Today in the New York Times science section you’ll find a piece written by Lindsey Hoshaw about the Pacific garbage patch and an accompanying photo slide show. This piece would not have been possible if Spot.Us and a community of over 100 people hadn’t come together to fund her trip.
It is a great case study for Spot.Us, and arguably the best of the 40-plus
projects we’ve undertaken in the past year. Despite its ambition,
and the mound of publicity it generated, the story went off without a hitch. It involved almost every
facet of how I imagined Spot.Us could work, and I’d like to walk
through how it came about from start to finish.

Below you will find.

•    How did this start?

•    The connection with the Times.

•    What all this represented in a nutshell.

•    The real test: fundraising

•    The unfolding story: Lindsey’s live reporting

•    Conclusion/what can be improved.

How Did This Start?

I first met Lindsey Hoshaw after speaking at Stanford’s journalism school
about Spot.Us. Our first meeting was uneventful. The only impression I
was left with was her time in Los Angeles, which gave us
something to connect on.

A few months later, however, Lindsey contacted me about the Pacific garbage patch. It was a story I knew of through Manuel Maqueda, who himself has undertaken recent reporting efforts around plastic in the ocean.

Lindsey explained that she had been given a seat on the boat with
Captain Moore, the man who first discovered the Pacific garbage patch.
After reaching out to the science editor at the New York Times, she
found that they were
interested in the story. There was, however, one giant hurdle: she
needed to pay her own way on the trip, and getting to the middle of the
Pacific Ocean wasn’t cheap.

The Connection with the Times

This pitch excelled where many others have gone awry, and for that I must give praise to the Times.
In most Spot.Us experiences, the larger a news organization, the slower
it is to get approval to try something with Spot.Us because of our
radically different approach. In past attempts
with mainstream organizations, I’ve sat in countless meetings only to
spin wheels. Those experiences are actually the inspiration for this
blog post, “News Organizations In a Battle Against Inertia.”

My hat is off the Times. They interfaced with Spot.Us as if they
were a lean and mean startup. I spent half a day at the Times talking
with various decision-makers who agreed to entertain the idea further
if we drafted a pitch. Once the pitch was approved, all we had to do was
make it live and let them know. I am still in awe of that process.
It contrasts with everything I’ve experienced with other larger media
organizations, and it’s a testament to why the Times is not just the
paper of record but also leading the charge into the digital future.

What All This Represented in a Nutshell

A freelancer and a news organization wanted to work together, but they needed to grease the wheels with some money. This is not
uncommon. News organizations have a shrinking staff and budget. They
must rely more on freelancers, but also don’t want to burn through the
entire freelance budget on a single story. This is one reason why we
are seeing less original long-form reporting. Spot.Us acted as the
grease. I hope we can continue to grease the wheels between freelancers
and the public and with other news organizations.

The Real Test: Fundraising

At the time, this pitch had the most ambitious fundraising goal Spot.Us had ever undertaken. I am happy to say that a new project with McSweeney’s and the Public Press may surpass it. Fundraising is never easy, but a few things favored this pitch.

1. Lindsey is an ideal Spot.Us reporter. She is passionate and
unafraid to show it. Her desire to report on this topic pours out of
her in the Spot.Us video pitch. I only wish every Spot.Us reporter
could show their interest in a story like her. Perhaps, in the future,
the “video pitch” will be required for a Spot.Us pitch. Furthermore,
Lindsey was unafraid to reach out to her network of friends, family and
social networking sites to ask for support.

2. The Times followed up our initial efforts with a story of their own, “Many Checkbooks One Newspaper.”
The piece by Clark Hoyt examined the growing role of public support in
journalism and highlighted Lindsey’s pitch. I would never speak on
behalf of the Times, but I like to think this was their way of
putting out a test: “if we ask, will you give?” The answer was a big
“yes” from a variety of folks for a multitude of reasons. Some donated
in support of the Times. Others did because they knew of, and want to
know more about, the garbage patch. Perhaps others donated just because of how
fresh Spot.Us seemed; and perhaps others did so because they connected
with Lindsey as an individual

Regardless, we raised $6,000 on Spot.Us before I could even go in and
change the fundraising goal to $10,000 (the amount Lindsey truly needed). We used Facebook Causes to get the remainder.

The Unfolding Story

Once funding was secured, Lindsey didn’t rest. She blogged regularly throughout her experience
– including using a satellite phone to get online while on the boat.
She saved her best photos for the Times upon her return, but she did
not ignore the interest of people that supported her trip. She kept
them involved and engaged. The best wrap-up of her posts from the ship can be found here.

The best pitches on Spot.Us are those that treat their subject as an unfolding story. KALW’s “Crime Courts and Communities“ pitch is another great example of this “beat blogging” approach.

Conclusion/What Can be Improved

Spot.Us needs a new design. There, I said it! (We’ve gotten started).

We need to express our mission clearer, and improve functionality/features of the site (new designs coming soon).
We are far from perfect. This is not a post to simply pat us on the
back and claim/whine, “if only more reporters were as open as Lindsey,
or more news organizations as willing as the Times  Spot.Us would be
the best thing since the Walter Lippmann.” That sentiment would not
only be naive — it would shift the burden of improvement from Spot.Us to
the culture of journalism.

Spot.Us does represent a fundamental shift from traditional
journalism culture. While that is a hurdle for us, it is
something we must overcome by highlighting exemplary projects like
this, and figuring out how they can be repeated. With that in mind,
this
case study would be incomplete without the following section.

We Need

1.    Other ways to support reporting. There are other ways to
support reporters beyond whipping out a wallet. Distributed reporting
can be huge, and Spot.Us should dabble in this. Perhaps we will shift
from “community funded reporting” to “community powered reporting” or
“community supported reporting.”

2.    Facebook, Twitter and more. The Times article would not have had a big impact without Twitter.

3. A clearer way to articulate what is going on with every pitch to any visitor that comes to our site.

4. Your ideas!

Finally

A big thank you from Lindsey: