Since Spot.Us first launched in late 2008 as a simple wiki, I've wanted this to be a learning and growing endeavor both for myself and for journalism as a whole.
There are so many lessons in starting a non-profit news project, especially one that is unique in its scope and mission like Spot.Us. I hope to share some insight below, but first the news.
Today Spot.Us takes a huge step forward with a new design and new features. This was made possible by lead designer Lauren Rabaino and the excellent development team of Erik Sundelof and Dan Newman. Please join me and Anh Do, managing editor of the Los Angeles branch, in thanking this team.
The new interface will continue to be tweaked, but it is already much more appealing and user friendly than our old design. I dare not call it "Spot.Us 2.0" just yet. There are two major new features planned before we hit that mark. This is Spot.Us 1.9.
Suggest a city: It's time to start looking beyond the Bay Area and Los Angeles. That's right -- expansion is a priority. Spot.Us is a tool or platform, not a news organization. With that in mind, we are looking to expand where we know people are interested in using the site. Would you intend on using it if it was available in your area? If so, suggest your city!
Assignments: This is a feature I am very excited about. In some respects it transitions Spot.Us out of "community funded reporting" and into "community powered reporting." It's a subtle but important distinction. Every reporter now has the option of creating "assignments" that are limited only by their imagination. A reporter could crowdsource a collection of photos, distribute the workload required for reviewing documents, etc. The reporter has control over who can and cannot contribute to an assignment, and how assignments exist, if at all, in relation to their pitch. This is an optional feature for anyone that wants to build a movement around their reporting efforts.
Widgets, Facebook, Twitter, Oh My!: Yes, it's been a long time coming. I admit we haven't been moving fast enough in this space. But we are making up for it ASAP! We aren't breaking ground here, but considering that we are playing in the new media space, it's a crime that we haven't had these features.
More on Widgets: This is a deceptively forward-looking feature. Our hope is that soon people will be able to donate through a widget without ever having to leave the site where the widget is placed. This could also pave the way for an API (which is much further out, but is along this train of thought). For now, widgets will be built into a "Spot.Us Lite" that can be hosted on your website by just copying and pasting some code. (This is coming soon.)
Story updates: We've had blog posts associated with every pitch, but the vast majority of blog posts have been overlooked. Now we are highlighting the latest story updates on the front page, and will encourage reporters to show the process of their reporting.
RSS: We now have an RSS feed for...everything: Latest stories, newest pitches, blog posts, even the most recent contributions -- and they can all be filtered by networks. Only interested in Los Angeles news? Go into the LA network and all the RSS feeds will be relevant to you.
Spot.Us Channels: The first channel we're creating is "Spot Us Picks." But in the future, channels, or filtered menus of pitches, can be created around topics (the health channel) general types of organizations (the public media channel) or specific partnering organizations (The Bay Area News Project channel).
There are also a few more minor features and tweaks. For example, we are finally able to better highlight our successful partnerships, our community advisory boards, and more.
General Lessons, Observations
I've learned more during this process than I can truly reflect on in a single blog post. But I have always seen winning the Knight News Challenge as a great privilege that has afforded me the luxury (and responsibility) to publicly expound on how Spot.Us is going, and what I'm learning along the way.
Many of those lessons are in past blog posts around being iterative, the things you must weigh in website development and collaboration. As of right now, these are some of the best lessons I've been able to articulate. I hope to share more as I continue.
How Is Spot.Us Doing?
I never know how to answer this question. No matter how many times I say it won't, some people still expect Spot.Us and crowdfunding to somehow replace the gobs of money that has been lost from traditional advertising.
Here's what I usually say: "Considering all the things that could have gone wrong, we are doing amazing!"
And that is true.
Now in our second year of an initial grant from the Knight Foundation, I am proud to say that with micro-donations and other foundation grants, we have almost raised a third of the amount of money given to us in that first grant. Which is to say: In another two years, we could be a net positive to the cash flow of working journalists. That, of course, assumes nothing changes.
This design represents a shift from the proof-of-concept stage to the expansion stage. Indeed, I'm talking to (and want to talk to more) folks around the country who want to use Spot.Us in their area. My hope is we can continue to funnel more money into the pockets of journalists who are reporting on important civic topics.
However, if people expect Spot.Us to replace major metro papers, then we are in trouble. As I often say, there is no such thing as a silver bullet. Spot.Us is a new, growing revenue stream. It is not meant to be as big of a revenue stream as classifieds were 20 years ago; but it is a revenue stream that requires little effort (just create a pitch and embed a widget), and an option that can be combined with a multitude of other streams
We continue to be a platform -- a growing platform. This year is a make or break moment. At the end of 2010, Spot.Us could be a beautiful failure in that we can report back to the larger journalism community what we know, what we learned and how we think others could build off that. Or we will keep going -- the little startup non-profit that could ;)
I've always been an underdog, a nice guy that didn't buckle to authority. With that in mind, I have every intention of breaking through every barrier I see in front of Spot.Us. I hope you'll join me!