The immense power of understanding what readers will pay to see reported

Credit: http://bit.ly/19K6EEb
A cash-eyed view. Credit: http://bit.ly/19K6EEb

In advertising, media and journalism circles, a conversation has taken place for years about revenue beyond advertising.

Ads are the source of CPM domination, cookies, and in a different era, the pop-up ad. Ads are the backbone of modern-day online media but revenue isn’t what it used to be and some have tried to find another way.

Let’s measure value based on relevance, originality and the depth of relationships with readers, says Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism.

Lasting relevance is the “ultimate metric for media startups,” says Rafat Ali.

Well one great metric to identify sustainable practices, perhaps more accurate than surveys or interviews, maybe even more than page view data, is money. What kind of news are consumers willing to pay to see reported?

That’s the central question behind analysis of Spot.us data by Nikki Usher and Lian Jian, academics who reviewed more than 10,000 donations to crowdfunded stories on America’s first crowdfunding journalism platform [Spot.us] to find out “what consumers truly value.”

Spot.us offers us an opportunity to study the kind of news consumers want to read, based on the news they fund.”

They also conducted a survey to determine if donors prefer journalists with more experience.

The first-of-its-kind study was put together by two women who know a lot about a lot.

Jian researches crowdsourcing, crowdfunding and business models in news. She is an assistant professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Usher is an assistant professor at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. As a 2014-15 Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow, she studied the impact of news startups in the digital age, and at one time examined why venture capital investors lack interest in news startups. She is the author of Making News at the New York Times.

Jian and Usher expected readers to be especially interested in civic journalism and most willing to fund the most experienced reporters.

Neither prediction proved true.

Age aint nothing but a number, says the crowd

Good news, young journalists: Experience doesn’t matter, at least not when crowdfunding.

Echoing interviews with donors by Tanja Aitamurto, analysis of Spot.us data found that the reporter’s experience does not seem to impact a donor’s willingness to give to a crowdfunding project.

“The fact that donors do not prefer either experienced or inexperienced reporters might offer some hope for young reporters seeking a way to support the reporting that they believe society needs, or to jump-start their careers,” the study said.

This conclusion was arrived at by surveying 85 percent of active Spot.us donors during a two-week period in April 2011.

The results of the multiple choice survey: Only 16 percent chose the reporter with more experience and 71 percent expressed no preference at all.

– 48 percent chose the answer “I do not usually look at the reporter’s experience.”

– 23 percent chose “I don’t know.”

– 16 percent chose the reporter with 15 years of experience.

– 13 percent chose the reporter with two years of experience.

News you can use now

News consumers and journalists have been known to have a different taste in stories for decades, Jian and Usher said, pointing to previous studies. 

That’s why this may be the most powerful statement in the entire study.

“As consumers assume an increasingly active role in producing news, we find that the choice gap between consumers and journalists still exists. In crowdfunded journalism in particular, consumers prefer specific news useful in their daily living whereas journalists tend to focus on general public affairs news.”

In other words, people who crowdfund journalism want more stories they can use immediately – more about the bridge they cross everyday or why trains don’t run on time, less about cultural diversity, education or media accountability. City infrastructure was the most popular category, more than twice as likely as some other subjects to be funded.

Topic Odds of being funded
City infrastructure 216%
Public Health 152%
Criminal Justice 149%
Race and Demographics 129%
Local Science and Business 106%
Wealth and Poverty 89%
Environment 86%
Employment 80%
Government and Politics 76%
Consumer Protection 67%
Cultural Diversity 67%
Education 60%
Media Accountability 43%

Jian and Usher broke down Spot.us’ 13 categories into two camps: guidance and surveillance.

Guidance stories (public health, city infrastructure and consumer protection) can be applied to a person’s life immediately. Surveillance stories (all other topics) are of less immediate use.

Generally, guidance stories overperformed and surveillance stories underperformed.

Among the 10 surveillance story topics, only three had a higher than average chance of being funded by donors: race and demographics (1.29 times greater), criminal justice (1.49 times greater) and local science and business (1.06 times greater).

A quick look at the Spot.us analysis by the numbers:

– Jian and Usher reviewed 10,227 donations.

– Their analysis takes into account donations that occurred between Oct. 20, 2008 (the day the first donation was received) to May 2011

– Among 234 pitches approved for fundraising, 102 got the money they needed to make the stories happen.

– The small sample size of 210 approved story pitches may impact the reliability of the results.

– Funded stories come from the San Francisco Bay area (76 percent), the Los Angeles area (21 percent), and the Seattle area (3 percent). Particularly given that crowdfunding journalism is a pretty new phenomena and data comes almost entirely from California, these results may not translate to the rest of the United States or other parts of the world.

– Stories originated with pitches by journalists and had to be approved by Spot.us editors.

Our findings suggest that crowdfunded journalism could work to fill an essential gap in public knowledge — if given the chance to do so.”

– Spot.us stories received donations. Rewards weren’t offered to funders like they are today on platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo.

– Even in the more democratic world of crowdfunding journalism, like traditional journalism, Spot.us stories were chosen by journalists and approved by editors.

– The study’s authors do not believe people who paid to make Spot.us pitches possible came to the site for general news. “Donors to crowdfunded journalism seem to have a taste for specific news topics that are of immediate utility to them in daily living.”

Crowdfunding journalism has the potential impact of filling holes in the fractured media landscape of today, the study concluded.

Further, the very existence of crowdfunding journalism is a signal that “something must be done to replenish the dwindling supply of local news, not just for accountability’s sake, but for the larger nature of civic engagement,” Jian and Usher concluded.

Four amazing lessons from Spot.us

Jian and Usher’s analysis was published in 2014 by the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. We revisited it now in the wake of an announcement last month by American Public Media that Spot.us, America’s first crowdfunding journalism platform, would go out of business.

Since then Through the Cracks has published three other eye-opening stories about Spot.us data and what it has taught us about the future of crowdfunding journalism and the future of journalism as a whole.

The Playbook

When the announcement was made that Spot.us was no more, American Public Media revealed the results of an internal study of crowdfunding journalism and Spot.us data and shared best practices – what journalists should do before, during and after their crowdfunding campaign.

10 BFD Takeaways

Tanja Aitamurto, deputy director of the Brown Center for Media Innovation at Stanford University, conducted interviews with seven Spot.us donors and eight reporters to discover their feelings about the new way to produce journalism.

She found journalists who felt closer to donors than average readers, who felt apprehensive when marketing a campaign or asking for money and who felt a sense of responsibility to donors that goes beyond the duty felt in traditional journalism.

How it Happened

When the announcement was made that Spot.us would go away, Through the Cracks contacted Spot.us founder David Cohn and American Public Media to ask how America’s first crowdfunding platform died.

They don’t really agree.

This story was republished by PBS MediaShift’s Idea Lab.

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Khari Johnson
Khari is founder and editor of Through the Cracks: Crowdfunding in Journalism. He also writes about bots and artificial intelligence for VentureBeat. He has built news startups in the U.S. and Europe for the last decade.

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