Community funded reporting

It’s the latest twist in non-profit journalism.  Spot.us is a project of the Center for Media Change based in the San Francisco area that launched a few weeks ago.  It allows the public to commission journalists to investigate what the site calls “important and perhaps overlooked stories.”

Users can offer story suggestions and freelance journalists can pitch story ideas to the site with an estimate of how much it would cost them to report it.  Once a story is approved by the editors, Spot.us solicits funding from individual donors. If enough pledges come in, the story gets covered and is made available free through a Creative Commons license to anyone who wants to publish or air it.

Spot.us also is promoting itself as a way for news organizations to save money on freelancers.  News organizations can get exclusive rights to content by paying all of the costs of a story; or they can put up 50% and get first publishing rights.

MediaShift‘s Mark Glaser points out that the idea of crowdfunding isn’t new.  “Independent bloggers and online journalists have for years been asking their audience to help support their work through small donations,” he says.  But most journalists don’t have the business savvy to pull that off.

That’s where the “hub” idea makes more sense, and a platform such as Spot.us — properly marketed — could help connect writers with potential funders, and handle financial transactions.

The New York Times says some critics (unnamed) believe the project raises troubling questions.  “For example, if a neighborhood with an agenda pays for an article, how is that different from a tobacco company backing an article about smoking?”  Spot.us says it won’t let any one funder pay more than 20% of the cost of a story, but it probably wouldn’t be that hard for a group of donors to fund a story they really want covered.  That doesn’t mean the story would support a particular point of view, of course, but funders might expect it to.  Still, Spot.us says its “fact-check editors” will ensure fair and accurate reporting.

Former USA Today reporter Jim Hopkins has a different concern.  He told MediaShift he’s worried about the possibility of being scooped if he puts his story pitches online. Should he be?

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