Hooray for Homicide Watch!

There was a lot of buzz/talk around Homicide Watch and their Kickstarter campaign. I am not surprised that they reached their goal or the great support they got from amazing folks.

This post is not about getting you to donate (although you should while time is left). In fact, I wanted to wait until after they reached their goal to post. This post is about what their Kickstarter represented – for me at least. And I hope it signals something similar to others.

First two disclaimers

1. I have a bias for the Amico’s in general: Chris Amico was actually the second reporter ever to use Spot.Us and the first outside person to sign up on the web app. Meanwhile Homicide Watch had raised money on Spot.Us in the past for specific reporting projects and I was happy to write Laura a letter of recommendation for the Neiman fellowship which partly put them in the predicament of needing to raise money to bring others onboard.

2. I didn’t actually contribute to the campaign at first – and that pained me. But after 4+ years of Spot.Us I have committed to curbing my philanthropic gifts to journalism. And again – this post is not about the specific campaign – but what I thought it symbolized. I was always confident they’d get their support.

To start: Kudos again to the Amico’s. Since the day I first met Chris at a pre-HacksHackers type meetup at the San Jose Mercury News I co-chaired called “CopyCamp” – I could tell he was a rockstar (but we all know the real brains behind the operation – Laura). And Kudos to Laura – through Spot.Us (to a small degree) and now Kickstarter to a bigger degree she is able to keep her passion going in a very legit way.

But there are the two major things that come to mind when I see their success. I probably sound like a Johnyy-Come-lately with the first point because David Carr already pointed it out and linked to a recent post from Alan Mutter that did an even better job. I read that Alan Mutter post and it hit a sore spot for me. I’m on the board of a few nonprofits now. I was neck deep in that space for several years. I can relate to the pain of not getting a grant and seeing larger, well funded organizations, that aren’t necc. doing the most interesting things or are even for-profits get a red carpet.

I never did write much about the interactions I had with folks in the philanthropic world. I obviously need to put a disclaimer that Spot.Us was funded by the Knight Foundation – but now that I’ve left Spot.Us you can decide for yourself if I have “skin in the game” or not (I am currently working at a for-profit startup):

But I will say – Knight is far and above the most transparent, accessible and open minded journalistic philanthropy organization I encountered (they funded me when I was a 25 year old kid with a crazy idea … I like to think I made good on that grant). Most other philanthropic journalism organizations are missing the boat and the proof is in the pudding. I am not surprised Homicide Watch got nothing but closed doors. So did Spot.Us (I have interesting stories and anecdotes to share here) with most other philanthropic organizations. And I think they should take heat for that and funding other (un-named) projects that might do great journalism – but are trying to spit into a content hole the size of the Grand Canyon.

So Point One: There is a problem when a project like Homicide Watch can’t seem to get its footing via traditional philanthropy. An excellent counter-point here is J-lab’s Jan Schaffer on the difficulty in selecting where philanthropic money goes. I also know this first-hand having been a judge for past Knight News Challenge contests. But therein lay the point! Knight Foundation (and J-lab which was Knight Funded) both had OPEN applications and an accountable judging process. Most philanthropic outfits require you to KNOW somebody, their grant proposal lingo, etc before you can really be taken seriously.

Point Two in What HW represents for me: More than Matter, more than Narratively, more than any other journalism project I’ve seen on Kickstarter this Homicide Watch campaign hones in on part of the vision I always had for Spot.Us.

Homicide Watch is local. It’s original reporting and it’s about stories that might otherwise go untold. And these aren’t trivial stories – these are people’s lives.

Perhaps it’s because I associate the Amico’s with Public Media – Homicide Watch to me represents a potential future vision for Public Media. In truth, I don’t even know if they are nonprofit. But it doesn’t matter to me. They are certainly producing journalism in the public interest.

Public Media and crowdfunding: I’ve gone on rants about this publicly and probably in my blog. So I really don’t want to go on a tangent about it now. But this simply is GOING to happen. It’s not a question of “if.” Public Media will be caught with their pants down if they don’t start preparing for this future.

This is different from a pledge drive. So that infrastructure doesn’t prepare them. There is transparency and participation about where money goes in crowdfunding. There is a goal and a sense of what happens at the end of that goal. Moreover – the impact of crowdfunding (Point #2) is directly proportional to the relationship public media currently has with large classic philanthropy (point #1) – the kind where you need to sit down, have lunch, schmooze to get very large checks. All activities that seemed closed to me at Spot.Us 99% of the time and probably felt closed to the Amico’s at HW.

The real question is: Will Public Media be smart enough to own its own means of crowdfunding or if it will need to rely on third party platforms? 

American Public Media now owns Spot.Us. How and what they do with it – if they take advantage of it is out of my hands. But I guarantee this – they WILL do crowdfunding in the future. All Public Media entities will.

While I have been railing about this for close to 4 years – for some reason I think the attention and success of Homicide Watch, again because of the nature of what they do and the players involved, timing, etc, might signal that future more than anything else in recent memory. Public Media – I KNOW you are paying attention. This combined with 99% invisible campaign MUST get your attention about how crowdfunding (not Kickstarter, IndieGoGo or any other company) can change what you do. If you want to leave it to the third party companies – you can. But as a citizen – I prefer you own your own means of revenue. Get thee to a hackery! The good news – it’s not rocket science.

For now – I am going to break my commitment to not giving anymore small donations to chip in at Homicide Watch (just don’t tell my wife!) – I personally am thrilled to see what HW does in the next year. But more than the success of their campaign – I hope it lights a fire in two worlds: Traditional philanthropy to question the values they use to decide who is in/out of their world and scope. And the world of Public Media – to question if/how the audience can/should participate in programming when they contribute funds.


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