Crowdfunding Journalism on Spot.Us

When environmental journalist and recent Stanford grad Lindsey Hoshaw had the chance to cover the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vast accumulation of garbage floating in the ocean, for The New York Times, she knew the three-week reporting trip would be worth it. Trouble was, the Times told her it doesn’t pay travel expenses for freelancers, and she’d need $10,000 to cover fuel and boat maintenance, medical expenses, insurance, safety equipment, and other costs associated with the trip.

The freelancer decided to forge ahead, even if it meant taking out loans. Fortunately, though, she didn’t have to, because Hoshaw managed to get much of her reporting funded through Spot.Us, an online marketplace for community-supported journalism. Now she’s trying to fund reporting on another Times article about fog-harvesting in a small Moroccan village.

With a grant from the Knight Foundation, freelancer-turned-entrepreneur David Cohn launched Spot.Us in November, 2008 out of frustration with what he calls an antiquated system. “Thirty years ago, you would type out your query, and you’d wait for them to mail you a letter or pick up the phone and call you,” he says. “Today we’re doing it via email, which is faster, but still one-to-one and happens behind closed doors.” Cohn wanted to make journalism more transparent and spread out the financial burden instead of relying on struggling newspapers or other publications.

To get started, freelance journalists join the site and submit a pitch, which must be approved before it appears online Spot.us. Using NPR’s freelance rate structure as a model, the website includes suggested price points depending on the length and level of reporting ($150-350 for a quick hit, $350-500 for a beat report, $400-950 for an enterprise report, and $600-1,400 for an investigative report), though freelancers and web content writers have some flexibility pricing their project.

According to Cohn, Spot.Us looks for “stor[ies] that would not be able to be told if you changed the location.” For instance, a story on gay marriage in the United States would be too general, while a story that specifically looks at how New York legislators handled gay marriage would have more specific geographic ties.

Once a story receives funding (if it’s not funded, you can choose to move forward with the assignment using the money you raised or cancel the pitch), the journalist blogs about the reporting process and the story appears on a partnering media outline or on Spot.Us.

Hoshaw started a Twitter feed (@theGarbageGirl) to help promote her original Spot.Us pitch and build her platform as a journalist. After the Times reported on her quest for funding, the project really started to pick up steam. “Some people really loved the idea of Spot.Us,” she says. “Some people were my friends or family, and some people were interested in the garbage patch.” All told, over a hundred people, many of them complete strangers, supported her campaign.

In addition to Hoshaw’s pitch, other reporters are raising funds for pieces about tax dodging in Florida, protests at Occupy Oakland, and the drug war in Mexico. As Cohn puts it, “the process was so tied to newspapers for so long but we’re rethinking the process that we go through in journalism.”

Photos courtesy of Bonnie Monteleone (top) and Jeff Ernst (bottom).

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About Susan Johnston

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer whose work appears in Bankrate.com, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, MediaBistro.com, Parade Magazine, and SELF, among other places. She is the author of The Urban Muse Guide to Online Writing Markets and blogs at The Urban Muse.

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