Digi-fail this month’s #jcarn

The topic for this month’s “Carnival of Journalism” is failure.

The rules: It has to be a project you failed in and it has to be your failure (no pointing fingers).

There are lots of projects I’ve worked on. Some have worked, others have not. There are various degrees of failure, something I realized in last week’s #wjchat where I co-hosted around this same topic.

I had written up a nice post about more insight into Assignment Zero. In the end one of the lessons I took from that is listening to your gut. If your spidey sense tells you that something is wrong, then it probably is.

But I decided that much has already been written about on Assignment Zero by myself and others. So let’s talk about something else rather than dissect something that, in my mind at least, has been analyzed every which way since Sunday.

Spot.Us expansion – it aint Craigslist

As many of you know, I work on a site called Spot.Us (go, click free credits, do it!). For the most part, as an experiment, I consider it a success. When I first started talking about the idea publicly it was insane. Funny how only a few years later I think the idea is rather tame (depending on what community you role in) but since at the time nobody knew if the thing would even get off the ground, I’m pretty happy with how things have gone.

When we launched, all pitches were local to the Bay Area. In my mind, I figured we would expand region by region. For better or worse I wanted to stay committed to the idea of funding local civic journalism, which is tough to get an audience around. But we’ve had success in the Bay Area. In fact, we still get pitches regularly in the Bay Area. I no longer feel the need to go out and solicit pitches. Which is great, because we then expanded into Los Angeles in partnership with USC. And work began on soliciting pitches in the LA area.

Perhaps through the partnership with USC and support from the California Endowment for Health, we’ve had success getting pitches in LA regularly. I suspect, however, without those two critical connections, we would only get a trickle of pitches.

We’ve had pitches on Spot.Us in Montanona, Washington State, Washington D.C, New York, Pennslyivania, Wisconsin, Florida, Colorado, etc etc.

So we have had success in getting pitches with geographic diversity.

But when we originally started expanding I thought we would expand with sub-domains. Think Craigslist.

There was an sfbay.spot.us, an la.spot.us, a seattle.spot.us, etc, etc.

But that isn’t how things went. Not by a long shot.

What happened?

Once I created a Seattle and Minnesota subdomain I began spending a lot of time reaching out to various organizations in the regions. One thing I discovered – each community has its own media-scene and it can be very insular. Not everyone likes outsiders. A few sites in each community adopt Spot.Us, and they’ll create pitches – but the rest look at you like your a roaming nomad ready to eat their children. This isn’t their fault, it’s just that they already have a media ecosystem and Spot.Us was trying to jump in on it.

Meanwhile folks in distributed areas around the country wanted in. Somebody in Milwaukee wanted to create a pitch.

Well, I couldn’t create a full subdomain on account of one pitch.

But I shouldn’t tell this person to piss off just because they aren’t in one of my pre-determined regions of growth.

What was I to do?

The solution is easy, kill the subdomains, right? In the end, that’s what we did. No harm, right?

Well, yea. Eventually we came to the right decision. So in the end, as failures go, I’m okay with it.

The sting, however, comes when I think about how much time/money went into creating the sub-domain system and the navigation that went along with it. A system that is now, more or less, defunct.

It’s painful. It’s even doubly hard to talk about because the fact is, I’ve been very privileged with Spot.Us. I received a grant from the Knight Foundation to get started. FREE MONEY, right! Sure, but that comes with a sense of responsibility not to waste it. I also have received a few grants from small family foundations. One sizable grant helped fund the development effort of the subdomains.

I wouldn’t consider the grant money “wasted.” We were going to try the subdomain method and this grant helped us execute it quickly without dipping into our Knight Grant. We would have failed either way, so in some respects, this gave us a nice cushion so that we didn’t burn through all our money on this failed feature-set. That would have sucked even more. It’s very possible that we would have gone through a slow and painful drain of funds had we not gotten this private grant.

So what are some of the things I learned.

1. In a general sense, when it comes to expansion, don’t try and dictate how and where it’s going to happen.

2. General project management stuff (cash flow, development issues, etc – I’ll spare the details for another post)

3. Learn to bounce back, accept your defeat and backtrack.

Spot.Us has expanded, we have pitches from all over now, but it required us to rip out the sub-domain feature set that we worked so hard on. It just wasn’t making any sense. We still have the ability to create “networks” and sub-domains (if anyone is interested – I’ll make you a sub-domain) but it’s not something we really push. It just didn’t work for us and it was important to accept that. Running an organization is enough of an uphill battle, why wear a backpack at the same time?

6 thoughts on “Digi-fail this month’s #jcarn”

  1. Nice Dave. I remember when you were plugging the spot.us idea back at that USC Journo conference when we met.

    I’d been holding off the subdomain thing (with City2) — mainly because there isn’t much money, but after reading your post, I’m feeling like it’s probably a good thing. That sort of stuff (as you point out) should be organic.

    Also, I’ve been writing my #fail post in my head, but it keeps turning into Moby Dick. Too much material. Thanks for sharing this. And here’s to your spidey sense. you rock.

  2. @Warren
    Yea, I remember when we first met. It has been good keeping in touch over the years.
    I would HIGHLY recommend NOT doing sub-domains.

    Only reason I think it would be justified is if you see lots of traffic coming from a specific region. If that’s the case – okay, then there is a demand for it.

    But creating a subdomain is defacto limiting. And unless there is an organic demand for that kind of limitation (ie: users would read it as a feature set (a way to navigate the site) instead of a brick wall that closes them off) then it’s no good.

    (that last sentence used double parens (does that make sense) how cool is that).

  3. @Dave. ha. I’m all about double-parenthesis (and am the last person that would fault (unless it was {in} jest) you for using them). #yourswasgoodmineisproofofmorefail

  4. I like the simplicity of it all being in one place. The insularity you observed is fascinating, and subdomains probably would have beget even more countless hours of engaging the local community without ever really being an insider.
    I wonder, too, if it would have been difficult to encourage crossover from other communities to check out what was going on in SF or Seattle if members had to navigate to another subdomain. I’ve donated via Spot.Us to the Bay Area not because I will definitely read the piece but because of general interest in the topic or to feel connected to a place where I once lived.
    It sounds like, in the long run, you created a bigger donor base for potential pitches.

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