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Thursday November 20, 2008

Crowdfunding the news

Under this concept any reader can propose a story and the editors will then choose which ones are newsworthy. Then it is up to the readers to pay for the estimated cost of reporting on those stories.

INVESTIGATIVE journalism is something that has been a hallmark of good newspapers.

And it is usually well-established, old-school media that can afford to finance such stories.

It’s not something most bloggers will be able to sustain because of the drain on time and financial resources.

The newspaper industry is in a bit of funk though.

Many newspapers in the United States, for example, are retrenching staff due to a drop in advertising.

It’s obvious that ad-based news media are not in good shape and they are the ones that provide the financing and support infrastructure for investigative reporting. Does this mean the end of investigative reporting?

Not necessarily. A new initiative called Spot Us (www.spot.us) is attempting to keep investigative journalism alive through a business model called “crowdfunding”.

Spot Us, which is run out of San Francisco, solicits from the public, both ideas for investigative stories as well as the means to pay for them.

The concept is that any reader can propose a story and the editors will then choose which ones are newsworthy.

Once they do that, they will put the ball in the readers’ court.

It is up to the readers to pay for the estimated cost of reporting on those stories.

If some stories don’t generate enough funding, they don’t get done and no one is charged for the story.

Once the story is ready, it is published on the website and offered to various news organisations for free. If a particular newspaper wants to buy exclusive rights to the story, the money will go to the journalist (Spot Us is a non-profit endeavour).

Like all good New Media projects, Spot Us has a strong social media presence and is on Twitter and Facebook and has a wiki.

“Spot Us would give a new sense of editorial power to the public,” said David Cohn, who started the site with a US$340,000, two-year grant from the Knight Foundation.

The concept of crowdfunding is not a new one although it’s relatively new for journalism.

Political campaigns in the US have been turning to this as a means to raise funds from the masses.

Crowdfunding was used by tech site Kuro5hin in 2002 when it asked its readers to help raise US$35,000 (RM126,269) to keep it afloat.

They managed to get that amount within a week. Wikipedia is also on an ongoing drive to solicit donations from users.

Jay Rosen, a noted professor of journalism who is involved with the project says that the old newspaper business model is broken and right now, nobody really knows where good newspaper stories will come from in the future.

“My own feeling is that we need to try lots of things,” he says. “Most of them won’t work. You’ll have a lot of failure. But we need to launch a lot of boats.”

This concept has drawn its fair share of criticisms and concerns though.

By allowing the audience to pay directly for articles, the site runs the risk of becoming very mercenary in nature.

It could potentially allow itself to become a tool for someone’s agenda.

New Media guru Amy Gahran highlights an important point in defence of Spot Us: Journalism has always had strings attached – often implicit but sometimes explicit.

“Great journalism has always been subsidised by people, organisations, or sectors with various agendas,” she says.

“And, more often than most journalists would care to admit, this has skewed coverage. This explains why so many newspapers have long offered meaty real estate, auto, travel, and lifestyle sections.”

Gahran adds that this is also why many news organisations take extra care when covering news that might hurt the economic interests of big advertisers.

“To navigate this morass, most news organisations have devised processes – including the advertising and editorial firewall – that address internal conflicts of interest,” she says.

Similarly, Spot Us has processes in place that can help to prevent anyone from hijacking the agenda, which is to produce good, worthwhile stories. While the topics can be suggested by the public, the selection of which topics to be put “on sale” is determined by the editors.

The readers cannot simply fund whatever they want to fund. The topics have to pass through the scrutiny of the editors.

Spot US is an innovative approach to community journalism that doesn’t really involve citizen journalism in that it’s not the readers who write the stories. The professionals still do the job but the readers do have a much bigger say in which stories get pursued.

If Spot Us works in San Francisco, this model could have potential elsewhere too. Imagine that.

Oon Yeoh welcomes topics that his readers want him to pursue. You can write him at www.oonyeoh.com.

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