Spot.Us Delivers Crowdfunding to The New York Times

[UPDATE: Comments by New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt and Spot.Us Director David Cohn have been added to the bottom of this post.]

The New York Times published half of a very good story this morning — Lindsey Hoshaw’s account of her visit to the massive patch of garbage floating in the Pacific.

In an italicized note, the Times hinted at the rest of the story: “Travel expenses were paid in part by readers of Spot.Us, a nonprofit Web project that supports freelance journalists.”

As Hoshaw was raising money for the story this summer
, both the Times and Spot.Us made a point of insisting that the roles played by both organizations did not, collectively, represent any kind of collaboration. Spot.Us would help raise money for the trip, they said, and the Times would consider the story for publication.

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In retrospect, their efforts look very much like a collaboration — just the sort of collaboration the Times and other news organizations could use more of as they seek new ways to pay for news.

I’ve sent notes this morning to Hoshaw, Spot.Us director David Cohn, Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt and others in search of lessons learned from project, and invite you to post your own questions and comments below.

In the meantime, here’s some of what strikes me about (both halves of) the story:

Hoshaw’s photos, displayed in a slideshow accompanying the online version of the article, convey dimensions of the story that text can’t touch. So, too, do entries on the blog Hoshaw wrote as the trip unfolded, especially this description of her first glimpse of the patch: “I woke up and saw an oversized light bulb floating by the bow. Unbelievable.”

That’s the kind of color and context that serves readers with a particular interest in a topic. And it’s the sort of curation that will become increasingly important as news organizations figure out how to rely on talented partners to provide some of their coverage.

Other resources that would have helped the Times improve its already strong presentation of the story this morning: the Spot.Us pitch page listing contributors and other background, Hoshaw’s FAQ on the patch and her reporting, a video thank you to contributors from Hoshaw and a Facebook Cause page where she raised an additional $2,470 in expense money.

But one thing at a time. As Times executives proceed with their deliberations about how to sustain the news, here’s hoping crowdfunding in general — and Spot.Us in particular — has earned a spot on the list.

UPDATE: I heard back from New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt and Spot.Us Director David Cohn. Hoyt said in an e-mail that he “will probably have something to say about this on my blog, but I’ll let you scoop me on what I am likely to say.” Cohn alerted me to his sum-up of the Garbage Patch experience and tipped me off to a pretty interesting story behind the story.

My questions to Hoyt: Does this project offer lessons for the Times on crowdsourcing as a way of helping sustain the news report?

Clark Hoyt: I am glad that Spot.Us was there as a resource for an enterprising young journalist like Lindsey Hoshaw, who had a passion for a good story and delivered, as you can see from the printed Times this morning and the paper’s Web site. In this age of shrinking journalistic resources — your Poynter colleague Rick Edmonds has estimated that newspapers have cut $1.6 billion a year from their newsrooms over the past several years — I am all for creative ways to fund more journalism.

I don’t really see this as a collaboration between the Times and Hoshaw. She is a freelancer who approached the paper with a story idea. The Times doesn’t normally pay expenses for freelance articles, unless it commissions them, and in this case, the cost was going to be prohibitive. Hoshaw asked if the Times would have any problem with her seeking funding through Spot.Us and mentioning in her pitch that the paper might publish an article. Craig Whitney, the standards editor at the time, ruled that there was not a problem and gave her the go-ahead. I agreed with his decision.

Now that the story has been published, how do you view your contribution to Spot.Us back in July?

Hoyt: I know that some people were troubled that I would make a personal contribution to support Hoshaw’s reporting trip, but I saw it as an investment in journalism, no strings attached, and I really have no regrets about making it. Well maybe one small reservation: If someone makes a complaint about the story, and the public editor is asked to look into it, I’ll have to think hard about whether I should recuse myself.

David Cohn’s response

In response to my question about a $2,000 contribution to the story via Facebook from someone named Jill Hattersley, Cohn wrote in an e-mail: “Jill Hattersley is Bette Midler’s assistant. The donation came from Bette Midler. COOL HUH!!!!”

I asked if a contribution that big concerned him in terms of a single contributor having an unusually large stake in a story. Cohn’s reply: “No. Neither Jill nor Bette Midler made any requests of Spot.Us or Lindsey Hoshaw.”

Fair enough, but in the spirit of transparency, I hope the donation system can be tweaked to reveal the identity of the actual donor as opposed to the assistant who clicked “submit.”

Cohn said the biggest pitfall he encountered during the project was a glitch in the Spot.Us interface that prevented him from raising the fundraising goal from $6,000 to $10,000 once the initial goal was surpassed.

“I intended once we got to $5,500 to raise the goal to $10k,” Cohn said by e-mail. “I didn’t put it that high in the beginning because, to be honest, I didn’t think it would be possible.

“But instead of getting to $5,500 — when we had roughly $5,300 or something like that — somebody donated $700 — tipping the pitch to completely funded and unfortunately our system doesn’t allow me to ‘un-fund’ a funded pitch to raise the goal higher. That’s why the Facebook Cause came into play.”

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