Algonquin College Professor Joe Banks explains how the college is operating an innovative project to fund news stories in Canada. GoJournalism.ca is a Canadian version of Spot.us, a crowdfunding model for financing journalism. He provides insightful comments after nearly 18 months of operation.

By Joe Banks

Some of you are already aware that GoJournalism.ca has been operating since August of 2010, but far too many of you do not. Like many start-ups, our message has been swallowed up in the day-to-day noise in the constantly-changing and disrupted media world of today.

That’s why I’ve asked for some space here at J-Source, to (re)introduce you to a still-experimental concept in brokering three-way relationships between freelance journalists, budget-stretched existing media outlets, and the general public.

First, let’s look at the rationale of our project and how it came to be.

In 2008, at the climax of the advertising crash and recession in the U.S., I attended a conference in Calgary and learned about a site in San Francisco that joins story ideas from the public with freelancers seeking paid work, and mainstream media looking to stretch freelance budgets.

This project, called Spot.us, was kicked off with a $750,000 grant from the Knight Foundation. Since then, it has partnered with local media to co-fund tens of thousands of dollars in journalism that may not have seen the light of day had spot.us not been operational. Its top story generated $10,000 from the New York Times, which bought exclusivity, to fund a young freelancer’s trip to the central Atlantic Ocean to kayak through a floating mass of garbage.

Their emerging success prompted a few of us at Algonquin College to ask, ‘why not here?’ San Francisco is the fourth most populous city in California and the 13th most populous city in the United States, with a population of 805,235 (excluding the Bay and greater regions) as of the 2010 Census. In 2006 the population of the City of Ottawa was 812,129, excluding the greater Valley and Gatineau areas.

Algonquin College’s applied research department was looking for proposals; we submitted one and it was accepted. We were awarded $35,000 to hire a manager and a developer to do the development work on the site. Spot.us donated the architecture and David Cohn, its founder and director, provided us with free advice and continues to do so. The site continues to be owned and operated by Algonquin College.

At the same time, we at Algonquin came to see that our graduating students were turning out some good work for their year-end projects.  We often felt that there should be a way to get these stories published, not only showcase the talent of our students, but also to shine a light on important Ottawa-based topics that may have been underreported in the traditional media, or not at all.

As well, the daily newspaper picture in Ottawa and elsewhere seemed to be reflecting, to a lesser extent, the declining print advertising revenue papers in the U.S.  It seemed there were some interesting factors converging. So we went ahead with the project.

The concept is simple: GoJournalism.ca invites the public and freelance journalists to suggest stories of interest to the Ottawa community, and we invite freelancers to do them for a price everybody thinks is fair. The public can commission and participate with journalists to do reporting on important and perhaps overlooked topics. And journalists can pitch stories they hope would be funded directly by the public or mainstream news organizations.

All funds raised go directly to the journalists to complete the stories, which may be produced in a variety of formats. The stories can be bought by mainstream media, or published on the GoJournalism site. We prefer to be the broker between the freelancer and existing news companies. Any news agency willing to pay 51 per cent of the story’s price or higher gets exclusive rights to the story.

You can see a short video that outlines the concept quite nicely. It was produced by interactive multimedia students at Algonquin College, who were commissioned for the work as a condition of the grant:

http://vimeo.com/13180915

If we could land charitable status, we could, but all of our revenue goes to the journalists producing the stories. Now I know there are many freelancers out there who call themselves charity cases, but Revenue Canada doesn’t count them as such yet!

WHAT HAVE WE DONE TO DATE?

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The Ottawa Citizen kicked things off with a half-page story on Sept. 25, 2010 with an excellent story by Andrew Duffy. That immediately led to our signing up about 40 and within a month of our launch we registered 138 members who have either reporter or citizen status.

Today, we have 176 members, with 90 listing themselves as potential reporters. Many, but not all, are graduate of the Algonquin journalism program.

Our single biggest story was published by the Ottawa Citizen on April 30, 2011, when Ottawa freelancer Greg Markey agreed to take on a story pitched by a journalism grad about eyeglasses donated for Haitians which had not reached that devastated country one year after they’d been gathered.

Greg was directly paid by the Citizen to write a follow-up two months later, so he landed a second commissioned story from the initial pitch made by another person.

The Citizen also picked up a pitch by freelancer Dee Underwood about the after-effects of the collapse of the Bluesfest stage in July 2011, and the lasting impact it has had on the stagehands who worked there.

More recently, we have partnered with OpenFile Ottawa to get four stories commissioned and published, with journalism grads and students earning income from that site. Currently on the GoJo site, we have 28 stories that are unfunded, and four stories with some level of financial support indicated.

Late last year, the Media Club of Ottawa pledged $1,000 toward funding stories featured on the site, and we continue to look for donors who wish to co-fund these stories with established media organizations.

But it’s quality, not quantity, we seek. We want journalism practiced with deliberation and that means time. I told CBC Morning in an interview Nov. 21 that we’d rather see five very high quality stories per year come out of GoJournalism than 500 weak ones.

That said, ultimately the success of GoJo and whether it will continue will be up to freelancers, donors and media companies.

I think we have done our part: we have used the taxpayer’s dollars to get an initiative up and running. So far, development and startup costs aside, GoJo is costing the taxpayer roughly $60 a month minus a share of my salary paid by Algonquin to do this work.

I will be returning to my day job at Algonquin in August 2012 when I hope to lay myself off as director of GoJournalism. By then, we hope it will be assumed by a non-profit group who would bring the service to a new and exciting level.

J-Source, the Canadian Association of Journalists, the Canadian Journalism Foundation could be key in helping bring this happen if they so wish, to expand GoJo to anywhere in Canada whose news agencies and freelancers could use a boost.

In the meantime, maybe you’d like to lend us a hand. Check out the site at GoJournalism.ca or send us an email at admin@gojournalism.cawith your suggestions or offer of help.

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Joe Banks is currently on sabbatical from Algonquin College where he teaches journalism.