The Los Angeles Chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association

New Community Journalism Venture Hopes To Be ‘Spot’ On

By John Sakata/AAJA-LA

Long-time AAJA member Anh Do is no stranger at venturing into new arenas.

Do has tried her hand at reporting abroad, her byline has been published in seven countries; taught at renown journalism institutions like USC and the Poynter Institute and served several roles from sales to editor in chief at the Nguoi Viet, a Vietnamese newspaper founded by her father.

Do has accomplished much in the course of her career, but she’ll be experimenting with something radically different from anything she has ever done before—or for that matter, anybody has ever done before.

Her latest project, LA.Spot.Us, which is funded by the Knight Foundation and partnered with various organizations like the USC Annenberg School of Communications, is what Geneva Overholser, director of Annenberg, describes as “ a piece of what a future model to support journalism might look like.”

Do, a veteran in the print journalism industry with an established record on the business side, said she came onboard because she was interested in learning an arena she was not familiar with, continuing a pattern of choices evident throughout her career.

“When we sit down to eat we don’t want to eat from one food group, one dish,” Do said. “We want to sample a bunch of different things.”

Do was named managing editor of LA.Spot.US in November 2009.

LA.Spot.Us is not a news organization but a non-profit organization that supports a platform, which assists in the creation of news. At a time when advertising dollars and subscription revenue is disappearing for news institutions, reducing the amount of funds to develop fresh news content for the public, Spot.Us introduces a new way to generate revenue and allows the public to participate through tax-deductable donations.

“I believe journalism is a process and the public should be involved in this process…,” said David Cohn, founder of Spot.Us. “Sometimes this means donating $20, other times it means pitching a story. We are creating a tool to keep the public engaged in their work. Also, we are focusing on revenue. We are trying to come up with a new stream of revenue by having people contribute money. “

When Cohn, a former writer on Wired magazine who covered the emergence of social networking sites in 2004, first conceived the idea for Spot.Us, colleagues in the journalism business accused him of opening “Pandora’s Box” – opening up a line of communication with the public that could be consequential. After their first year, Cohn and his staff at Spot.Us have proven that the concept can provide benefits for the news industry.

Do will be traveling to promote the non-profit news platform that will act as an “open source project to pioneer ‘community powered reporting,’ “ according to the Spot.Us website. So far, Spot.Us, which has sub-domains in San Francisco and Los Angeles, has provided coverage on a broad range of stories that could have otherwise gone unfunded. The stories include an investigation published in the SF Public Press on a San Francisco-Oakland bridge project, the biggest infrastructure project in California history at a projected $12 billion, which was funded by 164 contributions, and a Prison and Public Health blog article on California’s prisons and parolee health, which was funded by 55 people.

One investigative story on the individuals who control the University of California’s $53 billion investment on Wall Street has already raised over $4,000 from 55 individual contributors; the reporter has requested $10,000 to look into the story.

Do’s role at LA.Spot.Us will also include traveling across Los Angeles to raise awareness of the news platform to community leaders, and to build a relationship with local Los Angeles media institutions that could end up partnering with Spot.Us to publish content produced by the website. She will promote story ideas in the community, and will be asked to take on multiple duties on a news platform with no established business model that it can follow.

“Do not only has a undying passion for journalism, but that is coupled with a intimate knowledge of what it’s like being on the ground as someone running a company,” Teri Sforza, Do’s former colleague at the OC Register. “She brings all of that together. When you’re running a start-up, you want somebody who knows what it’s like being a reporter, an editor, and a publisher. She has all that.”

Spot.Us will encounter no shortage of challenges in its attempt to mobilize the web audience on a broad scale into active participants in the creation of news, something that was unnecessary back when advertisers would bankroll news projects. The platform will test whether people and institutions on a broad scale are willing to donate money for the news they read, especially at a time when many in the United States are suffering from economic hardship.

Overholser, a former editorial board member at the New York Times and the ombudsman at the Washington Post before she came to USC, believes the “economic model (for journalism) is broken,” and models like Spot.Us could foster a more vibrant, inclusive form of journalism than what had existed in the early 90s, when news institutions ran a monopoly on how the news was distributed.

“We will have a richer relationship with the public,” Overholser said. “It’s going to be more democratic. It’s going to be a better era for journalism than the supposed golden age when a lot of folks in communities were left out. I am very optimistic about the future of journalism, but those who describe the challenges are correct in doing so.”

Since coming onboard, Do, who will retain her vice president role with the Nguoi Viet, has recommended the creation of an LA advisory board to helped promote and generate funding for new project ideas, Overholser said. She will also be responsible for building a relationship and interest in projects in the Los Angeles area. Her task won’t be easy: Her job will be to bridge the disconnect and foster participation for stories, something news organization have never had to do in the past, Overholser said.

“I think one of the most important things going on in journalism is not just new technology, but rather a very different relationship with the people,” Overholser said. “Anh has had a lot of very good experience at that. I also can tell from reading the student evaluations that she was a very personable, helpful, warm , and approachable person.”

Overholser is confident that Do will be able to bridge this divide because of what she has already accomplished in the past with the Vietnamese community. Do, a former OC Register columnists who speaks three languages—Vietnamese, English, and Spanish—and has reported from 18 states in Mexico, has developed a strong relationship with influential Vietnamese leaders and the Vietnamese community in Orange County.

“You can’t be cowed by the size (of Los Angeles when building a relationship with the city),” Overholser said. “You just have to start somewhere; do effective journalism and hope that builds.”

From her office at the Nguoi Viet, Do talked optimistically about the chances of LA.Spot.Us to thrive, despite the current economy. She emphasized that Spot.Us was about building participation and teamwork, not just inside the newsroom but with the greater community, to get the story out.

“It’s the idea that in times of cutbacks, not just in funding but in the number of local news stories generated, that we can pitch together to write about an issue that the community or the public cares about,” said Do. “You involve not only the writer, not only the community member who may donate to fund the story, but also what I’ll call the news publisher, and that can be any type of news media or non-profit; all three work together to get the story out there.”

Now in 2010, Cohn, Do and the staff at Spot.Us will see if they can spread some support for journalism on a broader scale.

“So far, Do is such a delight and pleasure. I am learning a lot from her. I don’t see myself as a boss, but as a colleague. It’s great having somebody I can learn from. We can go in this territory together and share what we are thinking. She’s a great partner in crime.”