I met Steve Katz of Mother Jones in 2007 at a Personal Democracy Forum conference and he has been a fantastic resource for brain-picking. Recently Katz and I have been having an interesting conversation about the funding model for Spot.Us, the future of non-profit journalism, and other related topics via our blogs. Now that our conversation has turned to the web, I thought I would share this open brain-picking session. Kudos to Steve for starting it up.

The recap

The conversation began when Katz asked a question about fundraising for Spot.Us, which allows readers to donate to fund individual journalism projects that they would like to see completed:

The basic fundraising model is this: the donor supports not the organization, but the project sponsored by the organization…The question, I think, is whether and how folks will shift their loyalty from the project to the organization (there’s a second question, too, which is whether this deeper level of donor loyalty matters for Spot.Us-like organizations — maybe I’ll have to go have a conversation with Dave about this, huh?

That question sparked the start of the more formal conversation between Katz and I, as he laid out some questions about Spot.Us’s approach and status. I thought I’d have some fun, so I responded with a video post, in which I talked about Spot.Us’s core values of transparency, immediacy, and control (for the donor, that is). I also asked Katz some questions about whether or not Spot.Us is being naive in its fundraising model or if it can learn a thing or two from how Mother Jones raises money.

Katz responded:

So it’s not donor choice per se where Spot.us is innovating. As Dave notes, it’s the possibility that interested community members connect with reporters on stories and issues they care about. Not only does that increase the possibility that people will actually pay for stuff they want, but it makes the reporting process more transparent (this was what made Chris Albritton’s Back to Iraqso damned exciting back then).

Adding Transparency to Funding

Katz actually brought something to light for me. I often say that “donating to journalism isn’t new — it is just having control over where your money goes that makes Spot.Us interesting.” In fact, I use NPR as an example all the time. They could blow me out of the water tomorrow by adding transparency to where donations go (and I would be
totally fine if NPR did adopt community-funded reporting).

Katz points out that what community-funded reporting represents isn’t just participation through donating — it brings a new level of transparency to journalism.

Increasingly, Spot.Us does reporter debriefs either mid-way through or at the end of an article. We use BlogTalkRadio right now and we invite donors to get on the phone and chat with the reporter about what they are learning and digging up. There is an added service in here. The community in “community-funded reporting” can get involved and this, as Katz notes, makes the reporting more transparent and accountable.

People often say that reporting for an ethnic newspaper is much more difficult than a large metro because the reporter is part of the community they are reporting on. They are more accountable. I’d say the same goes for a community-funded reporter. In fact, I’ve been told as much. One reporter even printed out the list of donors and tacked it to their bulletin board as a reminder that he was responsible to a list of engaged citizens. The big step Spot.Us is taking, according to Katz, isn’t one of giving donors transparency, but it’s making the reporting itself more transparent.

That sounds beautiful in a blog post, but as noted (and Katz concurs) it might be part of the reason why it is hard to get other news organizations to adopt the Spot.Us model. They have to be ready to put themselves out there in the open from day one. I have a million reasons why it’s a good idea to be transparent — but I’ll save my “pitch” for
another blog post.

Let’s table that — but keep it in the back of our minds, because I’ll come back to it: “It’s hard to get news organizations to jump on board because of a cultural shift.”

Traffic Measures Impact

Katz and I also discuss traffic. I still try and avoid traffic as a measure of success, but Katz is right in pointing out that it isn’t just a metric of success, it also measures impact. Impact is something that donors want.

A good example: A recent Spot.Us story we did with AllVoices has a nice “number of views” metric. I can see that as of writing this blog post that the video has received almost 5,000 views. That is a boon to donors; they want to know that the story they support is seen by others. When Spot.Us did a story with the Oakland Tribune, fundraising was easier because people knew the editorial would be tight and that the finished story would get distribution.

Raising traffic, however, is a beast in itself and one I don’t want to get locked into. Growing traffic can be self-defeating and I know from my Digg days how ugly and distracting it can be. I want to focus on making good journalism happen.

That’s why Spot.Us is also a platform that is designed to engage with partnering news organizations like Mother Jones, the Center for Investigative Reporting, the San Francisco Chronicle and others (The new Pocantico Watchdogs have me salivating).

In truth this goes back to Jeff Jarvis saying “Do what you do best and link to the rest.” It goes for covering topics on the web but I also think it needs to be applied in
how we run Spot.Us.

What we do best

  • Create tools for fundraising of journalism projects via community-funded reporting.
  • Do our own outreach on behalf of journalism projects.
  • Create a sense of community around journalism projects and expose the sausage-making to those who are interested.

What news organizations do best:

  • The editorial for journalism projects.
  • The distribution of journalism projects.
  • Spread word within their own communities about how to get engaged.

I think some start-ups try to recreate the entire media sphere. That’s a mistake — one that Spot.Us has been pushed into from time to time (and will probably happen again) whenever we don’t have a partnering organization to share the load. Hence the irony of the situation above: What we do best requires a cultural shift and that’s why we are slow to find partnering news organizations even though actually partnering with us is as quick as clicking a button.

Katz suggests hiring somebody who can manage our relationships with other news organizations. I wouldn’t be against another hire at all but we probably won’t be able to for budgetary reasons.

Instead I want to build out the platform so that these partnerships can be more lightweight. Right now, it is confusing for news organizations to know all the different ways they can partner with us. Increasingly that is a part of the business development plan that we are working on that I think will be crucial.

News Org or Platform?

It still goes back to the question: Are we a news organization or a platform?

I think we have to be a bit of both, but without falling into the trap described earlier of trying to recreate the entire media sphere. So what parts of Spot.Us are a news organization and what parts are a platform serving news organizations as a main customer?

That is something we are still figuring out. It is where we start to look a bit more like a non-profit version of mediabistro. It’s a community for reporters and news organizations to meet and work together — but they are doing so in public and that way we can bring community funding into the mix.

As for Katz’s advice on traditional fundraising: A spaghetti dinner is on the way. We don’t have all the details yet but folks who donated to the City Budget Watchdog pitch are invited to a meetup on July 13 at the Grotto where we will talk about the reporting we’ve done so far and what is to come next. Afterward we will meander to 21st Amendment (details to come).

And now — back to Katz: In my first response I asked if there was something naive about the Spot.Us model. It seems that it isn’t naive — just a little “out there” still.

But Mother Jones as an organization is already somewhat “out there.” You have been pushing the boundaries of running a non-profit news organization for some time. Politics aside — nobody can knock what you have all accomplished.

But when life is hard you have to change. And times are tough. Even the New York Times is re-thinking itself. So my question is: How does Mother Jones, a much larger organization than Spot.Us, approach all this? Are there plans being plotted? Moves being considered? Are things pushing on as usual? What is on your radar that I’m not aware of?