Thursday, May 6, 2010


Spot.Us - Community Funded Reporting Intro from Digidave on Vimeo.

First off, a definitive answer to the question posted in the title: No, journalism is not doomed. I hope there will always be people who will risk going broke, getting injured, or just wasting their time pursuing important stories they feel the public must hear. Whether newspapers are doomed is another topic. 

Recently I posted about the one-shot "San Francisco Panorama," an experiment in the potential of newspapers. With so much free content on the web, newspapers are going broke, and so there are fewer news outlets that can afford to pay for the investigative reporting we need to maintain a robust, informed democracy. "Panorama" was issued on the theory that newspapers can still do stuff that websites can't, and induce people to buy newspapers which will then keep great reporting alive. Or that's the idea, as I understand it. 

Well, another San Francisco-based organization, this one called Spot.Us, is experimenting with the financial incentives of journalism. As the short Spot.Us video above says, the site "crowd-funds" stories that need to be told. Citizens can give tips on stories, reporters can pitch stories that site visitors can donate to, and news publishers can sponsor a story pitch to the tune of 50% and get first publishing rights. This way, reporters and donors big and small can collaborate to get coverage for stories that big newspapers might ignore, or that small papers don't have the resources to cover. Not bad, huh?

The cynic on my shoulder crows that the web hasn't really changed journalism that much. No doubt, the internet has enabled an explosion of citizen journalism and self-publishing. Sure, there are engrossing new forms to convey information, such as interactive maps or other charts. And yes, through such sites as Spot.Us, people can more easily support stories they want to see covered. But has the balance of power really changed much overall? Moneyed interests still control the flow of information, censorship still clouds many parts of the world, and entertainment still wins out over hard news much of the time. Just because an investigative report about a particular injustice gets funded by citizens and covered by a grassroots journalist -- it doesn't mean that proportionately more people are going to read that story or do anything about it than they would have before the internet era.

But then the angel on my other shoulder replies, okay, maybe this new platform for citizen journalism hasn't changed the balance of power one jot. But that doesn't make it any less vital. What's the alternative -- giving up? Ignoring these stories altogether? Certainly that's not an option. Projects like Spot.Us may not turn the world upside-down, but they might at least help right some wrongs. They may not always win, but the fight must go on.

(I was turned on to this site by my old friend Christopher Cook -- we were editors on our high school newspaper together, and he's a seasoned reporter now. His story is about a trial that pitted the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) against one of its locals, and has implications for labor unions throughout California. Read the completed story here.)

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