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.
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
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
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.