The Gyre of Journalism
The world of for-profit journalism is a scary scary place these days. As more reporting budgets decline, stories in dire need of coverage remain unexamined, while more sensationalist (and often celebrity oriented) news is favored because of it’s ability to draw advertising. Unfortunately, environmental degradation is not a topic that can easily support itself with ad-revenue, especially when that topic requires a reporter to travel to the middle of the pacific ocean to an area twice the size of Texas known as the pacific gyre.
Lindsey Hoshaw, a freelance environmental journalist, recently had a piece published in the The New York Times that covered the basics of the giant whorl of plastic bits floating in the pacific ocean. What makes this particular story on the pacific gyre so compelling is twofold: not only is it a fascinating insight in how we deal (or don’t deal) with our waste, but it is also a model of what journalism may look like in the future.
Hoshaw’s funding did not come from the Times but rather through an organization/website called spot.us (this isn’t to say that the Times didn’t pay for the final piece, just that they didn’t pay for her initial reporting/research). What makes spot.us so interesting is that its service is based on the presumption that regular people are willing to fund journalism that might not other wise be written. This charity model of journalism is new and relatively untested (Hoshaw’s piece was the first to make it into a major media outlet), and therefore not without it’s hiccups (more to come on that later).
The way spot.us works is that it accepts pitches from freelance journalists that describe the story they want to write, how much funding they need to write the story, and what they will deliver in the end. In Hoshaw’s pitch, she outlined the basics of what we know about the pacific gyre, the importance of the human element in her coverage, and an outline of how she would deliver the content once there and when she was finished (which included the prospects of a NYT article). All in all, she requested, and received, $10,000 dollars to cover her expenses. Over the course of 3 months, Hoshaw updated her blog via satellite phone documenting the progress of her research, including bits of video, pictures, and snippets of her thoughts on the project so far. These updates were part of the deliverables that she agreed to in her spot.us funding.
Given the relative novelty of spot.us funding, it wasn’t clear how well deliverables would be handled. In Hoshaw’s case, not only did she report extensively on her blog, but a summation of her time and research ended up being published in the Times. What is compelling about this is not that her work was published in a major media outlet, but, as a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review makes clear, that her reporting on her blog was far more sophisticated and of greater value than the rather dry and dull interpretation of the story in the Times. Part of this is because of the Times’ strict limits in length coupled with the fact that Hoshaw’s story on the pacific gyre is worthy of a NYT Magazine feature. But, and importantly, it is also attributable to the fact that strict editorial oversight (in this example, that of the Times) can sometimes hinder, not help, a piece of investigative journalism. Lindsey, in an admission on her blog during the trip, mentioned that she was not allowed to post her best pictures as that would prevent them from being eligible for publication in the NYT slideshow.
The fact that Hoshaw found $10,000 dollars of funding and that she was able to take her research all the way to the New York Times is illustrative of the fact that journalism is changing whether we like it or not. While the internet may have unintentionally started the dismantling of old-school print-based journalism, it is also heralding into existence a new form of media that is capable of responding to our own wants and needs.
Yet, despite my own optimism on the subject, I do not believe spot.us is enough. Spot.us is a non-profit solution that relies on good-will instead of market-based incentives . It does not solve the free-rider problem that plagues the internet; why should I pay for it if somebody else will? One only needs to visit it’s languishing home page to see that stories aren’t being funded very quickly, and while many citizens are noble and charitable enough to donate, most are not. If something like spot.us is going to work it is going to have to rethink what it is delivering. Instead of donations (which I associate with wasteful and ineffective 501.c.3s) they should be asking users to invest in journalism, and that by being an investor you are entitled to additional access: content, features, research, etc… Obviously there is overwhelming resistance to the idea of restricting content, but unlike previous models that assumed content was either on or off, a new model should be developed that allows for varying levels of access dependent on interest/investment. Furthermore, this concept of investing, as opposed to donating, does more to couple the interest of the user with that of the journalist, and therefore will help forge a more resilient community. Having a community of users who are literally invested in a project would lead to the creation of a “community editor” capable of setting deadlines and ensuring that they are met, while also lighting a fire under the authors ass in case a slow down or hiccup were to occur. What is clear though is that if something like spot.us is going to succeed it is going to have to rethink how it manages it’s community. It is a service that screams for social network integration yet does little to take advantage of the technology at hand.
While this may be overly critical of spot.us, it should not diminish the efforts of those in charge, but rather bolster their desire to develop something that will continue to shape journalism into the future. The fact that spot.us exists is reason to hope, and though it has its problems none of them seem insurmountable.