Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Brother, can you spare $20?

If you weren't paying close attention, you might have missed it: an article in today's New York Times' Science Times that was produced by a freelancer whose work was underwritten by Joe and Jane Mainstreet.

The story, both online and in print, offered this italicized explanatory note: "Travel expenses were paid in part by readers of Spot.Us, a nonprofit Web project that supports freelance journalists."

It represents another kick-the-tires effort to see what new revenue streams might fund journalism in the future, now that legacy newspapers are struggling to make ends meet.

You may recall an earlier piece by Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt in which he discussed the proposal proffered by freelancer Lindsey Hoshaw to travel in early fall to what's known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating mass of plastic, rope and other detritus, aboard a boat skippered by Charles Moore, who discovered the garbage floe a dozen years ago as he returned from a sailing race in Hawaii.

Hoshaw proposed to take pictures for the paper and perhaps write a story, according to Hoyt. The Times agreed to look at the results, but declined to underwrite her expenses -- estimated at some $10,000 -- in keeping with the paper's standard freelance policy.

So Hoshaw turned to Spot.Us, a Web site that posts story pitches to which everyday people can donate. (Hoshaw's pitch raised $6,000 from 116 donors -- a technical glitch prevented resetting the fundraising clock to $10,000, reports site director David Cohn -- with many throwing in $10 or $20; Hoyt is listed as giving $50.)

The concept is called crowdfunding, which, like crowdsourcing, works to harness the power of the many to accomplish a task. Whether it's the future of journalism is still debatable; even Hoyt sees the Hoshaw article as one experiment among many at the Times.

Read Cohn's take on Hoshaw's fundraising here, which he says was Spot.Us' biggest to date. His young site isn't alone in trying this model, and he has some good insight into lessons learned to date here.

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