Saving journalism by 'crowdfunding'

Imagine you live in a place dominated by a single industry: oil-and-gas drilling, say, or real estate, or a university, or just single-minded, intolerant politics. You see unfairness or corruption and think that a hard-hitting investigation might lead to improvements. The local news operations tend to favor the status quo because they rely on advertising from the dominant industry or aren't equipped to investigate.

So you go to a Web site and propose the investigation you have in mind. You figure it could be done for $2,000, which would cover a journalist's time and expenses. You use your credit card to pledge $50 toward the total. You tell other people, and they tell others. Eventually, enough people make pledges to cover the full $2,000.

Then the Web site boss hires the right journalist, who does the story –– and blows the lid off whatever injustice you targeted.

Sound far-fetched? A year ago, it was. But today it's possible, thanks to a 26-year-old San Francisco innovator named David Cohn.

"I'm very passionate about journalism," Cohn says, especially "the concept of participatory journalism, or how the public can be engaged."

He invented www.Spot.us to engage the public. He launched it about five months ago, with $340,000 from the Miami-based Knight Foundation News Challenge program, which funds "media innovators" across the country.

Spot.us is one of many signs that journalism is changing. Daily newspapers, magazines and broadcast news shows are struggling financially as more people get their news online. But online news operations typically lack the staff or money for news-gathering.

Cohn grew up in California and got a master's degree at the Columbia University Journalism School in New York City. He worked as a researcher for Jeff Howe, a Wired editor who champions the idea of using "crowds" to fund different enterprises.

Cohn runs the site from the apartment he shares with his girlfriend and a cat, and from coffee shops with his notebook computer. The public has funded about a dozen Spot.us stories so far -- pitched by both journalists and ordinary citizens -- including investigations of the Oakland police and the problems of homeless people.

The focus is on the Bay Area, because the Knight award is for local journalism. But Cohn wants the idea to spread. He built Spot.us on an "open-source platform" -- anyone can modify the software to start doing journalism elsewhere. Asked how much time he's dedicating to it, he says, "It's basically if I'm not eating or sleeping. …"

--Ray Ring

Low-carb(on) brews

New Belgium Brewing makes at least 18 kinds of beer in Fort Collins, Colo., ranging from its famous Fat Tire Ale to whimsical seasonals such as Skinny Dip (only 114 calories per glass). By conventional standards, the company is the nation's third-largest craft brewer. It's also one of the most environmentally conscious companies on the planet, a path it pioneered beginning 18 years ago.

New Belgium buys all of its electricity from renewable sources, chiefly windmills, except for what it makes by burning methane from its own wastewater. The brewmaster boils his wort in an uber-efficient kettle imported from Germany, the first of its kind in this country. To trim the environmental costs of transporting and making cardboard, the company recently reduced the packaging material in each 12-pack; that alone cut yearly cardboard demand by 150 tons and shaved 174 metric tons from the estimated annual greenhouse gas emissions caused by the brewery's operations.

New Belgium has lowered its rate of water use with a new, technologically advanced bottling plant. To foster low-impact transportation, it gives bicycles to employees after they've been with the company for a year, and keeps a collection of loaner bikes on the property for lunch-break excursions. It also pays a bike courier to gather brown bottles from downtown bars and restaurants, because the city doesn't offer commercial recycling. It then ships those bottles, along with its own stream of waste glass, to the nearby Rocky Mountain Glass plant, where Coors bottles are born.

The company is working to brew more of its beer from organic ingredients, but has had trouble finding high-quality organic ingredients in the local market. So it's donated $20,000 to Colorado State University to spur research into Colorado's organic growing conditions.

Before bringing their first batch of beer to market in 1991, co-founders Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan hiked in the mountains to brainstorm a few basic sustainability principles for their company. They committed to "kindling social, environmental, and cultural change as a role model of a sustainable business." Ever since then, they and their staff have discarded the idea that profit-making conflicts with a commitment to the common good.

New Belgium believes that its green image underpins its brand strength. "We don't calculate the cost of doing something unsustainably and then more sustainably and figure out the difference," says New Belgium's sustainability director, Jenn Orgolini. "We're always looking for the next thing."

--Terray Sylvester


Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Mont., invents software to uncover the hidden costs of community decisions, such as allowing new houses in wildfire zones or committing to a mining economy.