Sunday, September 27, 2009

Spot.Us: The future of investigative journalism?

A creative, trendy experiment in citizen journalism called Spot.Us grabbed headlines last week. The latest buzz came from the Knight Foundation's decision to lavish $340,000 on the Bay-area start-up to help it expand to L. A. in partnership with USC-Annenberg's School of Journalism.
The way Spot.Us works is that anyone can pitch an idea for an investigative story on the website and seek donations. When enough pledges come in (the site averages $40 per donation) the project is a go. Stories can be sold to mainstream media or run on the website. has produced some lively coverage of flaws in police oversight, recycling and city budget problems. 
Lord knows we need new ideas in journalism these days. Anything is worth a try, including crowd-funded stories. But the truth is that this model isn't the magic cure for what ails us. The numbers just don't add up. raised just $40,000 from 800 people in its first 10 months of operation, enough money to pay for 30 stories, according to its website.
Thirty stories? That works out to be $1333 per project. And that equals a) slave labor or b) an investigation at warp speed.
When I worked as an investigative reporter at the Seattle P-I, we shelled out $1333-plus just to get key state documents copied. Or to do our own testing of tainted products. Or to hire sign language interpreters to help interview rape victims. Or to pay an attorney to review a story so we didn't get sued.
In the end, my newspaper went under because the advertising (read: money) that subsidized great journalism vanished -- not because we ran out of ideas. Sustainable investigative journalism is expensive.
So the next time an academic or Web guru touts Spot.Us as the future of investigative journalism, I hope someone will remind them: The emperor has no clothes -- and certainly won't be able to afford any in the near future.
(Photo: by stringer_bel/Flickr)

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