As students of Media, Culture & Communication, we are forever hearing our professors lament the “death of newspapers” and other traditional news forms. But with this “death” has come an entirely new life form that has gave way to a multitude of news sources on various platforms other than print media. The overarching term for this concept is most commonly known as online journalism. In exploring the various types of online journalism, the form that has emerged as the most interesting and popular recently is nonprofit online news organizations. While there are myriad nonprofit news organizations, our research has brought light two organizations that present new and innovative concepts in online journalism–Spot.us and Propublica.

Both websites are funded by The Knight Foundation which is a foundation dedicated to promoting journalism. Propublica is largely funded by former banker Herb Sandler who pledges $10 million annually to the site, as well as tax-deductible donations made by the public. In further examining these news organizations, we divided the two in an attempt to further delve into the inner workings of each organization, with myself further examining Spot.us, and Andrew examining Propublica.

While Spot.us is also funded by The Knight Foundation, it is primarily referred to as “community funded reporting,” otherwise known as crowdfunding, in which individuals donate their own money to pitches they would like to see happen. You can see a video on how community funded reporting works here. The website preaches the practice of the “TAO of Journalism – Transparency, Accountability, and Openness.” Aside from the uniqueness in the funding of Spot.us, it differs tremendously from weekly news sources, such as Time and The New Yorker. The overall structuring of the organizations are very disparate in that the aforementioned weeklies are structured around an editor delegating news stories of interest to journalists, in which their expenses are funded. Spot.us tries to report on “important and perhaps overlooked topics,” with a strong focus on local stories. The organization’s FAQ page states: “We accept local stories from across the country. We believe that democracy happens at a local level and while national and international reporting is important, we want to support local communities making local decisions.” Weeklies like Time and The New Yorker deal with issues that are less localized and focused more on the regional level, since they inevitably have to appeal to a broader audience that is essentially national. Spot.us has the ability to focus on more specific audiences since ultimately it is these audiences who are funding the stories. From my perspective, I’ve thought of Spot.us as more of an aggregator of a bunch of local newspapers for different cities. Ultimately, Spot.us presents an entirely new and innovative method of journalism that has given the public power and ability to commission and participate with journalists in an attempt to report topics that they themselves are particularly interested in.

The qualifications for stories being posted are solely that they be of local relevance to communities. Reporters on Spot.Us are self-identified freelance journalists and are required to speak with Spot.us directors every reporter about their pitch and verify their identity. While virtually any types of stories can be pitched, so long as they are locally based, there is a trend in the types of stories that are most typically funded. When submitting your pitch, the application requests for you to identify the type of story you are pitching into one of the following seventeen categories: Gov’t + Politics, Local Science & Business, Race & Demographics, Education, Consumer Protection, Employment Issues, Media Accountability, Criminal Justice, Wealth & Poverty, Cultural Diversity, Public Health, Environment, City Infrastructure, Los Angeles, LA Vitamin Report, Texas, and Public Media. An analysis of the most recent twenty-five articles on Spot.us that were funded since December of 2010 brought to light the trend in the most commonly funded stories. The most popular were stories relating to the environment (8 stories) and criminal justice (5 stories).

I was able to get in contact with the director of Spot.us, David Cohn, who gave me a helpful, albeit very brief, response to the types of stories that are most commonly funded. Cohn stated that “criminal justice categories have funded very well and politics have not funded as well,” a fact that matched my analysis. Cohn explains “I am not 100% sure why – but that is something that we got from the first 1.5 years of data.” Some speculations that I have as to why this may be is due to the large interest in the environment and the conditions we have been facing as a result of the numerous disasters, both natural and those caused by man, whereas politics are a more sensitive issue that perhaps individuals are hesitant to tackle.

After the work is funded and written, Spot.Us works with local news organizations to get content distributed in as many places as possible. David Cohn responded that there are “no %’s or number data” in regards to this, but “the vast majority of stories end up getting published SOMEWHERE other than Spot.Us. Some of those sites people might not consider ‘mainstream’ media – they are often other local nonprofits or community sites. While Spot.us presents many opportunities for journalists, some view this concept as exploitation in that journalists are essentially begging for donations. There has also been much speculation that news organizations such as The New York Times assign stories to freelance journalists, but then tell them to get funding for it via Spot.us. Critics also say the idea of using crowdfunding to finance journalism raises some troubling questions, namely individuals funding an article with a specific agenda in mind. For example, if a neighborhood with an agenda pays for an article, this is similar to a tobacco company backing an article about smoking. In an attempt to prevent this though, Spot.us limits the amount any one contributor can donate to the cost of the story, limiting it to no more than 20 percent of the total cost.

ProPublica is an interesting case since it kind of falls between a traditional news outlet and a news aggregator. A full-time staff of investigative reporters conduct various investigations and then give the stories to news partners for publication. Some of ProPublica’s partners include 60 Minutes, CNN, and ABC World News, and sometimes reporters from both outlets work together on certain stories. One of its most notable achievements is that it was the first online news source to win a Pulitzer Price for a story written by one of its full-time reporters and appeared in the New York Times and on ProPublica.org.

The site also prides itself on promoting nonpartisanship and unbiased reporting, as opposed to some traditional news stations like Fox News or CNN. Right now it boasts a staff of 34 full-time working journalists but received as many as 850 applications upon the launch of ProPublica. The funding mostly comes from former banker Herb Sandler but has also received money from the Knight Foundation. The heads of ProPublica come from traditional news outlets as well.

ProPublica decides which stories to investigate based on how much positive change can come from the reporting. According to ProPublica, they “uncover savory practices in order to stimulate reform”. They do this in an entirely impartial way and do not ally themselves with politicians any other groups. Whether it’s a flaw in our system of criminal justice or a practice that undermines fair elections, the investigative team attempts to uncover stories that they think the public deserves to know about, and might not be able to find out on their own. Furthermore, ProPublica focuses on institutions like hospitals, universities, and other strong forces that may be exploiting the weak or abusing the public trust and reveals these issues to the public. Moreover, ProPublica takes advantage of citizen journalism to a degree. When investigating issues that directly impact a large group of people, the site asks its readers to share their experiences.

Usually, the most popular stories on ProPublica are the ones that directly impact a large group of readers. Lately, the ones most read are ones that deal with aspects of the economy and how it is affecting people when it comes to mortgages, prices of oil and gas, and bailout list. For example, one of the most viewed stories at the moment is title “History of U.S. Gov’t Bailouts.” The report puts the bailouts in perspective with images that represent the size of the bailout and the chronological order of corporations that have needed government assistance and how this has affected the public. This story reflects the mission of ProPublica: to investigate something that may be confusing or under-reported, yet still important, and break it down in simple terms for the public to understand.

ProPublica tries to dig into stories as deep as possible to promote maximum understanding for the public interest. It is aware of the crisis occurring in news right now, where investigative journalism is being seen less and less because of its high cost and risk of “dry holes” – stories that seem promising at first but end up leading nowhere or yielding uninteresting and useless results. ProPublica decides which stories to investigate based on the “moral force” it has and how strongly it can shine a light on corrupt practices according to remarks given by Paul Steiger at the National Press Club.

ProPublica’s “collaborations have had remarkable reach and impact”. For example, one of the exposés on the site revealed that the state board that licenses nurses was taking as long as six years to remove licenses from nurses who had stolen drugs from patients, beaten them up or otherwise abused them. The story ran in the Los Angeles Times, and the next day, the governor fired a majority of the nursing board and replaced them with others who he ordered to fix these problems. The collaborations ProPublica has with credible and widely-read news sources is what distinguishes them in the world of online journalism.

Ultimately, Spot.us and Propublica have altered our previous notions about online journalism. They have taken the concept of news available online, and pushed these limits by providing opportunities for the public to take more of an active role in the news that is reported.

One Response to “Breaking News…”

  1. mdeseriis says:

    Dear Danielle and Andrew, thank you for this in-depth comparative analysis of Spot.us and Propublica. I enjoyed reading it and learned a lot from it. There is not much I need to add other than there is a little bit of confusion with the voice you are using here. For instance when you write that David Cohn “gave me a helpful, albeit very brief, response…” it is not clear to me who this “me” is. It would have been more appropriate to use the “us” or “gave Danielle” or “gave Andrew.” Anyway, the part on Spot.us is very well done in that it does not limit itself to exalt crowdfunding but shows also the potential downside of it, namely the fact that involving online users does not necessarily lead to a more democratic form of journalism, but simply one that meets the interest of the public. Historically, however, the function of investigative journalism is not only to tell us the stories we want to hear but also the ones we do not want to hear and we may be surprised by. The other important element that you both emphasize is that Spot and Propublica work in partnership with local and national media, without which their work would not have much sense. In this respect, it would have been useful to rely a little bit on James Curran’s article on the future of journalism to ask what kind of journalism are these web sites prefiguring. Is this just online journalism or a hybrid between traditional journalism and online journalism? I would be inclined to say that the latter is true as on the one hand the journalism that is produced by these sites is quite traditional, both because it is produced by experienced journalists and it is distributed through traditional media outlets. At the same time, this journalism contains some important elements of novelty in that it asks the public to fund some stories and asks for feedback on the stories that are selected and published.

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