Representative Journalism: Funding Beats or Stories

    by David Cohn
    June 26, 2008

    I’m on the “board of advisers” for Representative Journalism and Leonard Witt, who coined the phrase, is also on the board of advisers for Spot Us.

    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
    both luck.


    <em>Cross posted from the Spot Us blog.</em>

    Tagged: funding len witt representative journalism spot.us
    • I like where this is headed, but isn’t the logical conclusion to this train of thought that absolutely anyone could pursue a story, whether or not they were community financed? After all, why should anyone have more access to a source just because they are paid to pursue a story? I know there is a question of credibility, but isn’t that the “democratizing” promise of the Internet and blogging? That I could have as much or more credibility as the Times, if I’ve proved that my facts are checked as much or more than them? What’s the incentive for community members to pay for that, if, perhaps, the real incentive is just to improve their own living conditions?

    • Key point, that people don’t have to believe in “journalism” to contribute to it’s practice through spot.us.

      This will bring many more people to get involved, which will make the funding of individual stories more independent of pressure from concentrated interests than beat-covering institutions.

      This is why, even for those of us who do believe in journalism, intensely, spot.us will offer a huge advantage over the fund-some-big-organization-you-trust model. Namely, it gets around the problem of their not necessarily being any big organizations we trust.

      NPR and PBS are funded by government, foundations, corporations and Listeners/Viewers Like Us. They succeed very well in giving us information and entertainment that don’t make us feel like our intelligence is being insulted and assaulted. Yet the coverage and content seems calibrated to not change the world.

      Maybe our junior status as funders of some of the general operating costs, while the big, wealthy donors pick and choose which programs they will support, has something to do with that. Maybe spot.us will help show if this is so.

      I’ll let the late, great, Utah Phillips (who urged support of community radio while featured on public radio’s Prarie Home Companion) have the last word on the problems of public broadcasting with his Talking NPR Blues (lyrics and MP3 at link).


    • Argh it would be nice to be able to edit comments.

      it’s => its
      their => there

      Is there an editor in the house?

      Crossposted to my site with typos corrected.

      @Mike N: I don’t think Spot.Us is out to play the role of legitimizer one way or another. David, would you want people going around getting media credentials and introducing themselves as “Spot.us reporters” ?

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