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The Obama-Effect in Journalism: Decentralized Editorial Power

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The Obama-effect of donating is happening in journalism. In Obama's case, small donations from a big crowd made his campaign possible. In journalism, many small donations fund costly story projects.

The most recent sign of the evolving power of crowdfunding was seen in the New York Times. In the science section there was an article with a headline "Afloat in the Ocean, Expanding Islands of Trash." The article told about the huge garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean. In the bottom of the story there stood in italics: "Travel expenses were paid in part by readers of Spot.Us, a nonprofit Web project that supports freelance journalists."

The story was written by a freelance journalist Lindsey Hoshaw. Her trip to examine the garbage patch was partially funded through Spot.Us, a San Francisco-based website to crowdfund journalism. This is how Spot.Us works: A journalist raises money for her or his story on the Spot.Us website. The community donates for a pitch. Often times the amounts are small. Established news organizations can buy the story and publish it, otherwise the story is published on the Spot.Us site.

Hoshaw successfully raised almost $10,000 for her story project, and over 100 people donated for the pitch. The garbage patch story was the first Spot.Us story published in the NYT

In politics, from the Howard Dean campaign to Obama's triumph, we have seen a radical decentralization of political funding. In journalism, crowdfunding in the Spot.Us way decentralizes the editorial power. The editorial power is traditionally held inside news organizations. The editors decide what stories the writers work on and what stories are published.

In crowdfunded journalism the Spot.Us way, donors hold most of the editorial power. The pitches are filtered by Spot.Us editors following certain criteria, though. For example the pitches have to be local to Spot.Us regions. So far, only few pitches have been turned away. Basically, if the community considers the topic worth covering, they'll donate and the story will get done.

The crowdfunding phenomenon is a sign of the unraveling of the old, top-down journalism production models. In the future, the community will have more to say about the issues they want to see covered. Even though the readers don't want to subscribe for the whole newspaper, they are willing to pay for a specific story that they see value in. That's why they hire a journalist on Spot.Us to make sense of the world for them, to investigate important issues for them. They want to support journalism and topics that are aligned with their values.

Crowdfunding seems to change the dynamics in the journalistic process. I've interviewed Spot.Us donors and reporters for my study about crowdfunding for journalism.

The donors tend to feel empowered after donation. Donating seems to create a sense of belonging to the community, and the donors also feel a sense of participation in the journalistic process. As one donor put it: "I felt that I had participated, I felt I had more say about what kind of journalism is being done."

From the reporter's point of view, the crowdfunded process brings new elements to a journalist's work. First of all, the reporters tend to feel a more direct connection to the readers than they do in the traditional way to produce journalism.

The reporters find the connection motivating. As one of the Spot.Us writers said: "The motivation goes beyond professional motivation. You see the faces on the website, you see that these people are willing to invest their money on your work."

Crowdfunding also challenges the the traditional role of a journalist. On the Spot.Us model, the writer is responsible for promoting his pitch and reaching out to the community. In the traditional model, the journalist writes the story, doesn't market it.

When interviewing Spot.Us reporters, I noticed that in general they don't feel very comfortable asking for donations for their pitch. Like one of the reporters put it: "I'm a journalist, not a salesperson. If somebody else wants to market my pitch, I'm happy with that. But I don't feel comfortable doing that."

Whereas Lindsey Hoshaw, the author of the Garbage Patch-story, promoted her pitch by a video and in fundraisers. She also reached out to the community and her social networks. She branded herself as the GarbageGirl. This is something we will see more and more in journalism: journalists transforming more into entrepreneurs, feeling ownership of the whole story process including convincing the community to donate.

The success of crowdfunding in journalism might encourage thinking where charging for content online is a solution for the plummeting journalism business. It is not. The success of the Garbage Patch-project proves that people want to have quality journalism. It proves that people care about important issues. It also proves that people are willing to pay for the journalism they see valuable. Maybe readers want to target their support for certain writers, or certain topics? They might not be willing to pay for old-fashioned subscription models, which are based on the idea "get it all, even the sports pages, read it or not".

The same logic applies initiatives similar to Spot.Us. On Kickstarter, artists, journalists and explorers can raise money for their projects. SellaBand has two ways to for fans to support projects: they can help musicians to fund their upcoming projects, or they can fund musicians whose work they already like. Also Kachingle, a system for readers to support the sites they like, raises money for work already done.

At the end, let's discuss the Spot.Us model from the legitimacy's standpoint. The main basis for legitimacy for a story is pure market success -- if people are willing to pay, the story gets funded on Spot.Us and the story will be done.

But then, pitches that might be significant for public interest, for the public good, might not get donations. But what is the public interest? Whose interest is it? If people are not willing to pay for the content, for the pitch, is the topic really important? If the community is not interested in funding the pitch, how interested the community would be in reading the story?

The model of Spot.Us, accompanied with other crowdfunding systems, provokes a question: How much could we rely on collective intelligence, wisdom of the crowds, when choosing story topics worth investigating?