Community Funded Reporting: Interview with David Cohn of Spot.us
"You cannot run a community if you're not informed. Journalism is really the act of informing communities so that they can make better decisions, that is part of the public service, informing communities so that together we can know where else we need to help."
--David Cohn, Founder, Spot.us
When I first heard David Cohn talk about Spot.us in the Spring of 2008 at an Innovations in Journalism conference, I thought, this is going to be big. Shortly afterwards, it was announced that Spot.us was a 2008 Knight News Challenge Winner.
Spot.Us is a nonprofit project pioneering “community funded reporting.” Through Spot.Us, the public can commission journalists to do investigations on important, and perhaps overlooked stories.
David is a journalist turned entrepreneur who has written for Wired, Seed, Columbia Journalism Review and The New York Times. While working toward his master’s degree at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Cohn worked as an Editor at newassignment.net, which focused on citizen journalism and ways news organizations could explore the social web.
We started our conversation by David explaining what Spot.us is and how it works:
David Cohn: Spot.us is trying to pioneer this concept of community-funded reporting which is the act of distributing the cost of hiring a reporter across a lot of different people. 50 people giving $20 each is enough to hire a reporter to go more in depth into a specific topic that those 50 people think is important. We're taking the art of freelancing for writers, and making it much more transparent and much more public.
Freelancers literally put their story ideas and their pitches up on our site, and they say, "This is the story I want to tackle." We look for people to partner with them, whether it be members of the community to donate small amounts of money, or news organizations to provide editorial to then push the story into completion.
Britt Bravo: Why is this necessary? Why is this needed?
It's needed in a couple different ways. The first, and sort of most obvious, is the economic situation of newspapers. Now, it's almost not even breaking news to say that newspapers are facing, to be quite frank, an economic death spiral. I think at the national level we're always going to have The New York Times, CNN, and The Washington Post to do national investigations, but what we really are threatened to lose in the next year to five years is local investigations and local reporting.
It's easier for people to get really passionate about national issues, but local issues are just as important. Democracy happens at a local level still, so we still need that kind of civic, local reporting.
The other reason why I think it's important is just for the trade of journalism, or the craft of journalism in general. It is traditionally very guarded. It's funny, it's a profession that's supposed to educate the public, but the profession itself was always very closed and insular.
On Spot.us, we're trying to bring in a culture of transparency in journalism, where we say, "Invite the public into the reporting from day one. Just let us know what stories you're even starting to think of working on."
Where did the idea come from?
There are two or three stories that all came together. The first is that I was a freelancer myself for a long time, and freelancing is horribly antiquated. The big advent of freelancing, since the Internet, is that instead of snail-mailing my story ideas to editors, I would email them. And that's like the great thing that the Internet brought me was email!
I was doing that, and I always thought it was kind of silly because the Internet can provide one-to-many communication, or many-to-many communication, and yet freelancing was still this one-to-one relationship: a freelancer and the editor, and those are the only two people involved. I was always thinking, how could a freelancer pitch the world?
The other two things that happened was that I started working a lot in participatory journalism. I'm a big believer in participatory journalism, or citizen journalism, whatever you want to call it. But I also think that it has some limitations.
I'm a big believer that people should be able to participate and look into stories and do it themselves. But when I would ask people to do investigations, they would often come back and say, this is really hard work. You're asking me to do my college mid-term paper again.
It's not fun for some people. They want to be involved in investigations, but they don't necessarily want to give up the next three weeks, or four weeks of their life, and that's understandable. So, I was trying to think of ways where we could have the public involved in investigations that are important to them, but in a way that allows them to do it in 10 minutes or five minutes. In truth, you can donate to a story in under a minute, at least I hope so, depending on how usable the site is.
What is one of your favorite Spot.us success stories?
One of my favorite Spot.us success stories, probably the most recent one at least, that I'm really proud of was a story called A Tale of Two Zip Codes. It was looking at the Tenderloin and the Marina, which are obviously two very different neighborhoods. The reporter did a good job of giving anecdotes about the lives of people who live in the Tenderloin, and those who live in the Marina. But on top of that, he did a lot of census data research. So, the story had a good narrative, but it also had concrete data that really explained the differences between the two neighborhoods. I mean, they're stark contrasts.
That was actually a story that we did with a group called Urban Habitat. They have a magazine called Race, Poverty and Environment Magazine. It was in their magazine, and there was a nice launch party. We also did an interview with the reporter to get a feel for what went into the reporting.
For me, it was interesting because living in San Francisco, the Tenderloin fascinates me. I think it fascinates a lot of people in San Francisco because it's almost like this zip code in the middle of the city right next to Nob Hill, which is a very affluent area. The Tenderloin has a lot of issues, to say the least.
That's one that I'm particularly proud of. And then, we've actually done a lot more East Bay stories than I expected. Again, maybe I had my San Francisco blinders on, but the community has brought it more and more to the East Bay. I'm really proud of a lot of the stuff that we've been doing in the East Bay.
This hasn't been around that long. It's only been, what, like a year?
Less than a year since we launched. I got the grant about a year ago, and then it took us about four to five months to get up and running. We launched in November of 2008. We've been up for eight months. For a while, we were actually funding one story a week and trying to cycle through those. Some stories take longer than others. What we've been doing recently is trying to fund beats, as opposed to one-off stories. Another San Francisco beat that we're fund-raising for right now is City Budget Watchdog, and we're over half way funded. It's a group of people that are covering the city budget cuts for the next three months. So it's not really a one-off story, it's a series that they're producing.
What has been one of the biggest challenges? You're transitioning from freelance reporter to entrepreneur, to web site manager... I mean, there's a lot of different stuff going on. What have been some of the challenges, and how have you dealt with them, or not dealt with them?
The two biggest challenges, one of them I'm dealing with, and one of them I'm not, one of the challenges is the business side of things. My background was in journalism. I was a freelancer. I was a tech reporter. I got my Masters in Journalism. A lot of that is useless when it comes to starting up a nonprofit. You know, the legal stuff that's behind that, the business stuff that's behind that, and I'm learning a lot of that as I go.
I guess, if you do have a big vision in something, you end up having to tackle these business and legal issues along the way, and I'm happy to do it, but that's a learning experience.
The other one I'd say is, I'm a big believer in collaboration, and the future of journalism is collaboration. Again, that is very different from the traditional culture of journalism and journalists. Often, I am trying to bring journalists into this act of being really transparent about their reporting and work with other journalists, or news organizations, and that can be difficult. I often say that, "Collaboration is queen." If life is a chessboard, content is still king. It's the most important, but collaboration is queen, and it's the most powerful. That said, collaboration is always; it's very tricky. It's very sticky and wet and difficult, and people fight and they cry...
...and all kinds of things happen, right? So that's something that I'm learning, and I think that the platform needs to be better organized, so that those collaborations can happen easier.
I'm interested in hearing more about the idea of collaboration because I think it's something that with Web 2.0 technology is becoming a buzzword, and is becoming a little bit of a cultural change just overall. People are saying, "We're all going to collaborate! We're all going to work together, and we're crowdsourcing!" Which is great (and I can't wait to see that backlash, when the pendulum swings back), but what are tips or tools for people who have projects, who want to collaborate online in some way? It's becoming this new tool that people are expected to be able to do, and I don't know that we're really trained for it at this point.
I agree, and that's some of the things that I'm learning. I mean, most recently, I tried to come up with like five or six keys to collaboration, and it goes back to one of my mentors, Jeff Jarvis, who says, "Do what you do best, and link to the rest." He is talking about on the Web, in terms of content, but I think that also, it works in terms of life. Do what you can do best, and collaborate with people who can do the rest, right? They'll do what they do best.
Some of the things that I've found are, first and foremost, there has to be trust on both sides. If you're collaborating with someone, you need to be able to trust them, and they need to be able to trust you to do what you guys each want to do. The second is, you need buy-in from the top; maybe not the very tippy top, but the key decision makers. If they're not all on the same page when you start, it'll hit the fan later.
Another one is to have a key liaison. Maybe it doesn't have to be that decision-maker, but someone that is tasked to the project. Otherwise, you end up in what I would call the email hamster wheel of death. Another key thing that I've learned is, this is part of what Spot.us is; money actually helps grease the wheels. Being able to share some sort of resource, whether it be money or time, or something like that; have some resources that anybody can commit, so they can share that. There are a couple of other things that I've actually written down. Those are things that, moving forward, we're always putting out there before we start a collaboration; do we all have these things in a row?
You mentioned that local stories are one of the places where reporting is going to be lost, or is needed. Are there particular topics, or other things that you're really passionate about that you wish, "Oh, I really hope that people will cover this arena or these topics," or that kind of thing?
Obviously, local civic journalism is incredibly important to me. What really, really turns me on in terms of journalism is what I would call networked journalism, which is where you can get a bunch of different people to break up a story into smaller, different bits. An example that I really want to try eventually on Spot.us, and hope to try with Oakland Local, a site that's starting up, and newsdesk.org and a couple of others, is if we can get (I'm making these numbers up) 10 bloggers in 10 different neighborhoods in the East Bay to agree to try what's called a "Bucket Brigade" where they trap some air locally, and then test it to see what the air quality is.
People do that now, right? They do it individually, independently, and you get a sense of what the air quality is like in your neighborhood. But imagine if we had 10 people do that, in 10 different neighborhoods, all on the same day. Imagine if we had 10 people do that on the same day, every month, for six months, and they all agree to share that data.
Then you have something that is much greater, right? The sum is much greater than the parts. We could literally take a map and then say, "OK, here are the 10 communities. This one has the worst air; this one has the best air." You have some data there that really exposes some of the truths that are going on anyways. We need to be able to collaborate and organize at least 10 people to do that. But that's the kind of thing that really gets me excited.
Are there other projects besides air quality, or things that you'd like to see that kind of journalism used for?
Yes, definitely. I can imagine doing that for all kinds of issues. Another one that I wanted to do would be, and that I'm actually looking into, is it's California law that if you lay off 50 people or more in the next six months you have to announce that and make that public. There's a list of companies that have laid off 50 people or more. What I want to do is look at that list and then distribute the workload to look up their quarterly profits, or yearly profits, just to see if those companies are making a profit while laying people off.
That's not illegal; we can't arrest them for that. But I think that's an interesting thing to note. Once you have that information, there might be more of a story. Then you can say, "OK, well why did these three companies lay people off when they made this much money; the rest, OK you guys all lost money, we can understand."
At least we know now what three companies we might want to look at closer. That's the kind of thing though where you need 30 people, or more who are willing to devote two or three hours worth of their time.
How can people who are listening or reading get involved? Are there ways they can get involved beyond just donating? I saw on the site that you had something like "donate talent." Are you expanding beyond the Bay Area? If someone's listening and thinking, "I'll do air testing in Montana!" how would that work?
First, we are hoping to expand beyond the Bay Area soon. Actually, the technology is in place, we're just trying to get our footing before we make a push. And it'll probably be to Southern California, Los Angeles, next. And then, maybe up in Seattle as well, and then we'll be up and down the West Coast. If people want to get involved, registering on the site only takes 10 seconds. After that, you'll get an occasional email from us, and in the future those emails will include the ability for you to participate in some of our journalism.
On every pitch, there is a button that says, "I'll donate 20 bucks," but below that, as you mentioned, there is a button that says "I'll donate talent." And right now, that is a feature that needs to be built out more. That's a pretty vague call, right? "I'll donate talent." What does that mean?
In the future though, I hope that journalists will put up pitches, and that they already have ideas for collaboration, that they can literally write those out and say, "Here are some of the things that I would like people to help me." Or even if it's just, "I don't know enough about this, I need an expert on..." whatever the topic is.
People can click that and say, "I am an expert on this, I can help!" The site itself is going to be looking for more ways to engage people. And in some ways, part of the fun of doing Spot.us is that we are building ourselves as we go, and we're trying to do that as well in an open manner.
I tell people some of the features that are coming up; just as the journalism is transparent, the platform is transparent. I tell people where we are screwing up, and we have had a few screw-ups. I tell people what we're planning on doing, and we're inviting people for that ride.
And what about if there are people who are journalists or reporters listening, how can they submit ideas? And are stories only written? Is it video and audio? What are the mediums?
We do all kinds of multimedia. We've done audio, we've done video, we've done text, and we've done some photo slide shows. I think we've hit up most of them. I would love to do an info. graphic, or a map. That's next on my list of things to conquer. Anybody can register on the site. They can register either as a community member, a reporter, or a news publisher.
Reporters can simply click a button that says "Start a story," and "Create a pitch." That pitch won't go 100% live on the site. It comes to us first because we get a lot of pitches right now that aren't focused on the Bay Area, and right now we are keeping a Bay Area focus. We'll always keep a local focus, but hopefully soon we'll be local to Los Angeles as well.
It's actually pretty quick and simple in terms of the buttons that you have to press. What's really the hard part, and again, I understand it's different for journalists, is the mental leap of being public and open about the story that you want to work on.
Why is that so hard?
In journalism, traditionally, the most important thing was the scoop because every paper was on the same daily publishing cycle. They all were going to come out in the morning, at the same time. So, whoever had the story that the other guy didn't, won, so to speak. They got the scoop. That's where it comes from. And so journalists were always taught to hoard their information. You hoard your sources. You don't let anybody know what you're working on.
What I'm asking them to do is the exact opposite. Share your information; freely reveal everything that you are working on right now. That's very, very different. But journalism is itself changing so I think it's OK to ask people to come along for that ride.
What advice do you have for journalists right now? I was interested when you said part of it is a love of the craft of journalism, and wanting to do it for that. And it has occurred to me that it almost seems like journalists need, from the way the things are right now, to re-imagine themselves as artists, and that they almost have to have a different mentality, "I'm an artist, I've got to find funding." I'm curious what advice you have for panicked journalists who are worried about, "What's it all going to mean and what am I going to do? It's all changing so fast."
Well, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's first rule is "Don't Panic." That said, things are definitely changing. Actually, the art analogy isn't that far off. In fact, talking about this with an old professor of mine, we were talking about, "Is journalism sustainable?" People are always talking about sustainability. That's the thing everyone is looking for. We might have to face the fact that, you know what, journalism isn't sustainable, and that's OK. There are a lot of things that really aren't sustainable. Poetry has never really been sustainable. Art has never really been sustainable--high art. But I don't think anybody's panicking that art is going to disappear or poetry is going to disappear. They're just sort of part of the human existence.
I think journalism is part of the human existence, too. Everything from smoke signals and on is really sharing information. That said, I understand that people want to make a living doing it, and you know, it's going to be a tough time. I think journalists need to realize that they are now independent, and not part of a news organization. And that's the big mental leap.
Journalism will survive the death of its institutions, and that means journalists will survive, but we're going to be a little bit more of a diaspora, rather than working within these larger organizations that sort of protected us and shielded us from the realities of the world and being an independent producer of content.
For folks who are listening who are budding social entrepreneurs and who have a project, or an idea, and they're in the start-up phase, which you're still kind of in, what are your tips?
These are all tips that I picked up from other people. One, find your own itch and scratch it. As I was saying before, as a freelancer, this one-to-one pitching wasn't working, I wanted to pitch the world. That was my itch, and I needed to scratch it. The second one is, bite small and chew well. I originally wanted to launch Spot.us in every city in the country and go national, and I would have suffered from death of a thousand paper cuts, is how someone described it. That sounds like a horrible way to die. It's OK to start small and to go through a period of relative obscurity. Those are the two main things. That, and if you have passion for it, that will keep you going.
Is there anything else about Spot.us that you didn't get to talk about that you wanted to mention? I know before we started you were mentioning a big story you're looking for folks to support, or anything else?
Well, if I'm going to get up on my chair...
Check out Spot.us. One pitch that we just got in yesterday is with a reporter that wants to do something for The New York Times. The New York Times has agreed to run it if it's "up to their standards." The freelancer has to get a travel budget because the story is actually out in the middle of the ocean. This could be a way that you could determine whether or not a story ends up in The New York Times. The New York Times will give credit to the Spot.us community, anybody who donates. And that's kind of a cool thing, right? (Update: this story is now fully funded!).
That and the only other thing I'd add is, Spot.us aside, get involved in journalism. That sounds really nerdy, but it can actually be really fun. There's a lot of journalism start-ups going on right now. They don't even have to be "journalism." Get involved in a blog, a blog that covers something at the local level. News at the local level. It's a way to be engaged in your community. It is a public service.
Regardless of whether or not you get involved in Spot.us, get involved in something of that nature because there are a lot of start-ups, and they really require the brains and commitment of a lot of people right now, and eventually one of them will figure it out.
I like that idea of service, because I think right now, with the Obama Administration, there is a lot of emphasis on service, and they keep showing people building fences and building homes and going to soup kitchens, which is great, but there are so many other kinds of service, and there are a lot of people that have a lot of, what's that phrase, it's like extra intellectual energy?
No . . .
Yes! There's a big cognitive surplus and there are people who can research and write and interview people, and that is a service. I don't know that's necessarily been part of the language and the culture of service, and I think that it should be.
I totally agree. I think public service is, again, when you think of public service you think of soup kitchens and building fences, and again, those are great things. But it's also important for us to know that we don't know what the need is for the soup kitchens, or what the need is for the fences unless we are informed. You cannot run a community if you're not informed. Journalism is really the act of informing communities so that they can make better decisions, that is part of the public service, informing communities so that together we can know where else we need to help. We need to make smart decisions about our time, money, resources and things like that, and that's really what journalism at its core is supposed to be doing.
Related blog posts:
- New York Times story puts Spot.Us in the spotlight on the Knight Foundation Blog
- Q&A: Spot.Us founder David Cohn on crowdfunded journalism on Digital Marketing Blog
- Freelancer to write a story for the New York Times with funding raised on Spot.Us on Editors Weblog