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    Spot.Us Adds Assignments, Widgets, Story Updates in Revamp

    by David Cohn
    February 23, 2010

    Since Spot.Us first launched in late 2008 as a simple wiki, I’ve wanted this to be a learning and growing endeavor both for myself and for  journalism as a whole.

    There are so many lessons in starting a non-profit news project, especially one that is unique in its scope and mission like Spot.Us. I hope to share some insight below, but first the news.

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    Today Spot.Us takes a huge step forward with a new design and new features. This was made possible by lead designer Lauren Rabaino and the excellent development team of Erik Sundelof and Dan Newman.
    Please join me and Anh Do, managing editor of the Los Angeles branch, in thanking this team.

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    The new interface will continue to be tweaked, but it is already much more appealing and user friendly than our old design. I dare not call it “Spot.Us 2.0” just yet. There are two major new features planned before we hit that mark. This is Spot.Us 1.9.

    New Features

    Suggest a city: It’s time to start looking beyond the Bay Area and Los Angeles. That’s right — expansion is a priority. Spot.Us is a tool or platform, not a news organization. With that in mind, we are looking to expand where we know people are interested in using the site. Would you intend on using it if it was available in your area? If so, suggest your city!

    Assignments: This is a feature I am very excited about. In some respects it transitions Spot.Us out of “community funded reporting” and into “community powered reporting.” It’s a subtle but important distinction. Every reporter now has the option of creating “assignments” that are limited only by their imagination. A reporter could crowdsource a collection of photos, distribute the workload required for reviewing documents, etc. The reporter has control over who can and cannot contribute to an assignment, and how assignments exist, if at all, in relation to their pitch. This is an optional feature for anyone that wants to build a movement around their reporting efforts.

    Widgets, Facebook, Twitter, Oh My!: Yes, it’s been a long time coming. I admit we haven’t been moving fast enough in this space. But we are making up for it ASAP! We aren’t breaking ground here, but considering that we are playing in the new media space, it’s a crime that we haven’t had these features.

    More on Widgets: This is a deceptively forward-looking feature. Our hope is that soon people will be able to donate through a widget without ever having to leave the site where the widget is placed. This could also pave the way for an API (which is much further out, but is along this train of thought). For now, widgets will be built into a “Spot.Us Lite” that can be hosted on your website by just copying and pasting some code. (This is coming soon.)

    Story updates: We’ve had blog posts associated with every pitch, but the vast majority of blog posts have been overlooked. Now we are highlighting the latest story updates on the front page, and will encourage reporters to show the process of their reporting.

    RSS: We now have an RSS feed for…everything: Latest stories, newest pitches, blog posts, even the most recent contributions
    — and they can all be filtered by networks. Only interested in Los Angeles news? Go into the LA network and all the RSS feeds will be relevant to you.

    Spot.Us Channels: The first channel we’re creating is “Spot Us Picks.” But in
    the future, channels, or filtered menus of pitches, can be created around topics (the health channel) general types of organizations (the public media channel) or specific partnering organizations (The Bay Area News Project channel).

    There are also a few more minor features and tweaks. For example, we are finally able to better highlight our successful partnerships, our community advisory boards, and more.

    General Lessons, Observations

    I’ve learned more during this process than I can truly reflect on in a single blog post. But I have always seen winning the Knight News Challenge as a great privilege that has afforded me the luxury (and responsibility) to publicly expound on how Spot.Us is going, and what I’m learning along the way.

    Many of those lessons are in past blog posts around being iterative, the things you must weigh in website development and collaboration. As of right now, these are some of the best lessons I’ve been able to articulate. I hope to share more as I continue.

    How Is Spot.Us Doing?

    I never know how to answer this question. No matter how many times I say it won’t, some people still expect Spot.Us and crowdfunding to somehow replace the gobs of money that has been lost from traditional advertising.

    Here’s what I usually say: “Considering all the things that could have gone wrong, we are doing amazing!”

    And that is true.

    Now in our second year of an initial grant from the Knight Foundation, I am proud to say that with micro-donations and other foundation grants, we have almost raised a third of the amount of money given to us in that first grant. Which is to say: In another two years, we could be a net positive to the cash flow of working journalists. That, of course, assumes nothing changes.

    This design represents a shift from the proof-of-concept stage to the expansion stage. Indeed, I’m talking to (and want to talk to more) folks around the country who want to use Spot.Us in their area. My hope is we can continue to funnel more money into the pockets of journalists who are reporting on important civic topics.

    However, if people expect Spot.Us to replace major metro papers, then we are in trouble. As I often say, there is no such thing as a silver bullet. Spot.Us is a new, growing revenue stream. It is not meant to be as big of a revenue stream as classifieds were 20 years ago; but it is a revenue stream that requires little effort (just create a pitch and embed a widget), and an option that can be combined with a multitude of other streams

    We continue to be a platform — a growing platform. This year is a make or break moment. At the end of 2010, Spot.Us could be a beautiful failure in that we can report back to the larger journalism community what we know, what we learned and how we
    think others could build off that. Or we will keep going — the little startup non-profit that could ;)

    I’ve always been an underdog, a nice guy that didn’t buckle to authority. With that in mind, I have every intention of breaking through every barrier I see in front of Spot.Us. I hope you’ll join me!

    Tagged: crowdfunding knight foundation redesign rss spot.us widgets
    • Congrats! Could you talk more about the collaborative workflow functionality that’s available with the new assignments feature?

    • @Daniel – You would be interested in those ;)

      Right now it’s a pretty basic workflow.

      Reporter creates an assignment.

      Anyone can apply for it.

      Reporter can accept or reject anyone’s application (they are given contact info to chat before judgements are made I’d hope).

      If accepted: The person who is now part of the reporting team can add to the pitch’s blog. So now every pitch has a blog – and if people want – that can be a group blog.

      I have ideas for more ways this relationship could flourish – but I figured this was the basic streamline way of doing it.

      Your thoughts?

    • Dave, you’ve answered the question of how you’re doing financially and I appreciate your candor. You’ve been very straightforward since even when you came to speak to USC’s specialized journalism program in the ’08-’09 academic year.

      The problem I see, though, is that your response doesn’t deal with the much more important “how are we doing question.” How is the reporting doing? How much actual reporting are those who pitch stories to spot.us able to do? Where are those stories going?

      I’m not replicating the question that leads to your answer about whether you’re replacing major metropolitan newspapers. But, frankly, I”m far less interested in reading how much money you are or are not making and much more interested in what you, or any journalism outlet, is doing to uncover and tell important stories.

      Yes, being able to pay for that reporting is crucial and I know the Knight foundation and those who follow this blog are interested in that ability. Many people wouldn’t do important storytelling without knowing they can sustain themselves as they report — a point that makes spot.us attractive. So I’m glad to hear about your fundraising and glad to read that you are expanding the usability of the site.

      But, ultimately, what is that fundraising for? What is the usability for? We as journalists, especially journalists thinking about the future, need to discuss the storytelling we’re doing, the reporting we’ve done, the expertise we need to develop, the analysis we are capable of and the skills we need to improve all of this far more often than we discuss finances and presentation.

      I’ve said this in many forums and to many people but if we spend all our time talking about the packaging and payment of what we’re trying to “sell” (though I lament the commodification of this profession) when will we discuss the actual “product” we’re trying to deliver, however we fund or disseminate it?

    • Building off Bill’s comment:

      I think Dave is doing great work to provide a product for freelancers who want a creative way to fund their pitches. And congrats on the redesign and new features!

      But I think what Bill is hinting at is the issue of who the real “user” of spot.us is at the end of the day: Is it the struggling journalist or the reader?

      So I agree that the focus should be on whether innovative news products are providing the journalism that the audience wants and might even be willing to pay for (even if it’s simply by giving some of their attention to ads).

      I’d also be interested to know an estimate of how many people have read spot.us stories (with the garbage patch story separated out as that was obviously the biggest), along with any impact that has resulted from the journalism contained in the story.

      I think the money issue is part of it and am excited to hear things are going well. I also think it’s definitely overdue to expand spot.us to other cities, and perhaps even to other projects entirely as Kickstarter has done.

    • Bill and Burt

      As for expanding to other projects: We are going to focus on reporting/journalism. We aren’t dedicated to any medium – we’ve done audio, video, text, etc.

      As for the impact of the reporting – one thing we are also able to do better in this version is show who we’ve partnered with: http://www.spot.us/pages/examples/

      We’ve now worked with big partners (NY Times, SF Magazine, Oakland Tribune) and small partners (Public Press, Oakland Local, NewsDesk.org). Radio folks: Making Contact, KALW and Free Speech Radio.

      It’s hard to know how many people our content has touched because I don’t have access to the metrics of any of the above organizations.

      Again: Comparing us to a ProPublica or a California Watch we are doing teeny tiny stuff. Then again, California Watch could easily use Spot.Us to fundraise and then our “content” (it would really be our platform powering their content) would move forward as such.

      I think those are fair and good questions – I wish I had more concrete numbers, but the nature of what we do – I’m more interested in the number of partners, and projects funded than I am with our own internal traffic numbers.

      ROCK!

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