Floating trash, crowd-funding, and the future of journalism

A guest post from alumna Lindsey Hoshaw: I was about to write the story of my career—Floating Mass of Trash Inhabits the North Pacific Ocean. There was just one small detail: I needed $10,000 to make it happen. I’d arranged to live on a boat for a month with Captain Charles Moore and his researchers when he informed me that I’d need to pay my own way. As a graduate student with student loans, I barely had enough to pay rent let alone a couple thousand dollars to put toward a trans-Pacific voyage.

Suddenly I remembered David Cohn, a charismatic journalist-turned-entrepreneur who had spoken to my grad school class about crowd-funding to pay for investigative stories. He had created a website called Spot.us where journalists could pitch their ideas online and the community would contribute micro-donations of $5 or $10 to pay for the reporting costs.

I called David and asked if the garbage patch story might work with Spot.us. He loved the idea and even offered to speak with his contacts at the New York Times during an upcoming trip. The Times’ science desk had already expressed interest in the story and David got the Times to let us use its logo on the Spot.us website.

After we posted my pitch online, the donations came in slowly at first and then seemingly overnight once the Times’ public editor, Clark Hoyt, wrote about my garbage patch pitch. In six weeks we raised $10,000 and I sailed across the Pacific looking at an ocean strewn with plastic trash.

The resulting story and eleven photos were published in the science section of the New York Times and, to this day, I still meet strangers who say they’ve read the story. Though Spot.us can’t “save journalism”—if such a measure is even necessary—it can help time-intensive stories make their way into major media outlets.

At a time when publishers have diminishing freelance budgets, Spot.us and other crowd-funding platforms like eByline can help freelancers stay successful in a competitive media landscape.

As Cohn likes to say, Spot.us is not a silver bullet. It will take many new revenue models to support journalism. If I’ve learned anything from this experience, it’s that reporters can’t wait for new solutions to journalism’s current problems. We must create new opportunities and push our own boundaries as we move toward a future that we can’t yet imagine.

You can read Lindsey's story here, as it appeared in the New York Times.

Please read about more of Lindsey's adventures on her blog.

And for more information about crowd-funding, Spot.us, and the writing of this story, please visit Lindsey's pitch on Spot.us, and David's blog post about the project.