So, some people are just geniuses. Really. And when they apply their genius to social change, some pretty amazing things can happen.
I have been intrigued since the moment last summer when I first heard about Spot.us. In the research I’ve done since, this is what I’ve learned. These folks created a website that allows people (it’s only on the West Coast now–started in the Bay Area) to invest in freelance journalism projects, mainly investigative work, that they feel their communities need. Likewise, journalists can pitch stories/series that they’d like to do and then solicit community-based funding for them. It started with specific stories or series but has expanded to include entire beats: one, for example, is City Budgetwatch for San Francisco.
When the stories are complete, they are picked up by mainstream media, run in the alternative press, and/or shared directly with the community. Obviously, a major impetus for this comes from the severe budget restrictions facing many newspapers, traditionally the biggest font of investigative journalism in the country. Many papers have cut back drastically on their local and in-depth reporting, including The Kansas City Star. The increasing consolidation of media ownership likely plays a role, too, given its contribution to growing homogenization of news coverage and greater difficulty finding audiences for local/niche reporting.
I’ll be honest; I have some concerns about this model. First, it is in some ways just a grassroots application of a model long-maligned by social justice advocates (for good reason); wealthy, powerful interests have a long history of ‘buying’ the media coverage they want, through pressuring media companies with their ad dollars, purchasing media outlets altogether, and/or other questionable tactics. There’s some truth to the ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ adage, but that part still makes me a little queasy. Second, will there be pressure on the journalists to produce the story that the community investors want? In some cases, certainly, this won’t be a problem, but, in others, the media’s role as pursuer of the truth may be distorted by financial pressures again, just of a different kind. And, third, will this trend threaten the survival of those alternative media sources that, while corporate-funded, have still done impressive investigative work over the past few decades, providing important information and credible perspectives in policy debates? Similarly, would the good reporters still part of mainstream outlets flee, meaning that these venues, where many people still get their news, would deteriorate further? I realize that this last concern is probably far-off and the kind of thing that the founders hope will become a problem, but I think we need to try to think this through as this effort gets going.
I had a chance to communicate via email with David Cohn, the founder of Spot.us, after I left some of these comments on Beth’s blog (where he was kind enough to share Spot.us’ success with crowdfunding (small donations collected from many donors), which has tremendous implications for advocacy and other nonprofit ventures, too). He stressed that they are working with alternative media outlets to bolster their freelance budgets, so that they are an asset to those assets, not a threat. He also made a strong case for transparency as the ‘new objectivity’, so that people will know where the support for a particular story came from and be able to make their own judgment about its validity, based on full information, rather than a purported reputation for objectivity, the way traditional media gains credibility today.
After communicating with David, I feel more confident that the creators of this initiative are, in fact, the enthusiastic, brilliant, principled people that they seem to be, and that they will guide this effort to its full potential as a revolution in our production and dissemination of information. And I’m going to encourage social workers and others committed to social justice to become involved in this community-funded reporting, to shape it as a force for social good.
It’s not in the Midwest yet, but, to get the ball rolling, here are some stories to which I would gladly contribute $20. What do you think? How can you envision this kind of media shaping our social change work? What stories do you wish you saw today that you’d be willing to fund? How would you use community-funded reporting in your field of practice?