat is from the American News Project.
Side Note: (What I love about the American NewsProject is how simple it is. Create a new page, use Chip-In
and you are off. Since Spot Us will start in San Francisco – when
people in other cities tell me they want to experiment in community
funded reporting – I point to this example and say: Pick your weapon of
choice. If I were a freelance journalist I’d use ThePoint.com or Fundable to pitch stories to the public on a daily basis. But I digress.)
So why is Spot Us focusing on funding individual stories?
The first reason is simple – now is the time for crawling. When we
have that down, let’s talk about walking, running, etc. I would love to
build Spot Us into a platform that could support journalists covering
beats for periods of time – but I want to grow into that. I think it
would be forced at this early stage.
Second: Taking notes on Kiva.org, DonorsChoose
and other micro-financing sites there are some common themes. One is
that the donor feels a connection to the person receiving the money and
the story that is being told. On Kiva.org you see pictures of the
person in the third world country and you learn about what they want to
do with the money you will lend them, etc. That personal connection is
lost when funding a beat.
Third: Funding a beat is not at all dissimilar from funding NPR, PBS
or a large organization. In an online environment you have the ability
to focus in on specific granularities – but large nonprofit news
organizations still ask for charitable donations for their brand. When
donating to NPR – you are essentially saying two things 1. I believe
journalism is an important and integral part of our democracy and 2.
NPR is a news organization I trust to cover important issues.
Those are both great things to agree to – but they are incredibly broad.
To donate to a specific story you don’t need to overtly believe in
the greater mission of journalism. You will still be taking part in
that greater mission – but that doesn’t have to be your motivating
principle. Donating to a specific story means you don’t have to trust
anyone’s broader news judgment to determine what stories should be
covered – you are deciding for yourself. Of course – you still have to
trust the individual to cover that story well – but that is another
caveat which applies to everyone.
Again: I don’t think there is a right or wrong approach. From my
point of view – the only wrong move to make is not to try anything at
all. So I point out Lenn’s Representative Journalism because I see his organization as a “brother in arms”
to the same cause as Spot Us. I just wanted to use this post to have an
open conversation with Lenn – explain my thinking and approach to
community funded reporting on a story by story approach and wish us
<em>Cross posted from the Spot Us blog.</em>