Some news stories are just plain expensive.
That’s the case for in-depth investigations that require tons of sources and extensive research, and it’s true for long-term stories that require reporters to dig in for weeks or months to get the big picture. But it certainly holds true for sending journalists out to the middle of the ocean.
But that didn’t stop Lindsey Hoshaw from trying.
A freelance journalist specializing in environmental reporting, Hoshaw harbors a deep interest in trash — and in 2008, her eye was on the swirling vortex of it floating in the middle of the Pacific.
After contacting the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, Hoshaw was able to secure a spot on board one the vessels headed out to the North Pacific Gyre in the summer of 2009. Then, during an interview for an internship at The New York Times in November 2008, she pitched the story to science editor Laura Chang. With the prospect of a first-hand account of the mid-ocean trash heap dangling in front of her, Chang took the bait.
But there was a bit of an issue — money. Algalita needed $10,000 from Hoshaw to pay her way onto the boat (traveling hundreds of miles out into the Pacific’s not cheap, after all).
“I don’t have $10,000, and as a grad student, I wasn’t sure where I was going to get those funds,” Hoshaw told me when I caught up with her at the ScienceOnline 2010 conference in Research Triangle Park Jan. 16.
But Spot.us, a Knight Foundation-funded project that allows journalists to ask for contributions for stories, kept the prospect of the story alive.
“My story was crowdsourced. That means people from all over the country sent in money to fund the reporting trip,” Hoshaw said.
She made the pitch, but she said she was a little more optimistic than Spot.us founder David Cohn.
“We actually put up a pitch for only $6,000, because David was worried that even that was a tremendous amount of money,” Hoshaw said. “I thought we could raise it, but I really wasn’t sure.”
“My mom was the person who donated the most money for the first couple of weeks,” she said.
But the project got a bit of a boost when NYT Public Editor Clark Hoyt took notice in a July 2009 column.
To some, this is exploitation — the mighty New York Times forcing a struggling journalist to beg with a virtual tin cup. But Hoshaw does not think so. To her, it is an opportunity she cannot pass up — a story she has long dreamed of, and a chance for a byline in The Times.
What followed was a perfect demonstration of personal branding in an age of individual journalism. She dubbed herself The Garbage Girl. Became active on Twitter and Facebook. She even threw a “Garbage Girl Party,” all the while leveraging the persona to collect the funding she needed.
“I think you have to brand yourself,” she said. “There are lots of environmental journalists, lots of online journalists, and I think the public wants to know what sets you apart.”
About a year after her initial pitch, her piece was published in the Times.
While Hoshaw contends that this crowdsourced approach worked well for her story, she recognizes the inherent difficulty in securing funding for less interesting (albeit important) stories. In short, she says, Spot.us isn’t a silver bullet for the future of journalism.
“I think that city council and things like that will still get covered, just not in media outlets like Spot.us,” she said. “That’s where you’re going to see a segmenting of the market where there’s more and more organizations, but covering more and more specific things.”
This combined approach, aptly demonstrated by the Gray Lady herself, might be the key to better, more relevant news coverage.
“The thing that was most rewarding to me was seeing the ways different media can meld together to form new paths toward the future of journalism,” Hoshaw said. “It’s easy to see the turmoil in journalism as a hopeless situation, but I think Spot.us has proved that there are a lot of exciting things going on.”