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As Spot.us ends, insights on community news crowdfunding

by: Amy Gahran |

A Knight-supported pioneering project in niche crowdfunding, Spot.us has now officially shut down after being put on hiatus a year ago. But during its six years of operation, it yielded many lessons about what works, and not, for engaging communities to financially support local journalism.

Founded in 2008 by entrepreneur David Cohn with a Knight News Challenge grant Spot.us was a platform that facilitated crowdfunding, promotion, publishing and dissemination of journalism -- often by independent community news outlets and independent or citizen journalists. (Disclosure: A community news site I helped found, Oakland Local, used Spot.us to fund and promote several investigative projects and other enterprise coverage. I helped produce some of these projects.)

Spot.us was purchased by American Public Media in 2011, and a year ago APM put the platform on hiatus. Then on Feb. 11, APM announced they were shutting down the site. (APM will be archiving the code and stories that comprised the Spot.us platform; for now, you can view Spot.us content at the Internet Archive.)

In that announcement, Joellen Easton, Business Development Manager for APM's Public Insight Network, noted that Spot.us was being closed partly because its software wouldn't scale to meet today's needs without a complete overhaul. And also, APM believed Spot.us no longer added sufficient value, given the variety of crowdfunding platforms that have arisen in the last several years.

"Spot.us proved that crowdfunding can help support independent, local journalism, especially that of freelancers. It was an important early innovator in the field, and many of the platforms available in 2015 owe a lot to founder David Cohn and the community of Spot.us users," Easton wrote.

She also shared these insights from APM's analysis of where Spot.us crowdfunding fell short:

  • "Most Spot.us projects were funded by friends and family, as opposed to community members with an interest in or a need for that information."
  • "The majority of Spot.us funders gave once and never returned."
  • "The market for crowdfunding journalism projects in general, as based on actual donations, is tiny, accounting for just .13 percent of the $2.8 billion raised in FY2013. Journalism [crowdfunding] projects have a 63% failure rate, compared to 56% for all [crowdfunding] projects.
  • "There are few successes, business model-wise, for scaling and sustaining a crowdfunding platform."

However, digital media experts, including Dan Gillmor of Arizona State University have observed that, "From the day Spot.us joined American Public Media, it was treated like an unwanted stepchild." Which might have contributed to its lagging performance noted after APM took the platform over.

David Cohn (now Executive Producer for Al Jazeera's AJ+ mobile news app) noted, "I am glad that APM didn't write off crowdfunding in general. I'm still bullish on it -- as I assume APM is to some degree, since Easton's article explores some options to make it work."

Cohn also believes that Spot.us probably wasn't a great fit for APM, because "it was too much of a content publishing platform for a media company that doesn't see itself in the platform business. If those priorities aren't aligned, then maintaining a platform doesn't make sense."

Cohn expects that as the crowdfunding sphere has expanded, that he expects to see more examples of public media and other nonprofit news producers using crowdfunding to support journalism, even at the community level. He also sees value in the combined crowdfunding/publishing platform approach. For instance, building on the conceptual legacy of Spot.us, Beacon Reader is another journalism-focused crowdfunding and publishing platform.

Values matter. Cohn asserted that journalistic values were always a top priority at Spot.us -- even though that point proved controversial, since the site did support the production of some activist-oriented news coverage.

"I'd love to see a journalism organization, especially public media, invest in creating a crowdfunding platform with strong journalistic principles at its core," Cohn said. "Otherwise, we'll just have to hope that third-party crowdfunding platforms keep journalism's best interest in mind. Trouble is, 'hope' is not a reliable strategy."

APM is a large national news network, the second largest producer of radio news programs in the U.S. -- and it owns and operates radio stations in three states. So it's needs and considerations for coverage and funding are markedly different from those of a community or hyperlocal news site.

Cohn is proud of the Spot.us reputation for funding the "second level" of niche and community news. "We helped fund coverage for smaller venues, the startups and small nonprofits, more so than the larger venues such as the Texas Tribune."

Cohn believes that community foundations (perhaps several, through collaboration) may be the right players to create a new crowdfunding platform for community news and information. "The value of a platform is that it builds awareness and creates consistency in the quality of how content is produced and delivered," he said. "Kickstarter might be great to fund a one-off project, but a platform could serve as a venue."

Cohn appreciated the observations in Easton's article -- how she overturned philanthropy myths (such as "crowdfunding will cannibalize your donor base") and suggested future projects (such as a crowdfunding campaign playbook for public media producers).

"Crowdfunding news definitely doesn't always work -- but it helps journalists fail forward," Cohn said. "Even if your initial crowdfunding campaign is unsuccessful, you learn a lot about marketing, voice and engagement. And you'll be more successful next time, however you fund your work."

He also observed that crowdfunding campaigns play a strong role in marketing and evangelizing the need for coverage. "Even if people don't donate, they may hear of the story idea through a crowdfunding campaign. That can drive longer-term interest in topics or news venues."

Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a journalist, editor, trainer, entrepreneur, strategist, and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to writing
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