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PBS’s MediaShift Gives Nod to Representative Journalism

Our Representative Journalism project is part of a larger story by Mark Glaser at PBS’s MediaShift. We get top billing with David Cohn’s Spot.Us. It’s an article you will want to read.

Here are my full responses to Glaser’s email inquiries:

I know you have received foundation funding to get RepJ off the ground. Do you see a crowdfunding aspect of this work in the future?

David Cohn and I are talking about trying an adaptation of the Spot.Us model to help raise funds for a Representative Journalist  now working at the Locally Grown blog in Northfield, Minnesota.  The RepJ experiment aims to learn if communities of interest or geographic communities, which are not getting all the news and information they want or need, will fund valuable journalism on a long-term basis.

Cohn’s Bay Area experiment is episodic, story-by-story funding. I am looking for long-term sustainable funding for the RepJ model. So there would have to be an adjustment, but the basic structure of Spot.Us looks extremely promising. It’s easy to understand and easy to use. That’s incredibly important. Plus we know from Kiva that crowdfunding for a good cause works extremely well.

We also saw crowdfunding work during the Presidential Election process. Barak Obama, via small contributions from the crowd, was able to dwarf the old top down models. The best recent example was when US Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, a Republican from Minnesota, got on Chris Matthews’ Hardball and said Obama was unpatriotic and should be investigate. Spontaneously the left via crowdfunding raised more than a million dollars for her Democratic challenger Elwyn Tinklenberg.

So outrage works too. Hey, maybe there is a business model in that. When Sarah Palin starts pushing back against the media, the crowd angrily responds with massive funding to underwrite a huge endowment to support investigative journalism. David Cohn, tweak Spot.Us now, install an outrage button.

How has your experiment worked out so far in Minnesota? What has been successful and what hasn’t?

Something that differentiates the Rep J model from the Spot.Us model is that for ours to work we have to do lots of relationship building with the community. Our universe is much smaller. We are dealing with a total Northfield population of just 17,000. We have to literally weave together an information community of members willing to pay for high quality journalism. So we have to work on three fronts. One we have to provide high quality journalism, two we have to get the community to know our journalist, and three the community has to feel that their membership in the community and the news and information it produces has value worthy of their financial support. Then they might click on the Spot.Us button and fund the journalist.

We have been at our Rep J project in Northfield for just four months, so it is too early to tell if this project will work, but we are learning a lot. Our journalist Bonnie Obremski,  who is being underwritten by a grant from the Harnisch Foundation, has done a great job of embedding herself in the community. She gets lots of support from Griff Wigley, Tracy Davis and Ross Currier, the triumvirate who run Locally Grown blog, and just now we have reached the stage where Obremski can fully concentrate on the journalism, which is why she is there.

What’s your vision for how RepJ might be a part of the future of journalism?

There are several ways this could work, mostly as a cooperative or nonprofit. One would be for an entity like PBS – are you listening PBS – to adopt this model for backpack video journalists. I am convinced overnight they could have 100 RepJs filling the video news void, just as NPR filled the audio news void. Can Georgia, for example, find a 1,000 people willing to pay $100 each annually to underwrite a Georgia reporter to be in this national reporting pool? I say yes. Can they find another 1,000 people in Georgia willing to underwrite, let’s say, a reporter covering water issues? I say yes. Could Michigan do the same with a Michigan reporter and another reporting on manufacturing? Maybe two or three in California covering the state plus another covering alternative lifestyles. Of course, they could. You could do that with two reporters in all 50 states, that’s 100 reporters. PBS has the funding mechanisms in place, it has the platforms, it has the expertise in shooting video. And now shooting video is just as cheap as making radio. PBS would then have a website with at least 50 news stories a day. It would be updated constantly. Also the next time there is a national crisis PBS would have 100 reporters around the country covering it and then PBS becomes vital to the nation. In other words, RepJ with a little crowdfunding and a little community building can make PBS a news powerhouse – if PBS wants to become a news powerhouse.

The other option is for me or someone smarter than I to build a national full service RepJ Hub, which provides journalists to communities of interest – let’s say folks interested in endangered species in Florida – and geographical communities. You pay $2 a week and get your endangered species reporter, plus 99 other reporters covering other issues who are funded by other communities of 1,000. So you come to the RepJ site each day and get 50 new news stories every day. Is that worth $2 a week per information community member? I think so.

Or let’s get serious for a second about the Sarah Palin thing. If you think the nation’s news media is under siege and high quality journalism might disappear, would you pay $2 a week to be part of a membership community owning the News for Democracy site? I would hit the Spot.Us payment for that. Wouldn’t you?

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About RJ

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    Leonard Witt

    Leonard Witt is the Robert D. Fowler Distinguished Chair in Communication at Kennesaw State University and the chief blogger at

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    Representative Journalism, a term coined by Leonard Witt, aims to build sustainable journalism one small group at a time.

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