Spot.us, an experiment in using community donations to fund journalism, has been acquired by American Public Media and folded into the public radio organization's Public Insight Network.
Spot.us was founded in 2008, promising a new way to support the increasingly underfunded traditions of investigative and local journalism. Freelance journalists pitch stories, along with the request for funding that they need to do the reporting. Then if community members think the news is worthwhile, they can donate. Ultimately, the fully funded stories get published on either the Spot.us site or a partner publication.
In an early blog post about the project, Cohn defended the idea from skeptics by arguing that all journalism has to wrestle with the potentially corrupting influence of money. Cohn's solution, he said, is transparency. Today, Cohn can point to real stories that have been funded by his model. When asked for one example, he sent Adweek an article reporting that a Minnesota sheriff had lied about terrorism groups and threats in his county. (The article was first published in the Twin Cities Daily Planet.)
Not everything has gone smoothly, Cohn admits. He says the initial plan to expand city by city didn't work, so even though Spot.us wants to focus on local journalism, it's no longer limited to any particular geography.
"I think crowdfunding has come of age in many different respects," he says. "I never expected it to be a 'silver bullet,' and I think it's important that it never be stated as such. . . . It takes a lot of work to raise funds."
For now, Spot.us will continue operating as a separate site without major changes, but Cohn says he's hopeful that the crowdfunding model of Spot.us and the crowdsourcing model of the Public Insight Network (which helps news organizations gather crowdsourced data through surveys, forums, and other features) can combine in meaningful ways.
Since both organizations are nonprofits, no money is changing hands in the deal, according to Cohn, except that American Public Media will be funding Spot.us from now on. However, the crowdfunding service has some funding of its own. Cohn says it has enough money to support itself for the next year.