Getting the Public to Pitch (and Pay for) News

Give the people a say in the news handed to them and what happens? The revival of the news business, hopes David Cohn, founder of Spot.us, a community-funded reporting organization in the Bay Area of California.

Spot.us is a non-profit that lets the public propose stories for journalists to investigate, or fund ongoing stories pitched by freelance reporters. In contrast to the six stories Cohn expected his site to fund in its first year, it has thus far published over 30.


The purpose behind the nine-month-old Spot.us is to incorporate the public in the process of journalism and, in particular, longer-form or investigative reporting. Cohn thinks that the public should "set the editorial agenda...through their dollars. You submit story ideas that you want to see, and if it gets enough votes or dollars, it'll get started."

Cohn says he trusts the public to know what the good stories are, because "just like reporters can see certain stories that the public can't, the public can see certain stories that reporters can't." Cohn maintains, however, that he does not envision Spot.us as a replacement for the existing news system, nor does he see it as a "silver bullet" to end the industry's revenue woes. But he wants to "evangelize the concept that the public will split the bill," not through paywalls, but through the public's initiation in the reporting and editing process.

But Spot.us -- and the type of media organization it engenders -- is risky for two reasons.

1. Public Abuse. Currently, Spot.us has a cap of 20 percent of one individual funding a story. Cohn explains that the reason "is so that the reporter is never beholden to an individual. [Reporters] are commissioned by a group of people and therefore responsible to a group of people." But, what's to stop a group of individuals that know each other from colluding to fund a story jointly? Say a group of people from a certain neighborhood get together to expose the mayor. Cohn thinks this is precisely the initiatives that journalism should be responding to and addressing: the concerns of a large group. However, there is a risk that a group could undermine the integrity of a story just as a sole funder could.

2. Competition. Spot.us has an open source code and could scale to a larger model. Though the code is not currently usable for other companies, it could be shortly. "NPR could do this in a week and probably blow me out of the water tomorrow," says Cohn. If the source and model are replicable, other organizations could adopt this form of journalism and leave behind content conceived solely by editors and reporters. Kickstarter, for example, is already using this type of model.

Cohn seems highly aware of dangers behind his idea and has gone to great lengths to ensure that the public does not abuse the new-found power he would grant it. He emphasizes that Spot.us is "not meant to replace the entire ecosystem of news." Ultimately the question is: If journalists are struggling to have the public read its work, could they succeed in having the public pay them to write it?

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