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Feb. 24, 2011 Volume 32, No. 21

Is community-funded reporting the future of journalism?


Online venture tests a new business model

The rise of the Internet has cut into the budgets and profit margins of news organizations across the country. Now, a researcher in the Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) at the University of Missouri School of Journalism has created a business model that may change the economics of the media.

Spot.Us is an open source project to pioneer “community-powered reporting.” The model relies on individual donations to fund reporting on important and perhaps overlooked topics. Reporters pitch local and regional story ideas on topics such as problems with local transit systems and homeless people living in storage units. Once a story idea has met a pre-determined funding goal, the reporter will research and publish the story on Spot.Us in print, video, audio or a convergence of mediums. In some cases, a reporter may have partnered with a public media outlet, which will publish the story as well.

David Cohn, a Reynolds Fellow at RJI, founded Spot.Us, in fall 2008. Cohn said the Spot.Us model can make the journalism process more transparent and increase revenues for public media. Consumers are more likely to pay to see a certain story idea produced, he said, than to a media outlet as a whole.

“In the past, there were two main revenue sources for media: advertising and classifieds,” Cohn said. “The Internet has hurt classified advertising, and online advertising is not as profitable as print advertising. With community-funded reporting, media outlets will have another way to take in revenue and engage their audiences.”

The Spot.Us website lists stories in the works by funding status. As of Monday, a project by, a citizen-fueled video news site, to provide around-the-clock coverage of the protests by public employees in Wisconsin, had raised 23 percent of its $50,000 goal. An independent journalist in Cleveland, Ohio, wants to raise $1,000 to explore the job prospects of African-Americans released from prison.

More than a half-dozen Spot.Us projects have won regional journalism awards. Peter Byrne was honored by the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California chapter for an 8-part series, “The Investors’ Club: How the University of California Regents Spin Public Money into Private Profit.”

At RJI, Cohn is working on three projects to make community-funded journalism possible, including a platform for local news outlets to run the Spot.Us model on their local sites. He’s also compiling a handbook for media outlets interested in using community-funded journalism

Cohn is also working to develop the advertising model on Spot.Us. Instead of typical banner advertising seen on websites, Spot.Us allows companies to buy community-focused sponsorships to conduct market research surveys of Spot.Us users. Users who complete surveys are rewarded with donation credits to put toward the story of their choice.

“This is a unique model because it allows consumers, rather than publishers, to choose where their advertising dollars go,” Cohn said. “Also, surveys are worth more to sponsors than typical online advertising because surveys engage consumers, provide valuable information and hold consumers’ attention much longer than typical advertising.”

The Spot.Us strategy could be applied to for-profit media as well, although Cohn sees audience engagement as a more important benefit than the revenue the model might generate.