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    How the Spot.Us Garbage Patch Story Got to the NY Times

    by David Cohn
    November 10, 2009

    Today in the New York Times science section you’ll find a piece written by Lindsey Hoshaw about the Pacific garbage patch and an accompanying photo slide show. This piece would not have been possible if Spot.Us and a community of over 100 people hadn’t come together to fund her trip.
    It is a great case study for Spot.Us, and arguably the best of the 40-plus
    projects we’ve undertaken in the past year. Despite its ambition,
    and the mound of publicity it generated, the story went off without a hitch. It involved almost every
    facet of how I imagined Spot.Us could work, and I’d like to walk
    through how it came about from start to finish.

    Below you will find.

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    •    How did this start?

    •    The connection with the Times.

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    •    What all this represented in a nutshell.

    •    The real test: fundraising

    •    The unfolding story: Lindsey’s live reporting

    •    Conclusion/what can be improved.

    How Did This Start?

    I first met Lindsey Hoshaw after speaking at Stanford’s journalism school
    about Spot.Us. Our first meeting was uneventful. The only impression I
    was left with was her time in Los Angeles, which gave us
    something to connect on.

    A few months later, however, Lindsey contacted me about the Pacific garbage patch. It was a story I knew of through Manuel Maqueda, who himself has undertaken recent reporting efforts around plastic in the ocean.

    Lindsey explained that she had been given a seat on the boat with
    Captain Moore, the man who first discovered the Pacific garbage patch.
    After reaching out to the science editor at the New York Times, she
    found that they were
    interested in the story. There was, however, one giant hurdle: she
    needed to pay her own way on the trip, and getting to the middle of the
    Pacific Ocean wasn’t cheap.

    The Connection with the Times

    This pitch excelled where many others have gone awry, and for that I must give praise to the Times.
    In most Spot.Us experiences, the larger a news organization, the slower
    it is to get approval to try something with Spot.Us because of our
    radically different approach. In past attempts
    with mainstream organizations, I’ve sat in countless meetings only to
    spin wheels. Those experiences are actually the inspiration for this
    blog post, “News Organizations In a Battle Against Inertia.”

    My hat is off the Times. They interfaced with Spot.Us as if they
    were a lean and mean startup. I spent half a day at the Times talking
    with various decision-makers who agreed to entertain the idea further
    if we drafted a pitch. Once the pitch was approved, all we had to do was
    make it live and let them know. I am still in awe of that process.
    It contrasts with everything I’ve experienced with other larger media
    organizations, and it’s a testament to why the Times is not just the
    paper of record but also leading the charge into the digital future.

    What All This Represented in a Nutshell

    A freelancer and a news organization wanted to work together, but they needed to grease the wheels with some money. This is not
    uncommon. News organizations have a shrinking staff and budget. They
    must rely more on freelancers, but also don’t want to burn through the
    entire freelance budget on a single story. This is one reason why we
    are seeing less original long-form reporting. Spot.Us acted as the
    grease. I hope we can continue to grease the wheels between freelancers
    and the public and with other news organizations.

    The Real Test: Fundraising

    At the time, this pitch had the most ambitious fundraising goal Spot.Us had ever undertaken. I am happy to say that a new project with McSweeney’s and the Public Press may surpass it. Fundraising is never easy, but a few things favored this pitch.

    1. Lindsey is an ideal Spot.Us reporter. She is passionate and
    unafraid to show it. Her desire to report on this topic pours out of
    her in the Spot.Us video pitch. I only wish every Spot.Us reporter
    could show their interest in a story like her. Perhaps, in the future,
    the “video pitch” will be required for a Spot.Us pitch. Furthermore,
    Lindsey was unafraid to reach out to her network of friends, family and
    social networking sites to ask for support.

    2. The Times followed up our initial efforts with a story of their own, “Many Checkbooks One Newspaper.”
    The piece by Clark Hoyt examined the growing role of public support in
    journalism and highlighted Lindsey’s pitch. I would never speak on
    behalf of the Times, but I like to think this was their way of
    putting out a test: “if we ask, will you give?” The answer was a big
    “yes” from a variety of folks for a multitude of reasons. Some donated
    in support of the Times. Others did because they knew of, and want to
    know more about, the garbage patch. Perhaps others donated just because of how
    fresh Spot.Us seemed; and perhaps others did so because they connected
    with Lindsey as an individual

    Regardless, we raised $6,000 on Spot.Us before I could even go in and
    change the fundraising goal to $10,000 (the amount Lindsey truly needed). We used Facebook Causes to get the remainder.

    The Unfolding Story

    Once funding was secured, Lindsey didn’t rest. She blogged regularly throughout her experience
    – including using a satellite phone to get online while on the boat.
    She saved her best photos for the Times upon her return, but she did
    not ignore the interest of people that supported her trip. She kept
    them involved and engaged. The best wrap-up of her posts from the ship can be found here.

    The best pitches on Spot.Us are those that treat their subject as an unfolding story. KALW’s “Crime Courts and Communities“ pitch is another great example of this “beat blogging” approach.

    Conclusion/What Can be Improved

    Spot.Us needs a new design. There, I said it! (We’ve gotten started).

    We need to express our mission clearer, and improve functionality/features of the site (new designs coming soon).
    We are far from perfect. This is not a post to simply pat us on the
    back and claim/whine, “if only more reporters were as open as Lindsey,
    or more news organizations as willing as the Times  Spot.Us would be
    the best thing since the Walter Lippmann.” That sentiment would not
    only be naive — it would shift the burden of improvement from Spot.Us to
    the culture of journalism.

    Spot.Us does represent a fundamental shift from traditional
    journalism culture. While that is a hurdle for us, it is
    something we must overcome by highlighting exemplary projects like
    this, and figuring out how they can be repeated. With that in mind,
    this
    case study would be incomplete without the following section.

    We Need

    1.    Other ways to support reporting. There are other ways to
    support reporters beyond whipping out a wallet. Distributed reporting
    can be huge, and Spot.Us should dabble in this. Perhaps we will shift
    from “community funded reporting” to “community powered reporting” or
    “community supported reporting.”

    2.    Facebook, Twitter and more. The Times article would not have had a big impact without Twitter.

    3. A clearer way to articulate what is going on with every pitch to any visitor that comes to our site.

    4. Your ideas!

    Finally

    A big thank you from Lindsey:

    Tagged: crowdfunding new york times pacific garbage patch spot.us
    • Several days ago I responded to David Cohn’s request for ideas / input on his blog @ blog.spot.us.

      Unfortunately, my reply has not yet appeared.

      In my reply, I linked to articles I have written that were relevant to the questions Mr. Cohn asked about and for which he was soliciting responses.

      Since blogging software is sometimes set to automatically censor replies with 2 or more links in them, my guess is that that my reply was caught by this automatic filtering mechanism.

      I feel it would negatively impact my opinion of the spot.us project, if my reply were to continue to be stay in the censored state for a prolonged period of time. While I can understand that a blogger might need several hours to review a recponse, mine was quite succinct and I do not understand why after several days it has STILL not appeared on the blog.

      Here’s to hoping that the problem will be resolved soon!

      :) nmw

    • @Norbert

      As most will tell you – I am a big believer in transparency and always welcome constructive criticism.

      I will go check to see if your comment was overlooked. If it isn’t up: Please know that it isn’t censorship, merely oversight.

      Feel free to re-submit or email me the details.

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