There are plenty of efforts at “citizen journalism” underway in various places, including CNN’s iReport and Vancouver-based NowPublic, but Spot.us is a little different: In this case, the citizens aren’t the ones doing the actual reporting (although they can potentially do so under Spot’s model). Instead, they’re being asked to finance the reporting, by contributing to a kind of virtual tip jar. Founder David Cohn is a tireless young journalist who has been active with several leading citizen-journalism experiments, including Jay Rosen’s NewAssignment.net and the Off The Bus election-reporting joint venture with Huffington Post. But is “crowdfunding” really a viable model for journalism?
One potential weakness of such an approach — the chance that worthwhile story ideas won’t be pursued because they might impact the site’s revenue model — shouldn’t be a big factor where Spot.us is concerned: the site is a non-profit venture that is being financed by a grant that David won from the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge. According to an interview that the Spot.us founder did with Erick Schonfeld at TechCrunch, all the stories that wind up getting reported on will be freely available, unless a media entity buys exclusive rights (which creates an interesting opportunity for newspapers to outsource their investigative reporting).
I’m not convinced that crowdfunding is going to work all that well as a way of encouraging investigative journalism. I may be overly pessimistic, but I think the vast majority of people would probably rather talk about the stories they would like to see covered than actually cough up money to make that a reality. I hope I am wrong, in part because it would be nice to see an alternative to the existing business model for news, which doesn’t seem to be working all that well. One thing is for sure: if anyone can make something like this happen, it’s David “DigiDave” Cohn.
Dave has some thoughts about his new venture here, and Ethan Zuckerman of the Harvard Berkman Center’s Global Voices project calls Spot.us one of “the very coolest ideas” funded by the Knight News Challenge, although he says he does have some concerns as well.