Spot.Us recently launched a new design, so this is an opportune time
to write a “State of the Spot” post — something we haven’t done since
the website was six months old. I hope to lay out how far we’ve come and what’s on our plate and make a call to arms to the Spot.Us community and anyone else interested in the future of journalism.

In the two years since our site has launched, we’ve funded over 160
projects with the help of 5,000 contributors, a fifth of whom contributed more than once. We’ve done this in collaboration with 95 organizations, and our reporting projects have won eight journalism awards.

In short, we’re making a difference. Whether it’s funding FOIA requests, exposing the lies of a sheriff, or providing a deeper understanding of those less fortunate in our society, the stories we fund make a difference.

I earnestly believe in the power of an informed democracy. The guiding principle at Spot.Us is to make the process of journalism more transparent and participatory — not merely to inform but to engage. Our site is a testament to the notion that people can take ownership over their information needs if there is a platform to support it.

Partnerships make our impact bigger. Take Oakland Local, for example, which has invested $700 into Spot.Us pitches and received $7,000 worth of reporting in return. Whether it’s Mother Jones, The UpTake, WitnessLA or the myriad news organizations (many of them non-profit or
community-based) we’ve collaborated with, our collective efforts allow stories to gain a wider audience, and we empower partnering organizations to do the fearless reporting that our communities need.

Room for Improvement

With all that said, I’m not satisfied. As Clay Shirky noted, our communities can become rife with “casual endemic corruption” if we don’t figure out how to keep the public informed and engaged. The Spot.Us platform can and will improve to continue this fight.

Our redesign is an example of forward momentum, and now it’s time to tackle the next hurdle: How can Spot.Us become a fully sustainable organization and increase the number of stories we support? Although 2011 looks to be promising, I’m already taking time to look to 2012 and beyond.

Running a startup organization means making choices. This is my attempt to explain to the Spot.Us community, journalists, and others who follow us what choices I’m debating, what obstacles we’re facing, and to ask for your advice.

One of the biggest Spot.Us. opportunities is its unique sponsorship model. I’ve written about this at length before — from announcing the idea to launching it to seeing early success. As far as I know, we are the only media organization experimenting with the idea of letting the public manage our advertising budget. It’s our budget, but your decision. In many ways, this idea is as revolutionary as Spot.Us itself. Community members can fund a story without spending any of their own funds. Meanwhile, sponsors get meaningful engagement from community members, which can turn into
tangible return on investment. Our advertising is transparent, participatory and therefore jibes with the mission of Spot.Us to get the public involved in the process of journalism. We are just acknowledging that advertising is part of that process.

Our sponsorship feature has created an important revenue stream for
Spot.Us. At the moment, however, it doesn’t offset our burn rate. The
challenge is getting enough sponsors when we have no sales team (my
spare time doesn’t really count). We also need to find the right
sponsorships which will engage community members so they continue to
come back. This is compounded because our model is unique. I haven’t
found a media planning and buying agency to take it on, even though I’m
offering a higher-than-normal commission.

How You Can Help

Tackling this challenge is one of the things I’m working on during a good chunk of my remaining time at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. Any help from a community member on the below action items would be greatly appreciated:

  1. Join Spot.Us and try our latest sponsored survey (free credits) and give me feedback on the experience. Take the challenge of doing the next three sponsorships we have planned (the next one will be sponsored by us to get feedback on how to better sell these).
  2. Help create the sales material for our sponsorship model — maybe even find an individual or agency to take on the process of selling for a commission.

  3. Draft a long-term business plan with a road map for how Spot.Us would have to scale to become sustainable.
  4. Write a handbook for community-funded reporting, which would be a gift to the larger journalism community.
  5. And finally — an A.P.I. with PRX, ASAP.

The Nitty Gritty

Allow me to elaborate. First, in regards to the material to sell sponsorships, our current sponsorship page doesn’t do the concept justice. I can talk almost anyone’s ear off about this model. We have some data about our users, but it hasn’t been presented in any kind of media kit. Hopefully, a media planning/buying
agency or an independent ad-sales person could use this material. I’m comfortable sharing a healthy commission, but we should provide them with the best sales material possible.

If you are an ad salesperson interested in working on an innovative project, let me know. If you want to contribute some pro-bono time to help us create the material, your karma will increase 13.6 points!

Up next is a business plan that shows a path to sustainability. I’ve played with some numbers and believe it’s wholly possible if Spot.Us can grow its sponsorship model. It’s a bit of a supply-demand issue. If we get more sponsorships (supply), I believe we can support more pitches and increase the number of surveys taken (demand). If
either side falls short, we fail. At the moment, our demand is much higher than the supply. If somehow tomorrow we got our ideal number of sponsorships, I am not sure if we could hit the demand numbers, but I do believe these numbers are possible by 2012 with the right messaging and if the sponsorships are coming in regularly. The supply-demand conundrum is a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario. If one side doesn’t come through, the circle of life won’t continue, and Spot.Us lets one side down.

The business plan I intend to lay out will show what numbers we’d need to hit on both sides to reach a sustainable equilibrium, one that funds stories, provides sponsors with an appropriate amount of engagement and leaves Spot.Us as a strong forward-leaning non-profit.

The community-funded reporting handbook is being led by Jonathan Peters, under my supervision. The handbook will be informed by Spot.Us experiences, but my hope is that it becomes a resource for anyone, regardless of a relationship to Spot.Us.

In regards to the application programing interface, it’s important to remember that Spot.Us is not a news site but a news platform. In that same vein, we don’t have to be a destination site. If partnering sites can use our back-end to fundraise for projects on their sites, then more power to them. But first we have a few technical hurdles to overcome.

Luckily, PRX is a willing guinea pig I mean, partner. ;) If we are able to create a seamless A.P.I. that integrates into a site, we can scale up the number of pitches (demand) Spot.Us has in its stables whenever we get a new sponsor. In some respects, this turns Spot.Us into a 21st-century advertising network in addition to inviting the public to support journalism.

So what now?

Obviously, we don’t have a shortage of things to do. I remain encouraged both by the journalism community that supports our work and the public at large that has shown it supports quality reporting — stories that need to be told, stories that can make a difference in the lives of individuals and the communities we live in.

Although that is exciting, I remain humbled and don’t want to lose sight of what is at risk.

In the 1985 film “Brewster’s Millions,” Richard Pryor’s character spends millions of dollars designing a room he could “die in.” The designer goes through various iterations, each time getting closer and closer to the goal but never hitting the nail on the head. Eventually, the designer gets it right. This happens just as we find out the main character is broke, and an army of movers come to collect all the
furnishings.

Aside from being one of my favorite comedians, Pryor, with the tip of his hat, touches on one of my biggest fears with Spot.Us. This new redesign leaves the site looking awesome. All the pieces are on the table, and the puzzle is coming together and beginning to show a beautiful image of a community-powered site. If Spot.Us isn’t able to
reach this dream, it would pain my heart, but I feel I could tip my hat in just the same way. Still, I feel we have a dragon by the tail and the tools in hand to bring it down.

Why I’m Sharing This

  1. Spot.Us as an experiment has always been about openness. As the journalism industry rants and raves about experimentation, I still don’t see it happening, at least not at the level I think is possible. The more I can show what I’m doing — the success, challenges, failures, and fears — the more I hope others will follow, even if it’s not “the industry” but rather lone and brave individuals. The water is fine, and I truly believe it is what we need.

  2. Somewhat selfishly, I think there are ways the Spot.Us community can help push us forward, especially with finding sponsors. Our current sales material is all here (it’ll get better, promise), and we do offer a commission to anyone who lands a sponsor. I’m happy to give anyone the talking points.

  3. A similar plea is for any folks who want to dive into the numbers with me and come up with a long-term business plan and a proposal for funding. How I feel about the foundation world is a post in itself. Suffice it to say, it takes money to make money, and any funding we seek would have to abide by the old proverb of teaching people how to fish rather than giving them free meals. Again, we have a tangible revenue stream, but we need to shore up. As a non-profit, we can’t get VC funding — unless it’s the kind the Texas Tribune gets), so we’d have to look to philanthropists.

I certainly can’t predict what will happen. I never could. But that’s what makes this an exciting ride and what I believe empowers the Spot.Us community. We’ve come this far only because you see value in our efforts. Together, we’ve funded meaningful stories in partnership with nearly 100 publications. I’m happy to say that I’ve seen many of them
make a real impact in how our communities function.

I’m excited to tackle the future. I hope you’ll be there with me