How Crowdfunding at Spot.us Has Worked — and Fallen Short

    by David Cohn
    May 12, 2009

    It has been a year since Spot.Us was officially announced
    as a project and six months since our website launched. So it is time
    to reflect back on what we have accomplished, where we have succeeded
    and failed. It is amazing what can happen in six months!

    It is far easier to look at one’s own project, their baby, and
    gleefully point out where it has surpassed expectations. Don’t worry, I
    will probably do that in this post. At the same time, however, I feel
    an obligation, perhaps with an extra critical eye, to point out where
    it can improve. This post will include the good, the bad and the ugly.


    Why? The concept of “community funded reporting,” “community supported journalism,” whatever you want to call it – is FAR larger than Spot.Us. We are building an open source CMS so others can join us easily (Join our Google Group for discussion) but as we proved before our launch – anyone can do this with just a wiki. With that in mind – it is important for Spot.Us to convey the lessons we’ve learned. Strategies trump technology any day of the week.


    I’ll break down our progress into four parts: Pre-launch,
    post-launch, maturing (the phase I think we are in right now) and the
    future. Then perhaps I’ll feel obliged to do a personal rant.

    Pre Launch

    During the pre-launch Spot.Us did a very good job of being open and public with our ideas and process of development. We uploaded our designs before they had been finished. We filmed some of the developers hard at work and we were very careful and analytical about the means by which we produced the final platform.

    Having the most hindsight here I still believe this part of the
    project was handled very well. The biggest fault was not knowing when
    to change mindsets (I’ll get into that next) and not keeping our
    blogging of the process up. Part of what makes Spot.Us interesting is
    how open we want to be about everything, from how the project is made
    to what journalism projects we are tackling. On our blog we want to
    continue to open up the process of “community funded reporting.”

    Post-launch: Setting up our weak spots.

    By the numbers Spot.Us is doing very well. It has been 24 weeks
    since our “official” launch and we have funded 23 stories in total —
    with another two or three on the way. One story a week is far better
    than I expected. I cannot thank the community of supporters enough. In
    the end — this is not “my” project. It belongs to those that want to
    get involved — reporters, editors and community members.

    Managing that growth: This has probably been the biggest
    problem for Spot.Us. With that many stories out we have had a tough
    time keeping a reign on them all. Especially while constantly trying to
    push forward with more stories, improve the platform, build out
    relationships, etc.

    The initial idea of assigning peer review editors hasn’t worked
    perfectly. Some partners have worked out splendidly and in other
    situations Spot.Us has taken a larger managerial role than I initially

    I still want Spot.Us to be a platform for other organizations, but
    increasingly with independent freelancers we are taking a more
    managerial/editorial role in the process of a pitch forming into a full
    story, which includes some editorial functions and some technical
    support with video or audio.

    From the moment a pitch is up — reporters should start working with
    or without a peer review editor. Thus things change as we go as we
    inevitably get more partners and every partner is different. Hence – collaboration is wet.

    Increasingly it comes down to playing to our strengths. With a staff
    of two we must pick and choose our battles carefully. I’m not sure we
    have always done this in the past – but we are starting to think less
    like a web platform and more like a journalistic organization all the

    Which brings us too….

    The Types of Stories: Spot.Us needs to back off of “quick
    hits.” These are the classic newspaper day one article. We have funded
    a few of these and increasingly I find they have less added value.
    I want our stories to provide new information, views, etc – not rehash
    what is already out there. It comes down to what service we are trying
    to provide to those who donate. More thoughts on that here.

    What pitches work: We have begun to see a pattern among the
    pitches that do and do not get funded (We’ve had five unsuccessful
    pitches and a sixth that was taken down for a reporter’s health issues).
    The best way I can articulate it is that stories which have a concrete
    anchor to a geographic or ethnic community do better. Stories that are
    lofty, more analysis-based or consumerist tend to flounder. In short it
    comes down to relevance and original reporting. Nothing shocking, I
    know – but it is easy to lose sight of this.

    A change in mindset: Recently I’ve had to make a conscious
    mind-shift from web-entrepreneur back to being a journalist. Obviously
    I want to grow the platform out more (we recently added PayPal)
    – but in the end it is a journalism project and reporting benefits from
    having deadlines, editorial feedback and more. I hinted at this above.
    It comes down to Spot.Us not just being a platform but a community site
    where Kara and I act as editorial managers as much as platform creators.

    The Waiting Game: There is too much waiting on Spot.Us. We
    wait to get funded, we wait to get reporting and if we sell the story
    we wait to go through another editorial/publishers cycle. I’m fine if
    investigations take a long time to complete, but we shouldn’t be silent
    during that timeframe.

    This is somewhat ironic because in past projects managing citizen
    journalists or volunteer reporters I found people to be very responsive
    and fast acting. Often in Spot.Us reporters are waiting for their
    pitches to mature (more money) and this causes a long lag time between
    initial pitches and reporting — a lag that I believe we must cut back
    on in order to better serve those who donate. I also think that if we
    treat pitches more like beat blogs, then ongoing reporting will be our best marketing. This is why we built blogs for each pitch.

    They have been underutilized by reporters thus far — but going
    forward we are looking for individuals who are motivated by the
    journalism and not the money and will get started covering a topic
    right away. Obviously our goal is to fund individuals so they can make
    a living with their reporting — but it is a give and take. A “pull
    yourself up by your bootsraps” situation.

    The Future – Potential Solutions – New Things to Try.

    The Beat Pitch: A pitch that is also a beat. I’m excited to be working again with The Public Press on a pitch that isn’t a one-off story, but a three month beat to cover the city budget in San Francisco. We’ve quietly launched it this week. Reporting will start soon. Check out the “City Budget Blues.” Even better subscribe to the blog’s RSS and you’ll get updates on our progress and perhaps some incentive to donate.

    Pitches Made by Spot.Us: We have fully funded a pitch
    that doesn’t have a reporter attached to it… yet. Now we can go out
    and find a reporter and because the money is already in the pot, our
    working relationship with this reporter will feel more traditional. The
    logisitics here are much easier for Spot.Us.

    There is also the opportunity to shop this to a traditional news
    organization who will refund the original donors in exchange for
    getting first publishing rights. If it is a news organization of high
    caliber we will let them choose the freelance reporter. And with the
    money that is refunded — I hope we can do another version of this story
    in a different location with a different news organization! Perhaps the
    story will live on for two or three generations?!?!

    More Selective in the reporters: In the beginning Spot.Us let
    anyone create pitches and we would take them down if they proved
    unresponsive or raised any red flags. While we still want to be
    inclusive (proof of it in this pitch from two high school students) we are putting reporters through a slightly more rigorous screening process.

    Wonder why: Yes – we got burned. One reporter who we
    successfully funded has gone M.I.A. We will be writing about this more
    publicly later on the Spot.Us blog.
    This happens in all industries for all kinds of reasons. I won’t dwell
    on it, as this reporter wasted enough of our time already. But I will
    learn from it that reporters need to show a history of following
    through. We owe that to the community. The story in question will most
    likely be canceled (assuming the reporter doesn’t suddenly appear with
    a great explanation) and the donations will be returned via
    credits on the site. Hopefully these credits will be re-invested into a
    similar story we already have up with a reporter I can personally vouch

    So we have a fine line to walk here. We want to be inclusive and
    will work with high school students, but those students had to prove to
    us they were serious by creating a one minute sample video. They did
    and so far they have kept to every deadline we’ve given. Expect the
    first in their two part series in the next week!

    Time to stand up straight

    Lately I’ve been saying that “Spot.Us has been crawling along.” At
    only six months we can even sit on our butt without our giant heads
    making us fall over!!!

    But I suspect we are ready to stand tall very soon. With the right
    partnerships we could be funding and reporting on some very exciting
    and serious stuff rather soon. That is what we are aiming for and I
    will not rest until we are working with those organizations. This will
    allow Spot.Us to play to its strengths and rest assured that the
    editorial is being handled in the most serious of manners.

    What to expect next?

    More pitches that are formed like beats, created by Spot.Us
    or others organizations, with reporting starting right away. This will
    be the marketing material to help garner donations.

    More in-person events. We enjoy them, we believe in “actual” social networking and we want to have a positive influence on the community.

    Expanding to new regions. This is going to happen. Perhaps very soon – and potentially with some really cool partners. More on that if things work out.

    More collaborations with really cool partners. No discussions
    were “off the record” but just in case I’d rather not name the
    organizations we are talking with. Instead I’ll just say – they would
    add a level of legitimacy and journalistic integrity that Spot.Us
    needs. I understand that I can be viewed as a “young punk kid trying
    something very cute” (thanks for the pat on the head), but that would
    be mistaking the messenger for the message. Community funded reporting
    has worked (23 times already) and if we can convince some of the more
    serious Bay Area journalism players to try it out we will figure out
    just how ambitious we can be. They will allow us to strive further and
    reach a greater audience.

    With this next wave of pitches/stories almost finished and a new
    wave coming in (they really do come in waves, either by coincidence or
    a result of our small team taking on only so much at a time) our goal
    is to be as transparent as possible with our progress (more blogging).

    More players to the team – NewMaya or Kara Andrade

    It would be an absolute tragedy not to give sincere kudos, thanks, merits, badges and more to one Kara Andrade.
    Her title is “community organizer” but in conversation I refer to her
    as my business partner. She has been a perfect match. A Yin to my
    Yang. We have a similar energy but often different views on how things
    should proceed. The best part about this – she is never afraid to call
    me out on my B.S. That is precisely what I was looking for and although
    frustrating at times (everyone likes to think their B.S. is easy to
    swallow) I can’t thank her enough. The project would not have grown in
    the last three-four months since she came on board.

    There are two organizations that have downloaded the Spot.Us code and are attempting to launch their own versions.
    I am in talks with at least two other organizations that might try the
    same thing. Taking the code isn’t as simple as clicking a few buttons
    to launch a WordPress blog – but the cost of launching a community
    funded reporting site using our code is far cheaper than building it
    yourself. As such – I’m offering any assistance I can to them or others
    that might attempt this. Hopefully we can get it down to a science in
    the future.

    Up next: We have a resident blogger who will be introducing herself shortly on the Spot.us blog – so stay tuned!!!

    Personal Rant Time

    What can one really say once they’ve launched a startup? A nonprofit
    startup at that (two strikes). It is a roller coaster ride. I continue
    to stay as motivated as ever. Although I tire of giving the elevator
    pitch for Spot.Us (which I can say without thinking now) I try to put
    things in context. This project is attempting something very new,
    completely different and to some utterly mind-blowing. Even if we never
    “stand tall” it is an honor to be working on something that others take
    notice of if only to think to themselves “I do/don’t think that will
    work.” The fact is – nobody knows (me included) and so there is a sense
    of gawking at every decision we make. I gawk myself!

    I am not 100% sure what the future holds for Spot.Us. If some of the
    changes we are going to make above will take hold. How we will manage
    the peer review process or if Spot.Us will only work with news
    organizations that de facto provide editorial support. There are just
    too many variables to predict an outcome.

    But that is what makes this fun. Every day is different. Some days
    are spent hours on the phone, hours in meetings, hours answering
    emails, or hours trying to figure out where this community is trying to
    steer itself so Kara and I can help pave a road in that direction.

    And so I leave us all with one word that means ever-so-much to me.


    (p.s. who is coming with me?)

    Tagged: crowdfunding growth review spot.us startup
    • David, A very impressive review of your endeavor. Thank you!

      This month I’ve connected some of the dots for my lab, Minciu Sodas, http://www.ms.lt, with some commercial work that we’re doing on behalf of Mornflake cereal http://www.mornflake.com and their online video competition http://www.mornflakecompetition.com Our global teams are able to engage UK online communities and help members and build bridges and acknowledge Mornflake’s support. As we do this, we’re building, in the Public Domain, a directory of UK online communities http://www.worknets.org/wiki.cg?UKOnlineCommunities and remaking our websites My Food Story http://www.myfoodstory.info and our ad network Shop With Us http://www.shopwithus.org In a sense we’re discovering funding for helpful online social networkers, much like for sports teams. Here is our proposal which was accepted http://www.worknets.org/wiki.cgi?MornflakeResearch

      Best wishes!

    • Dave,
      For what its worth, I think Spot.us is an important experiment and a real success. Besides the site being well-made, i think experiments in how we blend market-driven financial incentives with public funding are essential in figuring out a new path moving forward.

      Its clear to most of us that the advertising model has ruined commercial media. Truthfully, why SHOULD corporate media institutions feel responsible for serving the public good? They are working in a corporate system designed to maximize profits and their clear goal is selling the most eyeballs to advertisers.
      Their mission is to make money, and that business model neglects important social needs, neglects important issues, and neglects sectors of the population that are of no interest to advertisers.

      At the same time, we have to admit that the government-funded structure does not work either. From PBS to Public Access, we’ve set up government funding systems that represent ZERO incentive to innovate or respond to changing publics. These institutions stagnate once their funds are secured, and artificial barriers are constructed to prevent competition from new and innovative efforts, such as the CPB not accepting new applicants for its primary grant program since 1994.

      There are a lot of entities (including Denver Open Media) working to blend the traditional 501c3 nonprofit model with market-based revenue models that ensure a focus on public service, but also provide rewards for innovation and good business. But I think Spot.us stands out as an effective system for encouraging the public to supplement any government and foundation subsidies with their own giving in a way that isn’t a simple donation, but more of an investment in a specific social need they believe in.

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