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.