Case Study in Collaboration: Spot.us, Public Press, and McSweeney’s

    by David Cohn
    December 8, 2009

    I spend a lot of time talking about the notion of “collaboration.” So whenever I have a good example of the value of collaboration, I try to highlight it.

    Only one month after a Spot.Us-funded project was also published in the New York Times, we have another great example of what happens when various partners come together. I like this one in particular because it includes several media entities. I’m talking about The Bay Bridge Explained pitch on Spot.Us, which has been published online by the SF Public Press and distributed in print through McSweeney’s San Francisco Panorama and the San Francisco Chronicle.

    This explanatory/investigative story relied on the editorial expertise of the SF Public Press, the imagination and vigor of McSweeney’s, the distribution power of the Chronicle, and a little help from Spot.Us to pay for the reporter’s time and expenses. Take any partner away and the project would have lost some oomph.


    This is why collaboration is powerful. It comes back to Jeff Jarvis’ insight “do what you do best and link to the rest.

    In the Analog World, Linking Equals Collaboration

    With that quote, Jarvis declared a rule for the Internet. A news organization doesn’t need to cover an entire range of topics. They can go deep on one or two and link to other organizations covering satellite topics. Aggregation is an art and doing it well keeps readers coming back for more “tasty hyperlinks.” Meanwhile, you develop a thorough beat and niche.

    This astute observation applies outside of hyperlinks. “Linking” in the analog world mans collaborating and partnering. There are things the SF Public Press does that Spot.Us doesn’t do very well. And vice versa. I like to compare our growth with that of the SF Public Press because the two organizations have kind of grown up together. We have a similar mission but we approach it very differently. What we share is a willingness to work with each other and to let each organization focus on its strengths. It has been a boon for both of us.


    The San Francisco Panorama is obviously much larger than just the Bay Bridge project story, but this 15,000-word piece, complete with sidebars and info-graphics, does act as a nice centerpiece for this one-time-only newspaper. In fact, I’d call that an understatement. To be blunt: this is damn fine reporting!

    The Story Behind the Bay Bridge Project

    Dave Eggers identified the Bay Bridge as one of the largest unreported stories in the Bay Area, and on October 12 Spot.Us, the SF Public Press and McSweeney’s put up a pitch, “The Bay Bridge Explained.” We had no idea that two weeks later, with fundraising only going “less than okay” the bridge would be shut down, the result of cables that broke while cars were on the bridge.

    I found out about the closed bridge because of a rush of contribution notifications (I get an email whenever somebody contributes to Spot.Us). The first two in a row I brushed off. I figured somebody must have tweeted their contribution and a friend followed up. Two more came in just a few minutes later. Okay, I thought to myself, this was connected to a popular Twitter user!

    Turns out, it was several. Once news spread that the Bay Bridge was shut down, I called Michael Stoll at the SF Public Press to talk about writing a note and doing a link roundup.

    I bring up this moment because it represented a very real and positive moment for Spot.Us. Funding was going okay for this pitch. Then the bridge went down and several bloggers pointed to the pitch. I think SFist drove the most traffic. Was it good timing? Certainly. The bridge required investigation before the incident, but the moment the bridge was closed, the Spot.Us pitch became a means for curious/discouraged commuters to do more than just complain — they could get involved. Even if all they donated was a single toll crossing (many individuals donated $5 or less), and the contribution was a result of frustration, I would argue that their contribution to the Spot.Us pitch was the act of an engaged citizen.

    I forget which professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government makes a distinction between being a citizen and being a consumer (and argues that today more people are consumers), but I’d argue that the people who contributed to the Bay Bridge pitch were acting as citizens.

    They were engaged. And their engagement allowed Spot.Us to help fund a fantastic piece of journalism.

    Tagged: bay bridge mcsweeney's panorama san francisco chronicle spot.us

    Comments are closed.

  • Who We Are

    MediaShift is the premier destination for insight and analysis at the intersection of media and technology. The MediaShift network includes MediaShift, EducationShift, MetricShift and Idea Lab, as well as workshops and weekend hackathons, email newsletters, a weekly podcast and a series of DigitalEd online trainings.

    About MediaShift »
    Contact us »
    Sponsor MediaShift »
    MediaShift Newsletters »

    Follow us on Social Media