This is how America’s first crowdfunding platform for journalism died

Photos from the "Human Side of Milwaukee" project by photojournalist Nickolas Nikolic, funded by Spot.us donors. http://bit.ly/1MrsSXl
Photos from the “Human Side of Milwaukee” project by photojournalist Nickolas Nikolic, funded by Spot.us donors. http://bit.ly/1MrsSXl

Spot.us was a first in crowdfunded journalism in the United States.

For the better part of a decade the project to pioneer community-powered reporting made storytelling and accountability reporting possible for communities in California and other parts of the United States.

The end of the story for the storyteller-enabling platform was announced last month by American Public Media.

There have been other much talked about crowdfunding platforms devoted to journalism over the years but most came and went (Emphas.is, Vourno, Indie Voices, etc.) None lasted as long, were as widespread and received as much praise as Spot.us.

So exactly how did America’s first major crowdfunding journalism platform die?

I posed that question to Linda Miller, Director of Network Journalism and Innovation at American Public Media. 

Amount of money raised

$272,486 (excluding matching grants)

# of donations

More than 10,000

Number of stories or reporting projects funded by Spot.us users

Roughly 165

Source: American Public Media.

Reasons why Spot.us activity went into decline

The short version (TLDR):

1. More crowdfunding platforms entered the world.

2. Glitches in the system.

3. Not all journalists know how to run their own crowdfunding campaign.

4. Departure of APM, PIN staff in charge of transition.

5. APM wanted to move away from stories by individual stories towards crowdfunding in newsrooms.

6. Stricter standards to protect against conflicts of interest, activism and propaganda.

A more detailed explanation:

  1. The landscape of crowdfunding changed significantly. In the year after APM acquired Spot.us, the number of domains with crowdfunding in their name increased from 900 to nearly 8,800.
  2. Glitches in the platform, some pre-existing, made it difficult to extract reliable data and caused other problems. At one time campaigns were initiated without review and the spam filter stopped working. As a result the site was flooded with illegitimate pitches.  They were eventually deleted.
  3. Those new to the process were often unprepared for the work it takes to rally financial support for their news gathering.
  4. Several people who worked closely on the Spot.us transition left the organization, complicating efforts to maintain and scale the platform.
  5. APM was focused on figuring out how newsrooms, as opposed to individual journalists, might use the tool, experimenting with large projects and beats rather than the one-off stories that made up the bulk of Spot.us pitches. These experiments taught us a lot about the limitations of the site and the challenges of rallying a small community to do large-scale fundraising — insights that led us to commission a more comprehensive analysis of the platform and its market potential.
  6. APM implemented more rigorous standards for vetting story pitches to cut down on conflicts of interest and to weed out advocacy pieces and propaganda masquerading as journalism. This resulted in more pitches being rejected.

“Spot.us, as popular as it became with a devoted group of fans and academics, was not financially sustainable when APM acquired it. And while the drop in activity was disappointing, especially to those who have relied on it for past projects, it’s important to note that more activity would not have solved the long-term problem of scalability and sustainability. That’s what APM was focused on,” Miller said.

How Spot.us started and ended

Inspired by small donor crowdfunding practiced by the Obama presidential campaign, David Cohn launched the news startup in 2008 with a $340,000 grant from the Knight Foundation News Challenge, one of the original recipients. 

For three years it would operate primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles and Seattle.

Partners news organizations ranged from hyperlocal and alternative weekly news websites to blog networks, the Florida Center of Investigative Reporting and international-leaning Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, according to the Spot.us website.

In late 2011 Spot.us was acquired by Public Insight Network and became part of American Public Media. 

“The last pitch to be approved and fully funded was initiated on Jan. 31, 2013,” Miller said.

Eventually, due to some of the factors listed above, the number of pitches went into decline and in August 2013 APM put Spot.us on hiatus so an assessment could be performed by Carlson Ventures Enterprise at the University of Minnesota.

Some results of that study and lessons learned by Spot.us about how to conduct a successful crowdfunding campaign were shared in an article that announced the official demise of the platform last month. The article by PIN Business Development Manager Joellen Easton was republished with permission by Through the Cracks.

Through the Cracks requested a copy of the report to analyze and share with our readers but the report is considered an “internal business document” and not available to the public, Miller said.

Spot.us founder David Cohn declined to go into much detail but said “there are parts of their report and APM’s narrative around Spot.us that I disagree with.”

One thing he does agree with: the departure of key APM personnel shortly after the acquisition was key to the demise of Spot.us.

Editor’s Note: This story, published Wednesday, was edited Thursday morning to add that Through the Cracks reached out to Cohn for comment Wednesday and that if we hear anything back we’d be sure to share it with our readers here.

On Twitter Thursday morning Cohn told Institute of Nonprofit News CEO Kevin Davis “There were many things about the APM report I didn’t agree with.”

The story was edited a second time Thursday afternoon to add Cohn’s comment.

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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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