As traditional news outlets suffer from decreases in readership and advertising revenue, other models are springing up to take their place. Whether it be for a strike tactic or simply a place to experiment with alternative forms of generating revenue, the Internet has provided a whole new, cheap-to-produce world for independent media. Here are a few examples of the organizations that are shaking up the news landscape.
The door to the world of investigative reporting has been flung wide open, letting the eyes of the world watch the wheels of journalism turn.
Rather than the traditional behind-closed-doors reporting style of mainstream publications, recent start-up website Spot.us shows the reader the whole process, from assigning the story to collecting enough money to report on it.
“Freelancing is still mostly one-to-one communication, between the freelancer and the editor. It takes place mostly behind closed doors,” said David Cohn, founder of Spot.us. “We made it public.”
Spot.us was founded last year in San Francisco, so most of the stories found on the site are still California-centric. “With that said, we do have pitches from all over,” said Cohn, and the website is continually expanding to cover more areas.
While Spot.us has proven to be an innovative tool for disseminating news, they aren’t a news organization, but merely a “platform,” according to Cohn. Spot.us just provides access to news stories and solicits donations to help fund each story, and they do not employ an editorial staff, although Cohn’s background is in tech journalism.
However, don’t assume that this means journalistic standards aren’t observed.
“We’re working with specific individuals and specific news organizations—usually small ones—and as a result there is some oversight and editing and things like that.”
The website is a non-profit—but not for ideological reasons. Though one would assume being a non-profit would provide more freedom in what the site can help cover, that was not the primary motivation for their business model.
“If we were a for-profit company, it wouldn’t be as easy to ask people to donate money,” said Cohn. “People would have been skeptical about donating to a for-profit—in fact, it wouldn’t have been ‘donating’ at all.”
The donation system also allows for donators to receive a tax-deductible receipt, which has been a big draw to potential benefactors, according to Cohn.
The site is also experimenting with getting people to donate their time rather than their money to help the site. Users have the option of taking a survey from one of Spot.us’ sponsors and then taking part of the advertising proceeds gained from doing the survey and donating them to a story of their choice.
“Certainly, the sponsorship model we have introduced has helped,” said Cohn. “We’re not asking you to whip out your wallet, but just to take a survey.”
Despite the innovative fund-raising techniques at the disposal of Spot.us, nobody involved is naïve enough to think traditional advertising can be excluded from journalism entirely.
“The advertising business and the media is a billion dollar industry, so I would be really skeptical about saying that in 10 years, donations will replace that,” said Cohn. “It’s not going to happen.”
Though Cohn started the site “very much as an experiment,” Spot.us has had enough success for Cohn and a few employees to make a living.
“As an experiment, it’s very much a success,” said Cohn. “A lot of people said we would be letting journalistic demons out of the bag.
“Now the question is if we can make it a successful business,” continued Cohn. “I hope the answer is yes, but it’s very difficult to know.”
When asked whether Spot.us would still be up and running in five to 10 years, Cohn was similarly uncertain.
“I can’t say what’s going to happen in 10 years, because online, that’s like predicting where science is going to be in 100 years. I will say that, in a lot of ways, we have already achieved some success as an experiment, and in pushing boundaries in the ways people think about journalism and journalism funding.”—Diego Pelaez Gaetz
OpenFile, an online Toronto-based news organization, is changing the way communities perceive the media by taking citizen journalism to a whole new level.
The website, launched earlier this year, relies heavily on the collective participation of community members in all stages of news making.
“At the core of our model is the idea that anyone in the community can suggest a story idea and make it so by opening a file,” said Craig Silverman, digital journalism director for OpenFile.
The website works so that anyone can register and pitch a story by “opening a file” on a subject they think is relevant for their city or neighbourhood, or simply by asking a question they’d like to have answered. After that, the file becomes a “growing file.” In this stage, anyone can read the file, and other users can add to it by posting comments, pictures, videos and links.
“From there we will take that story idea, find other people in the community to add their thoughts to it, add photos and then links. At a certain point it’s assigned to a professional journalist who will take it to the next step,” he said.
This is when a story becomes a “reported file.” The user who opened the original file gets an e-mail notification when the story is assigned, and then again when the reporter files it.
Even after a story is published, the file continues to grow since users can contribute to a story no matter how old it is.
According to Silverman, OpenFile does not follow the mainstream-media model of local journalism. For him, the difference lies not only in the participatory character that allows users to be present in each and every step of their content production, but within the content itself.
“Our focus on producing original journalism is one thing that is strangely distinguishing us right now,” said Silverman, a former The Link masthead member.
“The other thing is that we are trying to be a lot more collaborative in the way that we are finding stories, the way that we are writing and reporting, the way that we are responding to people.
“At the same time they are also supposed to be sharing that process and inviting people to be part of it,” he added.
“And that’s not something that is done by local newspapers; it’s not something that is done by a lot of the media—which is why we’re trying it as an experiment. We are trying to figure out a model that combines community engagement and interaction with professional reporting, [and] how those two can be better-aligned and work in concert a lot better than they currently do.”
The organization went to a financial firm for their initial capital. They have since signed their first national sponsor and hired a full-time employee to solicit advertising.
“We raised money in order to be a start-up company and to launch the site to expand into other cities,” said Silverman. “Now, we’re definitely moving into a phase where we are aggressively trying to sell the sponsorships that we have.”
Even though OpenFile accepts donations, it is still operating within its initial budget. OpenFile’s plan is to start a system of geographically tagged advertisements on the website that would be overseen by the organization. Because the website collects information such as postal codes and addresses, geotagging would not be too difficult to implement.
“Advertisers will be able to target their specific information that they’re trying to deliver based on where people are located,” said Silverman. “The priority is not to have something banner-esque that is blinking on people’s faces.”
The idea is that advertisers also have their own page and use it to deliver content that is relevant for the community, where users can see, for example, what is on sale during a particular week in the produce aisle at their local grocer.
In order to engage more members of the communities where it operates, OpenFile staff members had been meeting with local organizations that are already involved in their community and who are trying to affect some kind of change in society.
“When we go out there and we explain to [local organizations] that they can suggest their ideas and that we will actually follow up on it—they are kind of amazed,” said Silverman.
The site is expanding to Calgary, Ottawa and Vancouver, with the latter being scheduled for November.—Julia Jones
For over 21 months, employees of the Québécor-owned Le Journal de Montréal have been locked out of their offices and into a tug-of-war with mediators and management.
Meanwhile, some of these workers have created a temporary news outlet, called Rue Frontenac, in the form of an online information portal.
According to Jean-François Codère, a locked-out Le Journal de Montréal employee who now writes for Rue Frontenac, the format and structure makes the website a completely different playing field.
“The Internet allows us to write articles that are longer and more in-depth, which is completely different from what the Le Journal de Montréal does,” said Codère.
Since there is no corporate oversight to report to, journalists are free to choose whatever topic or “beat” they wish to cover. Their interest and their knowledge, he says, are reflected in their work.
Codère said that corporate pressure on the editorial staff at Le Journal de Montréal was barely noticed, other than a few times where arts writers were asked to slant their articles a certain way. Québécor was not the monster it is often depicted to be, he continued, but at Rue Frontenac there is no corporate pressure because the editors don’t have bosses.
Codère also stressed that there was very little financial pressure coming from advertisers.
“Le Journal de Montréal was a strong enough organization to be able to stand up against threats from advertisers, and also had the financial means to back up its journalists,” said Codère.
While Rue Frontenac’s journalists are paid a salary from the union’s strike fund, the website is not an official company, or one that needs to make profits. If an advertiser were to cause trouble, Codère said, “It would not be a problem to get rid of it.”
If the relief and freedom of the staff are dampened by anything, it is by the conflict that drags on between Le Journal de Montreal employees and Québécor boss Pierre Karl Péladeau.
A contract drafted by Le Journal de Montreal—which would prohibit Rue Frontenac from operating, disallow new publications competing against Le Journal de Montreal from launching and lay off over 200 employees—was rejected by 89.3 per cent of Le Journal workers on Oct. 12.
In an official statement, union head Raymond Leblanc said that this new contract was “an insult not only to us, but to all of the readers.”
“How can you produce a quality newspaper with so few employees?” Leblanc lamented.
As part of the rejected agreement, Québécor would outsource most of the material from its news agency, QMI. In doing so, all but 17 journalists would be kept on the payroll.
Plateau-Mont-Royal mayor Luc Ferrandez reacted angrily to the offer made by Québécor in a text he published on his website.
“I thought for a moment to propose, at the next council meeting, a motion to rename the site where [Le Journal de Montréal] sits to Scabcity,” read Ferrandez’s letter “The new editors know that our thirst for daily drama replaces our need to be informed. No need for journalists—they are so expensive!”
Rue Frontenac will be launching its print edition, a free weekly paper that will distribute about 50,000 copies in the greater Montreal area, on Oct. 28.
Even though the information website is financially viable even without the union fund, Codère hopes that the parties will be able to reach an agreement that will save as many jobs as possible.
“The internet allows us to write articles that are longer and more in-depth.”
rue frontenac reporter
This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 10, published October 19, 2010.