Mary Jane Horton has long been vexed by the sluggish train service between Los Angeles and the Bay Area. So when she heard about a freelance journalist trying to raise $350 to investigate the progress of high-speed rail in California, she eagerly donated $25.
Ms. Horton and Bay Area reporter Deirdre Newman were united through an experiment in community-funded journalism known as Spot.Us, a nonprofit website launched in San Francisco last November to breathe new life into local journalism as newspapers nationwide downsize or even shut down.
"A big part of the future of journalism is to get a lot of different revenue streams," says David Cohn, the former technology reporter who started Spot.Us with a grant from the Knight Foundation. On Tuesday, he announced plans to begin funding stories in Los Angeles through a partnership with the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Journalism.
A number of similar websites – KickStarter, ReelChanges, and Kachingle, to name a few – are cropping up to give journalists, artists, bloggers, and entrepreneurs the chance to pitch their ideas directly to the public, the final consumer of news.
"It's all about trying to figure out how to gather together the community, raise the money, and keeping that community in place," says Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University.
Who'll watch city hall?
But while these sites give freelance writers and artists new tools to earn money, it remains to be seen if they can develop a large and lasting community willing to fund a wide range of projects.
Spot.Us is certainly helping journalists tell stories that might otherwise go untold, says Mr. Benton, but "it doesn't produce what I would consider the most endangered type of journalism ... the stuff that I am most worried about is the person whose job it is to pay attention to San Francisco City Hall."
That concerns journalist Michael Stoll, too. Mr. Stoll started the Public Press, a San Francisco nonprofit news website, to fill a gap in coverage of local government issues as fewer reporters were being assigned to city hall. Through Spot.Us, Public Press raised $7,600 to help pay for a series on San Francisco's budget crisis and on the truthfulness of political advertising in last year's election.
"If [Spot.Us] can be used here, it can be used anywhere," says Mr. Stoll.
Newspapers could fund 5 percent to 30 percent of their budgets using this model, says Cohn. Since Spot.Us started, members have funded more than 30 stories through donations averaging $42. The stories range from the inexpensive to the elaborate. Ms. Newman's story on the bullet train was $350; another journalist raised $6,000 for a reporting trip to the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the giant collection of plastic trash that has accumulated in the ocean.
Making it pay
Are donors satisfied? Ms. Horton, a freelance writer and literary agent, says she has yet to read the story she helped fund. "The missing piece to me seems to be where the story actually lands," she says.
News outlets can buy exclusive rights to stories funded through Spot.Us or help pay for stories. Newman's high-speed rail article appears both on Spot.Us and in the Bay Area Monitor, which covered half the expenses.
But while journalists are able to fund stories through Spot.Us, they're not necessarily able to turn a profit. Even the $6,000 for the trip to the Pacific garbage patch isn't covering the full cost.
Thirty-one donors helped fund journalist Andrew Stelzer's article on citizen oversight of the troubled Oakland, Calif., police department. While the piece, which cost contributors $1,000, wasn't picked up by any newspapers, it did help him land some other freelance gigs writing on similar subjects.
"In that way I'm really pleased with how it worked out. But if you looked at it in terms of dollar per word or how much work I put into it based on how much I got paid, I don't even want to look at that. It just depresses you," he says.