Community Funded Journalism – The Spot.Us Model

I recently stumbled across the website for Spot.Us, an interesting model in news production. Spot.Us is a nonprofit project of the Center for Media Change. Its goal is to pioneer “community-funded reporting” – enabling the public to commission journalists to do investigations on important and perhaps overlooked stories.

It’s an interesting concept, but on the surface, it seems flawed on several levels – at least based on my basic understanding of media ethics. I have never met a journalist that would write a story that somebody paid for. Okay, I take that back – there are plenty of outlets that ‘secretly’ operate on the pay-to-play model, but that’s a topic for another post. It’s not common – at least not that I know of – at the mainstream media level.

Here’s how it works (based on what I could gather from the Spot.Us website). Let’s say there’s a story I think needs to be told, and the media isn’t covering it. I can pitch the story and commit funds to sponsor the production of the story. In turn, reporters can commit to doing the story. Now if the news organization buys the rights to the story, my tax-deductible donation is reimbursed. So that is an approach media organizations can use to get around the payment issue.

Overall, I love the idea without the donation model. I’d rather see a non-donation or Digg-style model for this, where the community votes up stories they’d like to see covered. Use the voice of the people to persuade journalists to produce some objective content. Stories with the most votes get the attention they deserve – which is pretty much how Digg works already.

I’ll admit, there are some interesting stories up for bids – and some that are fully funded on the site. Regardless of where you stand on the concept, it’s a very innovative idea and one I’m sure will generate its own amount of buzz. Some stories on the site right now include:

  • “The Future of Bay Area Newspapers in a Digital Age and Changing Economy” – $530 raised
  • “How is the Recession Hitting the SF Sex Industry?” – Fully Funded
  • “Tales of Two Census Tracks: San Francisco, Rich, and Poor.” – $667 raised
  • “Solar Power: When Will It Be Affordable for Homeowners?” – Fully Funded

Most of the stories seem to be focused on the San Francisco area, but I’m sure a model like this will expand beyond those boundaries as more learn about the service. Now I admit, I don’t fully understand the intricacies of their model or how it works, I really just wanted to suggest it as a model to look at for discussion. There’s no doubt that there are important stories neglected by the media – or stories that reporters simply don’t know about. The question I have is are there better ways to solve this problem? For now, Spot.Us seems to be one of the more innovative ideas out there.

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