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Spot.Us brings reader-funded journalism to L.A.

September 22, 2009 | 10:54 am

David Over LA

Mainstream news organizations remain part of an elite few with the financial resources and talent, albeit somewhat dwindling, to support investigative journalism. And that means companies like the New York Times, Washington Post and, yes, the Los Angeles Times get to dictate what subjects get an in-depth look.

Web start-up Spot.Us aims to bring that power to the people.

The website, which launched 10 months ago in the San Francisco Bay area with funding from the Knight Foundation, expanded today to Southern California as its second market.

Los Angeles-area residents can sign up for the service in order to suggest investigative projects and pledge money to individual reporting ideas. Readers vote with their wallets, and of the 2,000 users, the average person donates $22 -- $20 to an assignment and $2 to the organization. Freelance writers can apply to take on crowd-sourced assignments.

USC's Annenberg School of Communication has partnered with Spot.Us to help the organization hire local staff.

Founder David Cohn, a former technology reporter, says his vision is to build a platform for reporters, news organizations and consumers to meet on a level playing field and each have input on projects.

Cohn's nonprofit organization specializes in civic reporting -- education, crime and city infrastructure. Due to the system's natural delay between conception and amassing adequate funds, Spot.Us isn't ...

... well suited to cover breaking news. And the transparency of the program makes stealth stories almost impossible.

"A level of transparency to journalism ... at times can be incredibly helpful," Cohn said in a phone interview. "But if you're investigating the Mafia, it might not be helpful."

"Environmental stories have done particularly well," Cohn said. "I don't know if that's a Bay Area thing." But Cohn thinks that "green" stories will translate well in L.A.'s environmentally conscious atmosphere. Traffic, too, he says, should prove popular in Southern California.

Most newspapers that have run Spot.Us stories have been small Northern California dailies. But the New York Times said it will use a story about the Pacific garbage patch, which garnered $9,000 in donations over three weeks.

Once a news company pledges to print a story and a freelancer is chosen, the writer is given the OK to investigate, write and get paid. The newspaper is then supposed to supplant the donations with a paycheck for the writer, and donations are reimbursed to users in the form of site credits to be used toward other projects.

If a newspaper doesn't pay, the story is released under a Creative Commons license and can be republished by anyone -- in that case, making Spot.Us a sort of free wire service.

As excited as Geneva Overholser, Annenberg's journalism school director, is about Spot.Us and the idea of reader-funded assignments, she believes it's only one of many models that will sustain the news industry.

"We're all interested in the future of journalism," Overholser said, "and I think it's going to have a lot of different futures."

Jay Rosen, a press critic and professor at New York University, has been a strong proponent of the concepts behind Spot.Us. He was involved with Cohn's project from its inception and sits on the organization's board.

"I could see the declining capacity in traditional news organizations, and I just wanted to start the visioning of other systems," Rosen said on the phone from New York. He and Cohn collaborated on similar programs for Wired Magazine and the Huffington Post. Later, the standalone project began to take shape.

Southern California might not be the ideal market for Spot.Us, Rosen said, but it certainly has its advantages. "It's good that it's big," Rosen said, and with that size comes "a large journalistic need."

But L.A. is only the second step in a much grander scheme. Nationally focused stories would probably be more easily funded, Rosen said. "You have to keep moving," he said. "You have to keep trying new things."

-- Mark Milian

Photo: Spot.Us founder David Cohn, looking over L.A. Credit: Megan Casey


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