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    Internet Donations Hope to Halt Print Journalism Decline

    It all started with an idea. Then all it took was a compelling story pitch and accompanying video blog recorded from Thea Chroman’s living room to raise the $550 needed to investigate the rise of car and tent cities as low-income San Franciscans are driven out of their homes.

    “I’m just so thrilled that it worked,” Chroman, who compared these growing communities to the Hooverville shanty towns during the 1930s, said. “I find it very heartening that the public is so eager to participate in the production of reportage, especially at a time when the future of journalism seems so tenuous.”

    Chroman, 27, was the first journalist to receive full funds for a story less than 10 days since the official Nov. 11 launch of Spot.us. This nonprofit organization, designed by 26-year-old David Cohn and propelled by a two-year grant for $340,000 from the Knight Foundation, was designed to pioneer community-funded reporting.

    The project accepts story tips from the public and pitches by journalists, which are then funded by citizens to be materialized into mostly investigative stories for publication.

    But Spot.us is not alone in its mission. In the wake of declining circulation and advertising revenue in American newspapers due to the Internet, this project represents one of the ways journalists have struggled to identify and reverse the trend of vanishing newspaper sections and job losses by using micro-donations from the public to support superior journalism.

    Between 2006 and 2007, the circulation of traditional American newspapers decreased 3 percent due to the shift in news readers from print to Internet, according to the Audit Bureau Circulation. In response to the decline in circulation, total print advertising revenue fell 9.4 percent in 2007 compared to 2006, according to The Newspaper Association of America.

    These rapid declines, which have caused hundreds of newspapers to condense or cut sections and jobs, have spurred many nonprofit organizations to try and salvage what has been lost.

    Reporters who create pitches on Spot.us are considered contractors or freelance journalists and typically request an amount of money that is more or less the same as what they would be paid for producing similar work.

    The public can either pledge news “tips,” which do not represent real money but instead express interest in a reporter’s idea, or they can donate tax-deductible transactions toward a reporter’s story. If a pitch is unsuccessful, the donor will receive their money back in the form of Spot.us credits, so that their generosity will go to support journalism either way.

    Finished stories are licensed under Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding the possibilities of creative works available for others to legally add on to or share. These licenses permit original creators of a work to claim certain reserved rights as well as waived rights for the benefit of other creators. Partner news organizations of Spot.us may also obtain first publishing rights to completed stories if they donate 50 percent or more towards a pitch.

    The idea for Spot.us had been brewing in Cohn’s head since late 2005 when he began working for New York University professor Jay Rosen at NewsAssignment.net, a nonprofit site devoted to sparking innovative journalism through open collaboration over the Internet. Cohn, who received his masters in journalism at Columbia, said his interest in citizen journalism stemmed from being a tech reporter for Wired as well as a big consumer of blogs.

    “I was constantly examining how technology is changing different professions in a profound and often positive way,” Cohn said. “I was also a big believer in aggregation and the journalist’s role in aggregating good content.”

    Another organization that aims to build sustainable journalism via crowdfunding is Representative Journalism, also known as RepJ. Leonard Witt, a journalism professor at Kennesaw State University and creator of RepJ, has received a $51,000 grant to start his project from “Locally Grown,” a two-year old Northfield, Minn., blog and podcast that covers local civic issues. Witt and staff could not be reached for comment.

    On a video stream posted on his blog at PJnet.org, Witt tells a crowd that although the old economic models of journalism are deteriorating, people are still going to have to pay if they want high quality news in the future. He uses the example of a Florida news reporter who is no longer able to cover endangered species since his newspaper cut the section. Witt explains that RepJ would be the platform for thousands of people who care about endangered species in Florida to donate money to professional journalists to cover these stories.

    One of the main differences between Spot.us and RepJ, Witt explains during an email interview with MediaShift blogger Mark Glaser, is that Spot.us is story-by-story funding and the RepJ model is seeking long-term sustainable funding by hiring a full-time journalist to cover specific issues in the Northfield area. In addition, RepJ is dealing with a population of 17,000, whereas Spot.us is dealing with the entire San Francisco Bay area — approximately 7 million inhabitants, according to Bay Area Census.

    Though many are bullish about this approach to journalism, there are still some skeptics. Contributing editor at Wired and “Crowdfunding” author, Jeff Howe, is optimistic about this model of journalism. He points out to Glaser, however, that funders may expect a certain outcome from the story pitch and may get upset when their expectations aren’t met.

    Chroman also mentioned that reporters may view their pitches as fairly “proprietary” or a business deal. Both Cohn and Chroman also point out that this model will not support day-to-day reporting.

    “I won’t make millions from it,” said Cohn. “But my goal is really to experiment in new models that might sustain meaningful journalism.”

    Others question the level of accuracy in each story with the lack of a formal, traditional editor. But both Spot.us and RepJ do have a source of vetting. On Spot.us, there are “Fact-Check Editors” who are typically other journalists assigned by Cohn that ensure fair and accurate reporting. Stories are not permitted to be published without the Fact-Check Editors’ approval. On RepJ, there is only one journalist, Bonnie Obremski, who is supervised by Witt as well as monitored by her own editor, Linda Seebach.

    “To be honest, the biggest skeptics about accuracy are always other journalists,” said Cohn, who makes each Spot.us journalist submit a video to chaperon their story pitches in order to create a sense of intimacy and trust between reporters and public funders. “Citizens tend not to dwell on this.”

    With both organizations launched only months ago, it may be too soon to tell exactly how successful they’ve been journalistically, but there have already been some success stories. Other than Chroman’s story receiving all the money it needed to take flight, Spot.us reaped success before it was even a fully formed website.

    “Over the summer we did a beta phase where we raised $2,500 which was used to fund journalists to fact-check the political advertisements for the San Francisco election,” Cohn explained. “We did this using just a wiki.”

    Both models are localized at this point, but plan on expanding in the future. Spot.us hopes to reach another region as soon as 2009.

    “Journalism will survive the death of its institutions,” Cohn said.

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