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    The Sweet Nectar of Experimentation

    by David Cohn
    June 19, 2008

    I’m told that the Knight News Challenge grant I received for Spot.Us was somewhat contentious.

    From what I understand – the web readers and judges loved the idea of community funded reporting and the journalists “vomited on the table.” Obviously I’m here writing this post so I can only assume that either the journalists conceded or the techies won them over. Either way – my experiment in community funded reporting will become a reality. The idea for Spot.Us is to create a non-profit that allows individuals or groups to crowdfund enough money to commission freelance journalists to write important or uncovered news stories in their community.

    Still – whenever I explain it to journalists, especially traditional journalists, I sense a wave of panic. The big concern that rushes to their heads is whether or not this will be a tool for people with an axe to grind.

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    A fair concern – one that I don’t want to brush aside. In fact, there is a logical conclusion that I usually reach with journalists who come to me and begin discussing this fear and I hope to reach the same with you, dear reader, at the end of this post.

    First, I must explain my initial reaction to it.

    1. There is no such thing as clean money.

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    There is this myth that somehow the money involved in newspapers is free and clear. But when hard-pressed, most journalists can recall horror stories of an editor or publisher who cut a story for fear that it would threaten advertising.

    Bottom line: You show me clean money, I’ll find you fairy dust.

    2. Transparency, transparency, transparency.

    Given there is no such thing as clean money the best thing an organization can do is make their money transparent. Journalism’s role isn’t to dictate the actions that need to be taken – rather our role is to inform communities so they can make better decisions.

    Even a project like ProPublica, which I think is grounded in nothing but the best of intentions, can be accused of letting money impact coverage. I’m not actually making that accusation – just asserting that it’s possible. Either way – the accusation doesn’t matter. We know where the money for ProPublica comes from. It is transparent and so we can make decisions about the content accordingly.

    That’s what it means to make money transparent. Spot.us is NOT going to strive for objectivity. Many would argue that is impossible for any journalism organization. What we will strive for is accuracy and fairness. To accomplish that while taking small donations from the public requires transparency.

    3. Limit the size of donations (and the irony of it all).

    From the beginning I’ve always wanted to limit the amount a person can donate. So if a person has a spare 3k, that’s great, they can’t actually donate all that towards one particular story. Spot.Us is about the wealth of networks and it requires a network to work. In truth, the person with 3k to spare can hire a reporter tomorrow, without spot.us. In fact, spot.Us will just slow them down.

    The irony of this response: Whenever I bring it up – all the techies get upset and all the journalists give a sigh of relief.

    Techies: “You mean you are going to limit participation? NEVER limit participation you fool!!!!”

    Journos: Oh, thank goodness you’ve come to your senses. At least you are going to limit the level of participation. Now if somebody has an axe to grind they’ll have a difficult time getting things rolling.

    I’m actually very committed to limiting the amount a person can donate. Not only does it quell some fears – but it forces spot.us to target a particular type of user: A person that wouldn’t be able to hire a reporter otherwise. That’s what Spot.us is about – empowering people.

    All the above combines such that for Spot.Us to work for somebody with an axe to grind all the following conditions would have to be met.

    1. A group or network of people will all have to agree there is an issue they want to get reporting on.
    2. A journalist would have to be willing to stake their professional reputation on reporting it.
    3. An independent editor (assigned by Spot.Us staff) would have to give it a green light.
    4. The final story would have to be published outside of Spot.us for anyone outside of the original group of funders to really get word of it – ie: A news organization would have to buy into the validity of the story as well.

    Despite explaining all the above I still inevitably get “what if” questions.

    Ahhh —- the “what if’s.” I’m pretty sure there was a Dr. Seuss children’s book about the “what if’s” and how they creep into your head at night. Truth is – I recognize there are an endless amount of “what if” scenarios related to Spot.Us. That’s EXACTLY why it needs to be tested – and tested by somebody who supports the ideals of journalism.

    4. Tasting the low-hanging fruit.

    And here is where I try to bring it home.

    It’s an experiment!!!!!!

    As I see it – community funded reporting is low-hanging fruit. The Knight News Challenge is all about doing research and development – the kind that isn’t done elsewhere in the industry.

    Now, it may turn out that this low-hanging fruit is poisonous. But aren’t you glad that somebody is at least going to give it a good honest bite to find out? More importantly – aren’t you glad it’s somebody who shares the values of the news industry? Fact is, this idea is going to be a learning process. My goal isn’t to solve the business woes of journalism. I don’t think anybody can do that. But I do intend to taste the fruit of community funded reporting and report back as clearly as possible how it tastes. Fact is, this idea is going to be tried by somebody. My fear, however, is that those who get to it first successfully don’t have journalism’s best interest in mind – but the bottom line.

    So what’s the conclusion I usually come to? Yes, people have valid concerns and I intend to keep them in mind as I progress. And indeed – people who come to me with these concerns usually come to a similar conclusion of “yes, you should continue with this project, but keep these concerns in mind.”

    And that’s where I begin.

    Current status: Hiring a developer. By this time next week, I hope to have that wrapped up.

    Tagged: community funded reporting experimentation journalism spot.us
    • That’s “Whatif” by Shel Silverstein, from A Light in the Attic:

      Last night, while I lay thinking here,
      Some Whatifs crawled inside my ear

      And pranced and partied all night long
      And sang their same old Whatif song:

      Whatif I’m dumb in school?
      Whatif they’ve closed the swimming pool?

      Whatif I get beat up?
      Whatif there’s poison in my cup?

      Whatif I start to cry?
      Whatif I get sick and die?

      Whatif I flunk that test?
      Whatif green hair grows on my chest?

      Whatif nobody likes me?
      Whatif a bolt of lightning strikes me?

      Whatif I don’t grow taller?
      Whatif my head starts getting smaller?

      Whatif the fish won’t bite?
      Whatif the wind tears up my kite?

      Whatif they start a war?
      Whatif my parents get divorced?

      Whatif the bus is late?
      Whatif my teeth don’t grow in straight?

      Whatif I tear my pants?
      Whatif I never learn to dance?

      Everything seems swell, and then
      The nighttime Whatifs strike again!

      Sorry, I thought worth quoting in full. It applies to every project here, indeed, every project ever undertaken.

      There are always real concerns but most will have to do with the state of the world, and not anyone’s particular plan to change it.

      However, now I’m really worried I’ll never learn to dance…

    • Ben!!!
      You are right – that’s exactly the poem that was struggling to surface in my brain.

      Flashback to 1988. Thanks!!!

    • Great post. These arguments similar to those that we heard (and still hear to an extent, although it’s more of a wimper now) from mainstream journalists about citizen journalism. I recall that it took a good 3-6 months after the launch of The Northwest Voice in Bakersfield for all of the internal skeptics to turn around.

      My advice: don’t worry about it, because if community funded reporting is successful in breaking new stories that otherwise would never see the light of day, mainstream journalists will be the first to see the value.

      I suspect a bigger problem will come when traditional journalists see community funded reporting as competitive, and actively try to scoop the spot.us stories before they come out. However, that’s the nature of journalism. Once they do that, they will be giving it a vote of confidence through their actions.

    • Dan
      Yes – I often get asked if I’m afraid that mainstream journalists will try and scoop spot.us. My response is usually clasping my hands and praying that they do.

      Of course – I would also be very loud about the fact that Spot.Us is setting the news agenda and remind them that it’s easier to work with me than against me.

      Amy Gahran once told me “anyone who looks like competition is really just a competitor in disguise.” I take that to heart.

      But for now…. ONWARD!!!!

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