Sometimes, the Light at the End of the Tunnel Is an Oncoming Train


I vaguely recall getting a press release about the Web site Spot.Us a while back. After a Twitter conversation, I found myself poking around the page once again.

I was impressed by what I saw: A well-designed, organized and professional site asking visitors to donate money to fund news stories proposed by freelance journalists. As an added bonus, Spot.Us would pitch the stories to more traditional media.

I became excited about the opportunities Spot.Us could offer to journalists and the greater news industry. The concept of community and business cost-sharing for in-depth reporting seemed nothing short of brilliant.

Could it be the light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel for journalists, I wondered?

And then I read the fine print. And that light at the end of the tunnel began looking more and more like an oncoming train.

High Goals, Low Pay

Spot.Us is a nonprofit project of the Center for Media Change, supported by highly respected organizations such as the Knight Foundation and USC’s Annenberg School of Communications.

While it should be credited with attempting to develop new avenues for quality journalism, Spot.Us depressingly treads the well-worn path of assuming that reporters and photographers should expect to live on subsistence wages. Spot.Us also grabs all rights to everything forever in a work-for-hire agreement.

Here is an excerpt from the site’s “Mandatory Reading for All Reporters” page:

1. Investigative Report

$600-$1,400 – Most are $1,000

Roughly 60 hours of work at a rate of $10-$25 based on level of experience

Deadlines: Three months to fundraise; two months to report.

  • Involves research and original/enterprise reporting that is time consuming.
  • Requires expertise in subject matter.
  • The story is crafted and the writing has clarity and is organized into scenes.
  • Extensive blogging about the reporting throughout the process of reporting.
  • Multimedia rich – a part of telling the story.
  • A ground upon which new community is built.
  • Provides new information that educates and informs.

Spot.Us says most of these stories are 60 hours of work at a $1,000 cap. That works out to a pay rate of a little under $17 per hour.

To be sure, I know plenty of staffers at smaller metropolitan papers making $15 to $20 per hour.

But here’s the thing. The staffers I know making $17 an hour hammering out stories on school board meetings, photos of high school football games and news briefs on potholes are:

  • typing away on computers supplied by the company;
  • getting at least some paid time off;
  • getting health insurance benefits;
  • participating in 401(k) plans;
  • being reimbursed for the use of their personal vehicles in the course of their work; and
  • in the case of photographers, benefiting from free access to tens of thousands of dollars in capture and editing hardware.

In other words, those staffers are effectively receiving far more than $17 per hour in compensation, and it costs media companies far more than that to produce the product.

Real Reporting Costs Money

What’s more, Spot.Us is asking for a lot more of its freelancers than briefs on potholes and quotes from 15-year-old quarterbacks. They seek the kind of investigative and in-depth journalism that we should all be focusing on — but they do it in a way that devalues it.

Real reporting costs money. Phone calls, public records requests, travel, attorney consultations, the use of both consumable materials and durable (but expensive) equipment. And yet, all of these costs are apparently supposed to be covered by that same $17 per hour.

Are reporters for Spot.Us expected to shoot rich multimedia pieces with their cell phone cameras and file their stories from free computer access at the public library?

The Spot.Us contract also requires the journalist to completely indemnify the organization. So in addition to earning what is effectively minimum wage or less, you now have the risk of significant liability thrown in.

I know I didn’t go to college, attend professional workshops, develop sources, network and take the plunge into small business ownership to make minimum wage.

Adding insult to injury, in the event Spot.Us licenses your work to a mainstream media outlet, you see no additional income.

This is supposed to be the new model? It is completely unsustainable.

What I had hoped for in Spot.Us was a central organization that could facilitate the production of journalism, encouraging the general public and granting foundations to join with mainstream media in financing quality reportage — ultimately increasing the pool of dollars available for this kind of work.

Instead, we have another news organization telling the public that journalists — even those producing in-depth, investigative stories — are little more than charity cases who should be thankful for your pennies, nickels and dimes.


16 Responses to “Sometimes, the Light at the End of the Tunnel Is an Oncoming Train”

  1. Will,
    Thanks for sharing this very important piece. I have to say I'm disappointed that the Knight Foundation and USC’s Annenberg School of Communications is behind something like this especially in a time when photojournalists are becoming an extinct species.

    Instead of helping out, they are hoping there is enough desperate photojournalists who will create content for which they can further exploit.

  2. Thanks for the insight.

    When will the abuse of under/unemployed journalists (both word and visual) come to an end?

    Very sad to see top end journalism "advocates" lining their pockets in such a borderline unethical way.

    Thanks again for the insight.

  3. Will,

    Unfortunately it seems like every one is out to take advantage of a bad situation. But it is even more disheartening to see respected organizations like the Knight Foundation and Annenberg School try to exploit instead of finding ways to strengthen the practice of Journalism. My worry is if this practice continues we will soon see a lack of quality and in-depth reporting and we will all lose in the end.

  4. If I could play devil's advocate here: Grants through foundations are given to photojournalists all the time. Why is this any different? Can't we argue that not only are we giving reporters the ability to create their stories, we are also allowing citizens to participate in providing that opportunity and raise awareness on issues in their community? I for one would rather "donate" to a reporter than allow "citizen journalism", i.e someone with no reporting background but has a blog and cell phone camera.

    Also, although I do agree that the costs are minimal but I for one wouldn't throw all my eggs into this basket, i.e. I don't think any reporting would rely on Spot.us as their only source of income, especially a freelancer. So, although this article makes some valid points, it should be pointed out that this would assume a reporter was ONLY relying on this avenue as their only source of income.

  5. Hey Alexander,

    I see where you're coming from. In fact, some of the reportage I've done recently has been funded entirely by grants and donations.

    If you click my name above this post, it will take you to some of that work.

    My problem isn't with grant and charity funded reporting, it's the way in which the middle-man (in this case, Spot.Us) sets up a system that keeps journalists working for free.

    Worst of all is the rights-grab. Why can't Spot.Us help a reporter obtain the funding to do a project, and then work with them to get it licensed, shown or sold for the reporter's profit? THAT is something freelancers could use.

    Or, why can't Spot.Us encourage reporters to bill a reasonable amount for their time on top of the expense for the project, and put a complete budget on the site? Let the donors determine if the reporters are asking for too much pay.

    Gosh, Spot.Us could even explain, as a respected third-party, that a reporter is billing $250/day because the taxman will take half of it, and no one is subsidizing health insurance AND there is a full transfer of copyright, precluding future profit from the work.

    But, then, the cost for projects would really start going up. People might become aware that it costs money to do this kind of thing.

    I can say, I've never applied for a grant or taken in a large donation without a discussion about budget. In some cases, even with donations, I've been asked to provide a hard-copy of the budget.

    As to your final point about sources of income, for the depth of many of the projects listed on that site right now, how many of those kinds of projects can be done by a one-man-band each year?

    What good does it do a freelancer to give away some of what is likely their most significant work of the year?

    Some will undoubtedly say, "clips or exposure," but at what point does the recompense become entirely "clips and exposure?"

    However, with so many people lined up to do projects, I wonder what the motivation will be for change?

  6. I would add this to Will's points: It would seem to me that when Spot.Us licenses a story to a media outlet, the reward should go to the journalist -- not to the individuals funding the story. I think if I put in $20 to help fund a story, getting a portion of that back would mean little to me. But getting paid for getting picked up by, say, the NYTimes (which has happened with Spot.Us) would mean a lot to the journalist.

  7. David Cohn here - the founder of Spot.Us.

    I wish Will, who wrote this, had asked me a few questions. OR - any questions for that matter before publishing.

    A lot of this is, in my opinion, the wrong interpretation of Spot.Us.

    For example: We don't retain the rights to content permanently. We retain the rights temporarily in an effort to sell them to refund the original donors. But if that doesn't happen (and even if we do sell the rights) we eventually release those to creative commons. We have had reporters who then do different versions or resell the work. And saying that the money refunded doesn't benefit the reporters is a shallow interpretation as well. Yes - the money goes back to the original donors in the form of credits. And what do you think the original donors do with those credits? They reinvest - and if the reporter creates a second pitch, the donors reinvest in the same reporter. Hence - more work for the reporter.

    As for the money: We've raised as much as $9,000 for a single story and as little as $100. In the end - it's ALWAYS up to the reporter if they want to do the work for what we've raised. They can always say "that's not enough" and when that happens - we shake hands, kill the pitch - and move on. We never ask a reporter to do something they don't want to do.

    We are NOT a grant making organization - we are a fundraising organization. So that we can only fundraise so much is not the fault of Spot.Us - more a statement about the state of the world. Still - we do what we can. We have another pitch where we raised about 8k and later this week we are going to put up a pitch to try and raise another 8k. So while the amounts that you quote are on our site - just taking a quick look around our site will show you that reporters have raised well above those amounts. And we hope that will continue - since we are now just over 1 year old (don't forget Rome wasn't built in a day).

    Finally: This is an experiment. If you are upset because we haven't cracked the nut - that's fine. But we never set out to actually crack that nut. Spot.Us is NOT a silver bullet solution and I've never claimed it was or will be. I can understand that it's a hard time for reporters and the Spot.Us model has LOTS of potential. But it takes time for us to reach that potential and even if we do reach our potential it WON'T BE A FULL SOLUTION to the economic woes of reporting. Getting upset that we haven't found a solution to the economic ails of reporters not being paid enough is a bit misguided. We are trying to pay as much as we can - and it's up to the public to meet those demands.

    Granted - we do have to update our contract, etc to reflect some of the newer numbers (that we can raise as much as 10k, etc). That is our fault for leaving outdated stuff up there. But just looking at our site will show that the amount of money that can be raised on Spot.Us is beyond the limits we originally provided.

    There is more misunderstanding in your article.

    The one thing you point out that I think we are weak on is that we don't have libel insurance and so we can't indemnify reporters. Hey - libel insurance is expensive and we aren't operating on a mulit-million dollar grant. We have a budget of 150k a year. I pay myself 20k a year. That is just to show you that money is tight - if I had more, we'd have libel insurance. But we don't - a harsh reality - yes.

    "What I had hoped for in Spot.Us was a central organization that could facilitate the production of journalism, encouraging the general public and granting foundations to join with mainstream media in financing quality reportage — ultimately increasing the pool of dollars available for this kind of work."

    You know - I hope for that too. 13 months in - I think we are making good progress. I challenge you to build something better ;)

  8. @David Cohn - appreciate you clearing some of the issues around spot.us

  9. PK
    Thanks. I do think we need to update the website. We are working on a new design which should be ready in 2-3 weeks. Then I need to take a moment to go over some of the text and update it.

    But hey - it's always good to be taken to task. It's an uphill battle. I move - onward.

  10. Daniel: beyond the work-for-hire portion (which you are taking issue with but which is stated in the spot.us Independent Contractor Agreement, item #5), releasing the works to creative commons does not make money for the journalist, which gets to the heart of the point here. Sure, one could rework the story and try to sell it again, but anyone can take something from creative commons for free, so why would a news organization, advertiser or other private company pay after it's released for free use?

    I also don't think anyone's lambasting you for not getting it right on the first try. Rather, the issue is that you're saying you want to learn as you go but not taking this as a constructive discussion.

  11. David (sorry I got your name wrong in my post above): beyond the work-for-hire portion (which you are taking issue with but which is stated in the spot.us Independent Contractor Agreement, item #5), releasing the works to creative commons does not make money for the journalist, which gets to the heart of the point here. Sure, one could rework the story and try to sell it again, but anyone can take something from creative commons for free, so why would a news organization, advertiser or other private company pay after it's released for free use?

    I also don't think anyone's lambasting you for not getting it right on the first try. Rather, the issue is that you're saying you want to learn as you go but not taking this as a constructive discussion.

  12. Andrea
    No worries re: Name spelling.

    The creative commons thing is interesting. I can understand from the reporters perspective how it hurts their ability to resell the work.

    But in truth, I think the economics around content has changed. Scoops have the half life of a link - as I often say.

    Why would a news organization pay to run an old article when they can just link to it?

    So the value of the re-sell is less and less. This isn't Spot.Us' doing - just the nature of the web.

    Then again - this is a blog for photogs and it might be very different for photographers than it is for text reporters, etc.

    Also the argument for creative commons is that the finished content is commissioned by the public and therefore owned by the public. Something should be released to the public, in my view, if the public is fitting the bill.

    But again: I can 100% understand the view of the reporter who looses something by not being able to resell work they've already produced (again, that might be lost just due to the nature of the internet) - but that is the reasoning for the creative commons part of Spot.Us.

    Meanwhile: I am a BIG believer in constructive criticism - which is actually how I take this. In fact, what I hope came across in my comments above is the fact that Spot.Us is constantly moving forward and we want this kind of feedback. I think the main thing I want to stress is that we haven't been hit by a train. Nor have we come to the "final stop" in our train ride.

    The tracks haven't even been laid yet.

    Rock on.

  13. Thanks, David. We appreciate you taking some heat and sharing your perspective. And I have no doubt that, ultimately, everyone commenting here really wants the same thing.

  14. Overall, I have to disagree with your assessment of Spot.us's system. A train may be coming but it's search engines that are pumping out the diesel.
    The pay isn't much, and once broken down into my costs as a freelancer, maybe even negligible. But no freelancer is going to survive by working for only one media company. One story a month for Spot plus two other $300 stories a month starts looking sustainable, albeit, I could still make more running a Starbucks. But that's not Spot's fault; for that, you can thank the idiots running the country's newspapers who are still waiting to turn the fool’s gold of web hits into coin.
    Now, I think you and David are actually agreeing on a lot of the same things but you're looking at the licensing issues as a photographer and David is looking at the news hook driving the funding. A well-produced photo is a small piece of art. A great story is a small piece of literature. But the news hook behind both is usually momentary at most.
    As a writer, I cannot pitch the same story to multiple publications; it just isn't gonna happen. And frankly, no editor with even the most rudimentary Google skills should accept reprinted work. Same interviews, same premise, same conclusions? There's just no point to it anymore. This worked well when you had to buy subscriptions to multiple pubs but when every magazine in the country is now available for free online, there's just no point.
    The site does give me a little bit of hope. A look at some of the stories that Spot.us has funded tells me people are willing to pay quite a bit for journalism that engages serious issues. Looking at Spot as a consumer, for $35 a year, I can buy a subscription to a high-minded leftist publication that churns out drivel in order to fill the pages or, for say, $100 a year, I can have a hand in at least one Spot.us story that I care deeply about (to be honest, I hadn't paid much attention to Spot before I read this so I was half-afraid they were funding paparazzi taking photos of Megan Fox's booty calls).
    Until the media companies start placing an inherent value in their product, Spot.Us isn’t the worst solution to funding freelance work. That honor goes to the douchebag editors who request unpaid (but you get a byline!) work and the yahoos who accept it.

  15. Actually - the next version of Spot.us is going to be strictly funding paparazzi taking photos of Megan Fox's booty calls!

    That cracked me up. Thanks!

  16. I appreciated both the post and the honest answers of David.

    Thanks to everyone,

    Javier

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