Web journalist and freelance writer David Cohn asserts that the system many publications, especially newspapers, use to fund their operations is broken. The 26-year-old views his newsgathering creation, Spot Us, which he plans to expand to a dynamic Web site in October, as part of the solution.
The operational concept behind Spot Us, which Cohn is testing in stories in California, is a combination of freelance journalism and crowdsourcing. Communities will provide the impetus – and finances – for investigations that editors will check and manage, Cohn explains.
“I think it's safe to say right now that newspapers, and their business model, is falling apart,” he explains. “I don't have an attachment to... newspapers [per se], but I do have an attachment to journalism.”
Cohn adds that a goal of the project is to find how civic journalism can continue in a digital world. “The big picture here is that we need to do a lot of innovation and experimentation right now,” he says.
Cohn is well aware of concerns that Spot Us, which he says is “trying to give the public a freelance budget to hire a freelance reporter,” could lead to communities, companies, or organizations funding vigilante journalism investigations.
“There will be barriers against people with an axe to grind, and I'm going to limit how much one person can donate,” he adds. “[But,] if you have an entire neighborhood of people who are willing to throw $5 or $10 [to fund an investigation], to me, that means that a journalist should respond… That's not having an axe to grind.”
A third party using a merchant account will collect and distribute funding for the site, and its administrators will determine which stories reporters will investigate and limit the amount of money one person can give, Cohn explains. For example, some controls already in place ensure that an individual cannot donate more than 20% of one story's total funding.
“It is the public that commissions the journalists, but the journalists aren't beholden to any of them, and every article and every investigation is going to have an editor whose job it is to check the integrity of the money that is raised,” he says.
But funding for Spot Us won't come only from concerned citizens. Cohn, who has written for Wired, The New York Times, and the Columbia Journalism Review, won a $340,000 award from the Knight Foundation to advance the concept. And, the site is a project of the Palo Alto, CA-based nonprofit Center for Media Change.
Publications can use finished stories for no fee. However, a newspaper will be able to gain exclusive rights to Spot Us content by refunding the organization a percentage of the investigation's cost, which the site will then relay to donors. The group will only collect funding from any individual if the total amount to fund an investigation is raised.
Spot US has already raised all of the money required for an energy story on the effect of ethanol on California's economy, and 94% of the funding needed for a story on political advertising in San Francisco.
The experiment appealed to the Knight Foundation because of its innovative use of the Web and the challenging employment environment facing reporters, says Gary Kebbel, journalism program director for the Knight Foundation.
“We thought that this was a definite way to use the inherent abilities of the Web to further journalism,” he says. “We are all aware that the expensive people being laid off at newspapers... are experienced, cover local news and do investigative reports.”
Spot Us currently maintains a wiki, blog, and contact information page at spot.us, and will replace that with a dynamic Web site in October.