Do you want to be interviewed? Got a project you are working on? Send me a note and your skype name.
Bill Mitchell from Poynter
Major hat tip to Steve Yelvington who inspired this post.
I absolutely love this image from Steve on the three primary roles your local website should play.
I think his subsequent blog post hits it right on the head.
The only thing I’d add are some thoughts on this notion of “town crier.” I believe Steve is right when he describes it as: “the quaint colonial-era village character who walks around ringing a bell telling you what’s happening.”
But it can be so much more than that.
Having recently come across “The History of News” by Mitchell Stephens I learned a bit more about the “town criers” of old. Funny enough – I think the future of news is going to be a throwback to how journalism and news traveled in the past (except…. on the internet).
The town criers of old were independent and commissioned by the public. Think about it – there was no means of doing advertising back then – at least not as we know it. If you were a “town crier” that was actually your job – and you had to get paid for it. Often your time was spent going from village to village sharing the latest news.
If we go back further – the European tradition of town criers seems eerily similar to today’s blog networks. Coffee shops and taverns across England, France and Ireland played host to the locals who would come to discuss local news and politics. There was no television – so after dinner this was the only way to stimulate your brain.
Town criers would go from coffee house to coffee house giving reports (often in song as “minstrels”) and then ask the listeners for money to compensate them along their travels.
So as to appeal the local residents coffeehouse owners would establish good relationships with the traveling minstrels – to showcase them. ie: next time you are in town come this way and we’ll give you the good treatment and our customers are good tippers.
Now replace coffee house with blogs. Take a look at the image above. I see coffee house/blog as the town square – a gathering place.
Now imagine a world where we have a few dozen bloggers in each local town – or hundreds in large cities like New York. Or we have a few dozen bloggers who are experts in specific topics (niches). Each is an expert on their own topic. They report in their own coffeehouse – but often go beyond their corner of the web to report the news to the locals at other coffeehouses (blogs).
That is the modern news ecology as I see it. I think newspapers can play a part – by acting as the town square (much like blogs) and they can play host to bloggers and manage those relationships wisely.
Well, lets get my obvious bias out of the way. As the founder of Spot.Us – I think the idea of “community funded reporting” has a lot of merit and I’ll go into more detail why in this post. I do want to preface it by saying: it is not the only model out there. This is not the “key” to journalism’s financial woes – but I have yet to be discouraged and convinced to turn around and give up.
The gift economy in America is $300 billion of which 75 percent ($225 billion) comes from individual donors. So while Spot.Us had a great first month raising almost $5,000 – I don’t believe we’ve even scratched the surface.
More importantly, Spot.Us is one representation of an idea — “community funded reporting” — which should be MUCH bigger than our small nonprofit. There are other examples of it already in ReelChanges.org and Representative Journalism* but there are COUNTLESS individual examples of ‘community funded reporting’ from Talking Points Memo and Ana Marie Cox all the way down to when a blogger on a specific topic puts up a paypal button. (Soon I’ll release the code under an open source license and people can create their own community funded sites).
The realities: Advertising dollars are still needed – so I’m glad that the LA Times has reached a new level of sustainability. Spot.Us and “community funded reporting” cannot sustain an entire newsroom or an individual’s entire freelancing career. Nor will you ever hear me claim otherwise.
But community funded reporting can help fill in news holes – and as we close secondary papers and shrink newsrooms – there will be big news holes, especially when it comes to larger, expensive investigations that typically require more funding than they will produce in advertising.
I am finding out more and more every day that certain types of investigations the public will fund and others, they won’t. There must be a public good presented. In short: We can fund stories on education, police, poverty, but we won’t be able to crowdfund that profile of a celebrity. Lucky for publishers – that is the kind of content advertising can support.
What needs to happen for “community funded reporting” to take off?
First it is a question of marketing: The public has to know that this is a meaningful way to donate, just as they donate to goodwill, and journalists have to learn to sell their work as a public good.
Larger publishers must experience and say “this reporting needs your support.” They have the audience and the trust – and that is why I made sure that Spot.Us integrates very nicely with any news organizations should they want to participate. But in truth, they can do this without Spot.Us.
Larger bloggers should experiment. What Anna Marie Cox did is a great example of “community funded reporting.” I often use Robert Scoble as an example of where “community funded reporting” couldn’t go wrong. Scoble has a niche within tech and already has a sponsor, but imagine (just for sake of argument) it fell through, just as Radar Magazine fell through for Anna Marie.
Scoble could easily propose to do an investigation into something tech-specific like (again just for fun) Sun Microsystems (it would have to be within his tech niche) and could probably be funded overnight. If Scoble wanted to raise 5k – that whould just be 500 people giving $10 each. That is just 1 percent of his 50k followers on twitter. According to the 1% 9% 80% rule from Wikipedia (which is holding true on Spot.Us) it is very possible.
Now that might only last Scoble a month, but I bet he could do that 4-6 months of the year. The other 6-8 months he might have to find something else, but I never claimed Spot.Us was a career maker. But it certainly wouldn’t hurt.
I use Scoble as an example because it is easier to imagine with his magnitude of followers. But I believe anyone with 50k readers that is an expert on a specific niche could do the same. SFist? Oakland Tribune? Michael Pollan covering food? LaughingSquid could spread the word about something he is passionate about? If the pitch was right (obviously an important factor) I feel confident they could all fundraise an in-depth investigation of their choice. And those are just off the top of my head here in SF. Think nonprofit news for a moment (Voice of San Diego, MinnPost, ChiTown and… gasp, ProPublica, and you start to get a sense of what is possible).
But I digress…. “How to support
journalism online financially”
There is always the possibility that…. it isn’t.
Journalism has been financially sustainable in the past because it held a monopoly on the means of mass communication. There is no monopoly anymore. Perhaps as a result, it is no longer sustainable. End of story.
But guess what… Art (high art) has never been sustainable in the true sense of the word – but it has always been around and nobody is questioning its future (pop art, pop journalism etc is a separate issue). Spot.Us is built around the idea that journalism, like the arts, is no longer sustainable in the true sense of the word, through advertising – but can go nonprofit and serve the public and therefore merit public patronage.
I could be wrong, of course. Perhaps journalism is still sustainable via an updated advertising model on the web. And if I am – I would be happy. If I am wrong I believe it will be because of a mixture of tools that in combination keep a news operation alive. That combination being advertising, subscriptions and syndication. I suspect other members of the Carnival discussed this in more depth than myself.
Community funded reporting is one angle which I am bias towards and I had to get my peace out. The real answer: we don’t know. I think there will be lots of splintering and every news organization will have to figure this question out for themselves. There are no more cookie cutter business models.
*disclaimer ReelChanges.org is my fiscal sponsor as a nonprofit and I’m an advisor on RepJ).
What got me anxious this morning is thinking about a recent interview I did with Tristan Harris the founder of Apture.com for my ongoing work with Jeff Jarvis. In the middle of the interview I ask Tristan about obstacles for a young entrepreneur in journalism. A smile crept across his face and I knew instantly what he was going to say, because I’ve experienced it as well. My words, not his: news organizations get boggled down in bureaucracy and take anyone that tries to interface with them along for the ride.
Apture is a perfect example. It’s a neat little tool any publisher could benefit from. According to Tristan it takes one line of code and just five minutes to implement. Average time before a large news organization actually implements it…. six months. Same could be said for Spot.Us – it requires no coding at all. News organizations merely need to register (15 seconds) and at the very least they’ll get content from us like a local wire service. Engaging in more meaningful ways is also relatively simple.
These pair perfectly with my theory: “It is cheaper and easier to just do something then it is to sit around and debate about whether or not to do something.”
There is a movement for change in journalism. I consider myself part of it, but make no mistake – this is much larger than any individual. It includes the president of the Knight Foundation, ad-hoc gatherings of change-makers, and goes all the way down to young reporters still in college.
There is a lot of talk about taking action, but we never discuss what obstacles are in the way for newspapers to actually make said change. This cry for change is no longer about being cute or techie and seeing who can find the next Twitter for bragging rights. Evangelizing changes to our industry is about making the logical choice for survival. So why isn’t every day a revolution?
Probably because it takes newspapers six months to try anything new!
Often people ask me why editors are so stupid or who they should blame for the fate of newspapers and my response is… They aren’t stupid and nobody in particular is to blame.
The fate of newspapers isn’t the fault of any individual editor, reporter, publisher, etc. They are all acting within the confines of institutions. Newspapers are industrial age institutions with momentum that could pummel an elephant. To use an analogy: They operate like the military. It might not be so strict that reporters have to salute their superiors – but there is a chain of command, an expected means of behavior and decisions must go through the proper channels. As a result – newspapers turn like battleships and even implementing one line of code can take upwards of six months.
If that is our problem what does it take to break out of it?
Ironically enough: I believe it is going to take brave individuals from WITHIN those institutions.
I don’t blame editors or publishers for the situation newspapers are in. It is much larger than any individual. Newspapers, like many right now, are being slapped in the face by the information age. I think institutions that continue to structure themselves based on industrial age values will continue to be slapped until they fail.
But I do believe individual editors or publishers can act within those institutions to try and cut through the bureaucracy. If they can do so – then their organizations may stand a chance.
I don’t blame individuals for the current situation – but they should be called out for lack of action – which could turn things around. I’m sure the jungle of bureaucracy is thick – but it is time for editors to whip out a machete and start chopping till they make a path. If you have an idea – you should get your organization equipped to execute on it within two weeks, maximum. If it takes you longer, fine – learn from that and figure out why it took so long and try again.
Talk is cheap and so is my blogging: Time for me to get back to work doing what I can. I recognize I’m in a place of privileged to write about breaking bureaucracy – I run a startup with no institutional inertia whatsoever. This is just me writing down what I’ve noticed when I interact with people who are working within those larger news organizations that so many of us are urging to take drastic steps but aren’t.
For now…. ONWARD!!!!
I've been a fan of Change.org ever since they hired my friend (and new father) Josh Levy. So when they launched a contest asking for creative ideas that could change America I put in my two cents and didn't give it a second thought.
That idea, to create a high speed bullet train system through major metropolitan cities has received over 800 votes on Change.org, propelling it into the next round of voting (original votes wiped away). The top ten ideas from this next round will be presented to the Obama administration. I wouldn't presume anything after that, but just that the president of the United State's cabinet would be briefed on ideas proposed by the citizenry is reason enough to celebrate.
Considering the opportunity – I decided to give my idea a third cent and a second thought.
I'm sensitive towards public transportation. Having grown up in Los Angeles and lived in New York I've seen the good and the bad. Now living in San Francisco I welcome the day when a high-speed bullet train might connect me and my fellow Los Angelinos in under three hours, for less money, less emissions and more comfort.
But why stop there? Why not connect Seattle and Portland? Then stretch from Portland to San Francisco, down to Los Angeles and San Diego.
I envision a future where one could get from Seattle to San Diego or Las Vegas in 8 hours by train. The same should go for the East Coast: Fro Miami to New York – we should should cut down on air travel and invest in a railway infrastructure.
Like my idea? Go vote for it. With enough votes we can pass on the idea to the Obama administration. Check out the other ideas too. I don't claim mine is the best – it was just how I decided to participate. Lucky for you – voting only takes… two seconds.