It has been a year since Spot.Us was officially announced as a project and six months since our website launched. So it is time to reflect back on what we have accomplished, where we have succeeded and failed. It is amazing what can happen in six months!
It is far easier to look at one’s own project, their baby, and gleefully point out where it has surpassed expectations. Don’t worry, I will probably do that in this post. At the same time, however, I feel an obligation, perhaps with an extra critical eye, to point out where it can improve. This post will include the good, the bad and the ugly.
Why? The concept of “community funded reporting,” “community supported journalism,” whatever you want to call it – is FAR larger than Spot.Us. We are building an open source CMS so others can join us easily (Join our Google Group for discussion) but as we proved before our launch – anyone can do this with just a wiki. With that in mind – it is important for Spot.Us to convey the lessons we’ve learned. Strategies trump technology any day of the week.
I’ll break down our progress into four parts: Pre-launch, post-launch, maturing (the phase I think we are in right now) and the future. Then perhaps I’ll feel obliged to do a personal rant.
During the pre-launch Spot.Us did a very good job of being open and public with our ideas and process of development. We uploaded our designs before they had been finished. We filmed some of the developers hard at work and we were very careful and analytical about the means by which we produced the final platform.
Having the most hindsight here I still believe this part of the project was handled very well. The biggest fault was not knowing when to change mindsets (I’ll get into that next) and not keeping our blogging of the process up. Part of what makes Spot.Us interesting is how open we want to be about everything, from how the project is made to what journalism projects we are tackling. On our blog we want to continue to open up the process of “community funded reporting.”
Post-launch: Setting up our weak spots.
By the numbers Spot.Us is doing very well. It has been 24 weeks since our “official” launch and we have funded 23 stories in total – with another two or three on the way. One story a week is far better than I expected. I cannot thank the community of supporters enough. In the end – this is not “my” project. It belongs to those that want to get involved – reporters, editors and community members.
Managing that growth: This has probably been the biggest problem for Spot.Us. With that many stories out we have had a tough time keeping a reign on them all. Especially while constantly trying to push forward with more stories, improve the platform, build out relationships, etc.
The initial idea of assigning peer review editors hasn’t worked perfectly. Some partners have worked out splendidly and in other situations Spot.Us has taken a larger managerial role than I initially expected.
I still want Spot.Us to be a platform for other organizations, but increasingly with independent freelancers we are taking a more managerial/editorial role in the process of a pitch forming into a full story, which includes some editorial functions and some technical support with video or audio.
From the moment a pitch is up – reporters should start working with or without a peer review editor. Thus things change as we go as we inevitably get more partners and every partner is different. Hence – collaboration is wet.
Increasingly it comes down to playing to our strengths. With a staff of two we must pick and choose our battles carefully. I’m not sure we have always done this in the past – but we are starting to think less like a web platform and more like a journalistic organization all the time.
Which brings us too….
The Types of Stories: Spot.Us needs to back off of “quick hits.” These are the classic newspaper day one article. We have funded a few of these and increasingly I find they have less added value. I want our stories to provide new information, views, etc – not rehash what is already out there. It comes down to what service we are trying to provide to those who donate. More thoughts on that here.
What pitches work: We have begun to see a pattern among the pitches that do and do not get funded (We’ve had five unsuccessful pitches and a sixth that was taken down for a reporters health issues). The best way I can articulate it is that stories which have a concrete anchor to a geographic or ethnic community do better. Stories that are lofty, more analysis based or consumerist tend to flounder. In short it comes down to relevance and original reporting. Nothing shocking, I know – but it is easy to lose sight of this.
A change in mindset: Recently I’ve had to make a conscious mind-shift from web-entrepreneur back to being a journalist. Obviously I want to grow the platform out more (we recently added PayPal) – but in the end it is a journalism project and reporting benefits from having deadlines, editorial feedback and more. I hinted at this above. It comes down to Spot.Us not just being a platform but a community site where Kara and I act as editorial managers as much as platform creators.
The Waiting Game: There is too much waiting on Spot.Us. We wait to get funded, we wait to get reporting and if we sell the story we wait to go through another editorial/publishers cycle. I’m fine if investigations take a long time to complete, but we shouldn’t be silent during that timeframe.
This is somewhat ironic because in past projects managing citizen journalists or volunteer reporters I found people to be very responsive and fast acting. Often in Spot.Us reporters are waiting for their pitches to mature (more money) and this causes a long lag time between initial pitches and reporting – a lag that I believe we must cut back on in order to better serve those who donate. I also think that if we treat pitches more like beat blogs, then ongoing reporting will be our best marketing. This is why we built blogs for each pitch.
They have been underutilized by reporters thus far – but going forward we are looking for individuals who are motivated by the journalism and not the money and will get started covering a topic right away. Obviously our goal is to fund individuals so they can make a living with their reporting – but it is a give and take. A “pull yourself up by your bootsraps” situation.
The Future – Potential Solutions – New Things to Try.
The Beat Pitch: A pitch that is also a beat. I’m excited to be working again with The Public Press on a pitch that isn’t a one-off story, but a three month beat to cover the city budget in San Francisco. We’ve quietly launched it this week. Reporting will start soon. Check out the “City Budget Blues.” Even better subscribe to the blog’s RSS and you’ll get updates on our progress and perhaps some incentive to donate.
Pitches Made by Spot.Us: We have fully funded a pitch that doesn’t have a reporter attached to it… yet. Now we can go out and find a reporter and because the money is already in the pot, our working relationship with this reporter will feel more traditional. The logisitics here are much easier for Spot.Us.
There is also the opportunity to shop this to a traditional news organization who will refund the original donors in exchange for getting first publishing rights. If it is a news organization of high caliber we will let them choose the freelance reporter. And with the money that is refunded – I hope we can do another version of this story in a different location with a different news organization! Perhaps the story will live on for two or three generations?!?!
More Selective in the reporters: In the beginning Spot.Us let anyone create pitches and we would take them down if they proved unresponsive or raised any red flags. While we still want to be inclusive (proof of it in this pitch from two high school students) we are putting reporters through a slightly more rigorous screening process.
Wonder why: Yes – we got burned. One reporter who we successfully funded has gone M.I.A. We will be writing about this more publicly later on the Spot.Us blog. This happens in all industries for all kinds of reasons. I won’t dwell on it, as this reporter wasted enough of our time already. But I will learn from it that reporters need to show a history of following through. We owe that to the community. The story in question will most likely be canceled (assuming the reporter doesn’t suddenly appear with a great explanation) and the donations will be returned via credits on the site. Hopefully these credits will be re-invested into a similar story we already have up with a reporter I can personally vouch for.
So we have a fine line to walk here. We want to be inclusive and will work with high school students, but those students had to prove to us they were serious by creating a one minute sample video. They did and so far they have kept to every deadline we’ve given. Expect the first in their two part series in the next week!
Time to stand up straight
Lately I’ve been saying that “Spot.Us has been crawling along.” At only six months we can even sit on our butt without our giant heads making us fall over!!!
But I suspect we are ready to stand tall very soon. With the right partnerships we could be funding and reporting on some very exciting and serious stuff rather soon. That is what we are aiming for and I will not rest until we are working with those organizations. This will allow Spot.Us to play to its strengths and rest assured that the editorial is being handled in the most serious of manners.
What to expect next?
More pitches that are formed like beats, created by Spot.Us or others organizations, with reporting starting right away. This will be the marketing material to help garner donations.
More in-person events. We enjoy them, we believe in “actual” social networking and we want to have a positive influence on the community.
Expanding to new regions. This is going to happen. Perhaps very soon – and potentially with some really cool partners. More on that if things work out.
More collaborations with really cool partners. No discussions were “off the record” but just in case I’d rather not name the organizations we are talking with. Instead I’ll just say – they would add a level of legitimacy and journalistic integrity that Spot.Us needs. I understand that I can be viewed as a “young punk kid trying something very cute” (thanks for the pat on the head), but that would be mistaking the messenger for the message. Community funded reporting has worked (23 times already) and if we can convince some of the more serious Bay Area journalism players to try it out we will figure out just how ambitious we can be. They will allow us to strive further and reach a greater audience.
With this next wave of pitches/stories almost finished and a new wave coming in (they really do come in waves, either by coincidence or a result of our small team taking on only so much at a time) our goal is to be as transparent as possible with our progress (more blogging).
More players to the team – NewMaya or Kara Andrade
It would be an absolute tragedy not to give sincere kudos, thanks, merits, badges and more to one Kara Andrade. Her title is “community organizer” but in conversation I refer to her as my business partner. She has been a perfect match. A Ying to my Yang. We have a similar energy but often different views on how things should proceed. The best part about this – she is never afraid to call me out on my B.S. That is precisely what I was looking for and although frustrating at times (everyone likes to think their B.S. is easy to swallow) I can’t thank her enough. The project would not have grown in the last three-four months since she came on board.
There are two organizations that have downloaded the Spot.Us code and are attempting to launch their own versions. I am in talks with at least two other organizations that might try the same thing. Taking the code isn’t as simple as clicking a few buttons to launch a WordPress blog – but the cost of launching a community funded reporting site using our code is far cheaper than building it yourself. As such – I’m offering any assistance I can to them or others that might attempt this. Hopefully we can get it down to a science in the future.
Up next: We have a resident blogger who will be introducing herself shortly on the Spot.us blog – so stay tuned!!!
Personal Rant Time
What can one really say once they’ve launched a startup? A nonprofit startup at that (two strikes). It is a roller coaster ride. I continue to stay as motivated as ever. Although I tire of giving the elevator pitch for Spot.Us (which I can say without thinking now) I try to put things in context. This project is attempting something very new, completely different and to some utterly mind-blowing. Even if we never “stand tall” it is an honor to be working on something that others take notice of if only to think to themselves “I do/don’t think that will work.” The fact is – nobody knows (me included) and so there is a sense of gawking at every decision we make. I gawk myself!
I am not 100% sure what the future holds for Spot.Us. If some of the changes we are going to make above will take hold. How we will manage the peer review process or if Spot.Us will only work with news organizations that defacto provide editorial support. There are just too many variables to predict an outcome.
But that is what makes this fun. Every day is different. Some days are spent hours on the phone, hours in meetings, hours answering emails, or hours trying to figure out where this community is trying to steer itself so Kara and I can help pave a road in that direction.
And so I leave us all with one word that mean ever-so-much to me.