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Consumers Get to Choose the News

MU researcher develops community-funded reporting model where consumers fund story ideas

February 9th, 2011

Story Contact: Nathan Hurst, 573-882-6217,

By Brad Fischer

COLUMBIA, Mo. – The rise of the Internet and the economic recession has trimmed the budgets and profit margins of news organizations across the country. Now, a researcher in the Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) at the University of Missouri School of Journalism has created a business model that may change the economics of the media.

“In the past, there were two main revenue sources for media: advertising and classifieds,” said David Cohn, a Reynolds Fellow at RJI. “The Internet has hurt classified advertising, and online advertising is not as profitable as print advertising. With community-funded reporting, media outlets will have another way to take in revenue and engage their audiences.”

Cohn founded Spot.Us, a non-profit online news organization, in the fall of 2008 to test his business model. The Spot.Us model is different from traditional journalism business models because it allows users to donate money to fund specific stories through its website. On the site, reporters pitch local and regional story ideas on topics such as problems with local transit systems and homeless people living in storage units. Once a story idea has met a pre-determined funding goal through individual donations, a reporter will research and publish the story on Spot.Us. Final news stories could be in the form of print, video, audio or a convergence of mediums. In some cases, a reporter may have partnered with a public media outlet, which will publish the story as well.

As a Reynolds Fellow, Cohn is working on three projects to make community-funded journalism possible for more news organizations. Cohn is working on making a platform for local news outlets to run the Spot.Us model on their local sites. He is making a handbook for media outlets to consult when using community-funded journalism, with or without Spot.Us. Also, Cohn is working to further develop the advertising model on Spot.Us.

Instead of typical banner advertising seen on websites, Spot.Us allows companies to buy community-focused sponsorships, which allows them to conduct market research surveys of Spot.Us users. Users who complete surveys are rewarded with donation credits to put toward the story of their choice.

“This is a unique model because it allows consumers, rather than publishers, to choose where their advertising dollars go,” Cohn said. “Also, surveys are worth more to sponsors than typical online advertising because surveys engage consumers, provide valuable information and hold consumers’ attention much longer than typical advertising.”

Cohn sees the Spot.Us model as a way to make the journalism process more transparent and increase revenues for public media. He says consumers are more likely to donate money to see a certain story idea they are interested in produced, rather than to a media outlet as a whole. The Spot.Us strategy could be applied to for-profit media as well, although Cohn sees audience engagement as a more important benefit than the direct revenue the system might bring into a for-profit media outlet. The Spot.Us website is located at