Journalism start-up site comes to LA

The non-profit journalism website Spot.Us, which allows community members to choose and fund news stories, branched out to Los Angeles last week through a partnership with USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

Spot.Us, which is attempting to implement a new business model for journalism, allows community members to donate money to fund stories that will be written by freelance reporters. The website also lets members of the public give reporters “tips” for ideas that could potentially turn into stories.

Once the stories are complete, outside media outlets can also pick up the stories for publication if they donate an amount equal to 50 percent of what community members donated for the story.

“We need to experiment in different ways of doing and supporting journalism,” said David Cohn, founder of Spot.Us. “It’s an important part of our democracy; you need citizens to make informed decisions and journalism is what helps them stay informed.”

Spot.Us has partnered with Annenberg to take advantage of its connections to the local journalism community. The school will assist in hiring of a project managing editor for Spot.Us Los Angeles and will provide funds to help the site succeed.

“The economic model is broken; we’re at a time of reinvention and I think Spot.Us is a piece of the reinvention,” said Geneva Overholser, director of the Annenberg School of Journalism.

It can become an important contributor to meeting the public information needs and as a new economic model for news — one of many.”

Cohn originally pitched the idea of expanding Spot.Us to Los Angeles to Overholser at a conference in New York last year, and Overholser proposed a partnership with Annenberg.

About three or four months ago, Cohn proposed the expansion of Spot.Us to the Knight Foundation, a journalism organization based in Miami which funds a number of promising journalism projects.

After the proposal, the Knight Foundation gave Annenberg a $250,000 grant to roll out Spot.Us in Los Angeles.

The grant will fund Spot.Us LA for 18 months, after which Overholser said they will have hopefully figured out a way for the branch to support itself, as the original site does.

Cohn said he has high hopes for the partnership with Annenberg.

“The Annenberg School of Journalism is a very well respected institution and also Geneva Overholser is someone I know and trust,” Cohn said.

I think Annenberg can use Spot.Us in a very positive way; they can help be the on-ground hub for Los Angeles investigation.”

Overholser said she believes non-profits will become increasingly important in the media landscape because the economic model is increasingly untenable. Projects like

Spot.Us, she added, could eventually support a new model for journalism.

“This is a way for [everyone] to help shape journalism because they get a voice in deciding what stories are covered,” she said. “That’s big because in the past with commercial journalism, the public didn’t have much a say and now this model can help change it.”

According to Annenberg Digital News Director Marc Cooper, although Spot.Us has been successful in the Bay Area, it is still too early to know if the model will prevail everywhere.

“It’s still unproven in other areas and as it grows in LA we will be able to evaluate whether in the long run it is a reliable model,” Cooper said. “It is too early to have a definitive judgment but it’s worth trying.”

The model also comes with a setback, according to Cooper, especially for certain types of stories that will lose their “element of surprise” by publicly displaying information about the story online.

“The transparent nature of Spot.Us could make certain types of investigative journalism difficult because it gives the target of investigation a heads up that they are being investigated,” Cooper said.

Maybe one solution is that they won’t put up those types of stories and that’s fine.”

Cohn said the expansion to LA will be just one step for Spot.Us, which he hopes to bring to a number of other metropolitan cities in the United States within the next few years.