End of the Year Radical Transparency for Spot.Us

    by David Cohn
    December 22, 2008

    It is the end of the year and I received some questions from the TIdes Center who are doing due-diligence reports for the Knight Foundation.

    I’ve been meaning to do a public “where is Spot.Us” post for some time and since I’m answering all these related questions I thought – why not just go crazy and blog the questions and my answers. If I have to update Knight Foundation – I should update everyone, since in the end I view this as a project owned by the community of people who take interest in it (everyone who has been following our progress).

    So – here is my progress report. The only parts left out are the financial records.


    1. Please list each anticipated outcome and explain your progress in achieving it.

    • Spot.Us would begin branding itself as a pioneer in “community funded reporting.” – I am VERY happy with our progress here.
    • We would launch an open source platform upon which local Bay Area journalists could pitch the public to fund their work as independent reporters. – the site is not “finished” by any means – but it gets the job done. I am satisfied with our progress here so far – and have plans for how the platform can improve in the future.
    • The platform would be used to fund 3-6 investigations before the end of the year. – We have funded eight stories – with two more only $200 away from also being funded. Of these ten funded stories only one is below-par in terms of the type of reporting I want to fund. I believe I know why this reporting was able to sneak through and have plans to stop this from happening again

    2. Is the fundamental need for your project still as you described in your proposal?

    Yes. I would argue that it is becoming a bigger need as we see cities like Detroit cut back their daily print. I expect to see more cities cut back in the future. While online caters very well to breaking news (it is immediate, helps increase page-views, etc), it is difficult for news organizations to do long-form journalism and for independent journalists to get work doing larger investigations.


    3. Were there any major changes in the project activities and timetable? What caused them?

    So far I am happy with the progress we have made. It is always difficult to estimate when things will be ready for public consumption. I had aimed for a mid-October launch and ended up going public early November. So while the site’s launch was about three weeks later than I would have preferred, I consider anything within a month of the anticipated date to still be “on time” in terms of launching a website.

    Due to well-orchestrated marketing and exposure on the web we’ve managed to get enough traffic and interest to fund a few stories. Most of these will be published in January of 09’ around the same time this report is due.

    4. Describe any setbacks you encountered and how you addressed them.

    Starting in January of 09’ is when I expect Spot.Us to have serious challenges these will be.

    • Technical – the site will need to react to user-feedback and expand to new regions.
    • Marketing – with the initial buzz of our launch behind us – we will have to market ourselves very effectively in a grassroots fashion. We have to make the argument that journalism is a social good worthy of people’s small donations. That is an easy argument to make to journalists – difficult to make to regular netizens.

    The only setback on my mind right now is that every newspaper in the Bay isn’t using Spot.Us to fundraise for themselves (this is after all a platform anyone can use – it is NOT a news organization to be viewed as competition). I have presented to many of them – so they are aware of Spot.Us, but they are not experimenting with it at this juncture. In many ways this is not un-expected. I would have been pleasantly surprised if the SF Chron had a freelancer create a pitch on Spot.Us and embraced the platform with open arms. Still – the impatient youth in me wants to kick down their doors and show them just how simple it is to do “community funded reporting.”

    I do think the Oakland Tribune is seriously considering having a freelancer put a pitch on Spot.Us. If that does happen – it will be a great opportunity to show the other papers in the Bay Area Newsgroup (a total of 11 papers) how beneficial “community funded reporting” can be.

    5. Were there any surprises on the positive side? How did you react to those?

    Little surprises every day.

    The most apparent – there is a serious desire for Spot.Us to expand. Just about every week I get a different journalist emailing me wondering when Spot.Us will spread to another region.

    6. What other things must occur to achieve a broader impact on the students, journalists or other population you want to reach?

    • I need to build out the platform more. The current site is about 1/4th of what we’ve envisioned/designed. Considering our budget and time limitations – I’m happy with our progress, but we need to build out at least another 1/4th before I’d feel comfortable expanding to another region. I intend to try and tackle this first quarter of 09’ so that we can expand to another city (Los Angeles?) by March/April. This planning hasn’t been set in stone – but it is something I’m striving for.
    • Once the platform is built out more – I will try and find another young journalist to adopt and use the platform outside of Spot.Us’ organization – ie: They could start their own version using our code. Hey – it’s open source. I would welcome the friendly competition. That will be a blog post called “Steal This Idea and Start Your Own Business.”

    7. How are you measuring your progress? Are those measurements working? Please attach copies of any evaluation reports.

    I’m trying to measure progress in very concrete terms. As much as possible I ignore daily traffic and prefer to look at how much in donations we get per-day and how many stories we have funded.

    Through our beta period up to today (December 20th 2008) we have raised roughly:


    We started collecting money in early July – so it has been less than six months and Spot.Us is collecting, on average, $1,450 a month. In truth – our donations have increased since launching the site – so this “average” is a bit misleading. Last month for example (the month of our Launch) we raised over 5k.

    Note: If we raised another 5k we will be able to fully fund the remaining nine pitches that are already partially funded as of today December 20, 2008 – bringing our total of stories funded to 19.

    The real question of progress will be: When we launch in another city if the donations continue to increase – or if “community funded reporting” requires a community organizer – somebody at the helm, to spread word about each pitch. If that is the case – the overhead of Spot.Us will dramatically increase (we will need to hire a community organizer in every city). Even if we find that success increases with a community organizer – it is possible to expand Spot.Us to a city without one – but it requires more on the part of the journalist who will have to be their own marketer. This is a larger issue within journalism that I think is trending in this direction. More and more we hear that journalists need to create and manage their online brands.

    ……We will find out.

    **8. What is the average number of unique monthly visitors to your web site and any project-related web site? **

    I only recently got Google Analytics working (long story, don’t ask). I only have one month’s data to look at – but I received 11,000 unique visits. I can only assume that this is “average.” 11,000 unique turned into roughly $5,000. I never sold advertising – but I imagine this is a high return on investment so far. It might also be because of the initial launch.

    9. If you were publicizing the single most important outcome of your work, what headline would you write for your news release?

    Excellent question!!!

    “Marketplace for citizens, freelance journalists and news organizations created”

    Hopefully in January I could have a headline like.

    “Oakland Citizens Fund Reporter to Hold Police Department To Task.”
    Pitch: http://spot.us/pitches/35

    And every month thereafter I could have a big headline on how some community came together to to fund a reporter to do some meaningful piece of journalism that would benefit the greater community.

    10. What did you do to market the project? Was it successful? What would you do differently next time?

    Stage Two consulting helped me market the project pro-bono (because they are so rad and Jeremy Toeman is a longtime friend and advisor). I think our marketing has been successful in terms of spreading the word about Spot.us and the concept of “community funded reporting” throughout the general blogosphere/internet. I have been working very hard to make Spot.Us as open as possible and respond to as many questions, emails, phone calls as I can.

    Where we have to improve is in our marketing to specific groups ie: news organizations, freelance reporters, civic organizations. Starting in the new year we will be focusing on reaching out to civic organizations and nonprofits. Again: The hard part is making the argument to them that “journalism” is something that will benefit their communities. It is a surprisingly difficult argument to make.

    11. Please provide a census of program participants. What percentage were women and people of color? How does this participation measure up to your diversity goals and plans?

    While we are an equal opportunity employer we have not set any specific diversity goals. At the moment David Cohn is the only full time staff member. I am a scrawny white Jewish boy.

    Contractors to build the site have included: five males and two females.

    Starting in January I will be hiring two part-time community organizers. Both are minorities (one is female Latina and the other Indian).

    Reporters for Spot.Us span the gambit from White men to Asian women. Spot.Us does not exclude anyone from creating a pitch. At the same time – we can’t “hire” anyone to create a pitch – so this is really up to word of mouth. Overall I am comfortable with the diversity of people that seem engaged with Spot.Us. We have a large international audience – despite the fact that they can’t donate via PayPal (we can only accept U.S. Credit cards at the moment).

    Questions 12-16 were about my spending habits for Spot.Us – these required spreadsheets and don’t really translate well for this blog. But hey, at least you know I’m being held accountable for how the money is spent. I’ll add this: David Cohn is the least well paid person on this project. I’m not doing this for money.

    17. Did you collaborate with other organizations, particularly Knight Foundation grantees, during the course of this project? How?

    No, but I have every intention of doing so next year. I would love to work with the Mercury News (technically no longer a Knight organization) and have spoken with Chris O’Brien about this – but I also know it is a hard time to approach a large organization like that with anything new, especially during these times.

    The Maynard Institute is also based here in the Bay Area and I would love to work with them on a project. I’m sure the two of us together could fundraise for a very meaningful investigation here in the Bay.

    If I am able to expand to other regions – then the number of potential collaborations will increase ie: in Chicago I could work with Chi-Town, MinnPost in Minnesota, Voice of San Diego in SoCal, Gotham Gazzette in NY – etc.

    I do find that nonprofit news organizations are much more open to using Spot.Us than for-profit. Perhaps because the latter automatically look at online startups as competition despite my constant explanation that Spot.Us is a platform (a tool anyone can use… like YouTube) not a news organization to compete with.

    **18. Please describe your interaction with Knight Foundation staff. What was most useful and what changes would you suggest? **

    You guys kick ass. Don’t change a thing. Just keep the ass-kickery alive.

    **19. Was Knight Foundation able to facilitate contacts with experts in the field, professional peers and similar organizations? **

    The gatherings that Knight has organized have been very stimulating. At the very least it is nice to meet other people who are trying risky, new ventures.

    Also the name “Knight Foundation” commands a lot of respect. I sensed several times that I was being shown the door until I mentioned Knight Foundation and all the sudden people want to listen.

    The shame is: How many other people are being shown the door and can’t say “Knight Foundation” despite the good ideas they may have been evangelizing.

    20. What else would you like Knight Foundation trustees and staff to know about your experiences with this project?

    What an experience it has been! The world looks differently when you are in the eye of a storm.

    I earnestly am happy with my progress so far. While I am an impatient youth, I also believe strongly in taking small executable steps and iterating. I originally thought that funding four stories before the end of the year would be an accomplishment. Now it looks like we are on the brink of funding ten.

    But – as you all know, this is NOT a silver bullet and there are still LOTS of obstacles in the way.

    When people ask me if this is the “future of journalism” – I tend to respond cautious optimism.

    Which is to say: I have nothing convincing me that it ISN’T part of journalism’s future. I have only been encouraged to see how deep the rabbit hole goes. I still have a flashlight on – and I’ll try and let everyone know what I see.

    Tagged: knight foundation outreach progress report spot.us

    One response to “End of the Year Radical Transparency for Spot.Us”

    1. Awesome. Rock on!

      For “radical transparency” I was looking for what you paid for breakfast (and for what) but this was pretty good!

      You would call your post “Steal this idea and start your business”– do you see a business model with Spot.us or do you think nonprofit status and the image that as much money as possible goes to the reporters is a necessary part of making it work?

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