Alex Gamela talks to Dave Cohn, founder of the non-profit, crowdfunding journalism project Spot.us, winner of a Knight News Challenge grant, and a suggested new model for the news business. On the eve of launching the Spot.us official website, Dave told OJB how he is putting his ideas into practice, and his views on the current state of journalism.
Four months after winning the KNC grant, Dave Cohn is a happy man. He started with a wiki where he presented and tested the different sides to his project, and he quickly managed to fund three stories. Now it is on its way to fund a fourth one. All of this even before having an official website.
The way it works is quite simple: someone – a journalist, a citizen, a community – pitches a subject to be investigated journalistically; the story is then open for funding, and whoever wants can contribute with a small sum; if the target amount is reached, a journalist takes the story on; finally it gets published.
So far this model has worked well:
“We’ve raised 3000 dollars from about 100 donors, about an average of 33 dollars each.
“It’s like digital poetry”
Dave Cohn has been doing his share on networked journalism for a while now, working with the likes of Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis.
He has strong beliefs on the possibilities that the web brings to journalism, the immense power of communities, and also in a change of attitude on the journalists part.
“Journalists and journalism right now is a diaspora, we’re sort of been kicked out of the homeland of newspapers, and we need to figure out where we can go from here”.
So he has been thinking about all this for a long time now, but the concept underlying Spot.us is rather recent for him: “I’ve been working on Spot.us as an idea for little over a year.”
Although it sounds simple, the task of building a platform has been complex, with all its nuts and bolts.
“Building a website in general is complex, and this is also building an organization. I have to remember this is a non-profit, so there’s a lot of framework behind that, to which I’m new to”.
But Dave Cohn is enthusiastic about it:
“I love every minute of it, because it’s like digital poetry. I have the opportunity to build this website as i envisioned it, and granted there are things that come up along the way that force me to put out some fires and do certain things, but they’re all part of this process, of , again, digital poetry.”
And who can participate? Spot.us “is not a news organization”, so he says he’s not considering hiring anyone. It’s “a marketplace, a platform that independent journalists can use to crowdfund for themselves”.
“It’s for freelance journalists, and it works on a pitch by pitch basis. We encourage everybody to do a pitch, everyone who wants to do this professionally.”
However, he recently announced that he is looking for journalists and communities to work with him.
The project has been promoted in two distinct ways: one, more traditional with the help of a marketing company. The other, based on a grassroots approach to the organized communities.
“It’s not really about marketing, but partnering with people that already have communities organized, and say: Look, you are a community, you have invested interested on something, you want something covered by a professional journalist, what is it? Lets find out what it is and how a professional journalist can cover it”
And what is Dave Cohn’s role in all of this?
“I’m an entrepreneur, strictly interested in the issues of journalism. What I’m passionate about and what motivates me is figuring out how journalism can continue to thrive, despite the death of its institutions. So I’m a journalist/entrepreneur in that sense where I’m trying to figure out how journalism can rethink itself and redefine itself so it can continue.”
Crowdfunding as a new business model
One of the most discussed issues on the new media blogosphere is how to find a sustainable business model for the news industry. Spot.us’ crowdfunding model raised some doubts over the possibility that groups with their own agenda might fund specific stories, thus skewing the journalistic goal of the project, in contrast with traditional media that appeared as the gold standard.
Dave Cohn is very clear about this:
“There’s no such thing as clean money. It’s a myth that newspapers’ money is clean. And anybody who is working in journalism knows the story of a publisher who killed an investigation because it would have threatened some advertising dollars.”
He argues that the process must be transparent every step of the way, and show “where the money comes from, limit donations.”
Besides, the names and the reputation of the professionals involved are at stake – the journalist who proposed to write the story, the editor, and the media who will publish it.
Cohn believes the role of the community is crucial, and everything changed when people got access to the new web tools:
“Maybe in the 1960’s community organizing meant gathering a bunch of people picketing, but now young people when they want to do community organizing they create media: they create a YouTube video, or a Facebook cause.
“And I think more and more you will get successful citizen journalism projects, and they’re usually led by civic leaders or community leaders, who have taken responsibility and said: look, this is an issue of my community, how can I help benefit it? Well I’ll take it online, organize online, by making media”.
One of the major shifts in the news paradigm is the growing need – and ability – that people have to claim issues that are close to them in the news agenda. And this raised questions about the effectiveness and the role of journalism, and how it served that need.
“People have serious information needs,” and “that’s what journalism should be: serving the information needs of people.
“It’s not producing a newspaper. A newspaper is a packaged product that is delivered to your door. What journalism does is to inform people, and i think people will always want information, especially about their local community.”
And now people can demand for the information that affects them and their communities, and in depth. Now that the communities know they can have their voice heard, nothing will ever be the same.
“As long as we are tied to geographical locations we’re going to want to know what’s going on in our geographical location. So that is not going to disappear, people want in depth stuff.”
Journalism on the spot
Dave Cohn has an analogy to explain what has changed in the relationship between users and media.
“If you walked into a restaurant and the waiter told you what you were going to eat for dinner, you’d walk right out. But that’s the way news has traditionally been served.
“When you look at it historically, we came out of a time where it was top-down communication, so that made sense: here’s your news, here’s what’s important.”
Now the people can order the information they want off the vast menu called the web, and the definition of what is news or not is no longer decided by a restricted number of people.
“Traditionally, 0.001% of the population determined the news agenda, and they were called editors, and the reason they were able to determine the news agenda is because they were the only ones with a freelance budget.”
Cohn has written and debated profusely about what needs to be done to improve and renew the trust in traditional media. And to him, background changes must occur.
“The way news media are structured need to be rethought or re-tooled, so it can respond more, and be more open, but it’s not their fault, it’s nobody’s fault, it’s just the way those organizations are structured, because it came out of this history, and it literally is history now, what worked 30 years ago doesn’t work anymore.”
The trust relationship between audience and journalists isn’t rock-steady. I asked Dave Cohn if the view of the world given by journalists wasn’t too narrow. He says it’s not about the journalists.
“I strongly believe that journalists in general, when you talk to them one on one are in general really good people, and they have strong beliefs. They’re doing what they’re doing because they believe in it, and they’re passionate about it. Individual reporters and journalists, their view is not too narrow.
“I think the problem comes in that, the institutions they’re part of – the newspapers or the news organizations – are structured in a top-down way, where orders come from the top, individuals can’t make necessarily decisions on the fly, and that caused them to be somewhat narrow, or unable to pivot rapidly or in response to the community, that now has a voice in result of the internet.”
Although he is critic about the slow evolution of traditional media, Dave Cohn is not extreme in his opinions.
“I think a lot of times in this traditional or new media debate we cast things in black and white a little too often. It’s always more complicated than that.”
The future and some advice
For now, Spot.us is based in the San Francisco Bay area. But Dave Cohn is interested to expand his project to other regions and cities, like New York, Los Angeles or Seattle, while he is probing the acceptance the project might have in other countries.
“The web code application is open source, so if you want to use it and start it in your own country or in your own city, I would be so happy and honoured. I want people to take this, it’s open source for a reason, take it and use it in your own city.”
And to those who want to start their own ventures?
“Start small, start realistic, and iterate.”
He reinforces the idea that the true power is not in technology, but in people:
“Community trumps technology any day of the week.”
That is the true spirit behind Dave Cohn’s work. He leaves one final piece of advice, both for journalists and entrepreneurs:
And he knows what he is talking about.