"I'll tell you this, I try to remain skeptical at all times, and I am finding that that skepticism is completely warranted and merited. Because what I'm asking people to do is make a donation to support journalism which is not something that they're used to at all. People aren't used to that at all, and I have to make the argument that journalism is a public good, right? It's a civic good that's worthy of people's small donations, and what I'm finding more and more is that people disagree with that."
David Cohn with the MGP, Dec. 8, 2008
Photo Linked From: http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1342/1097521635_e4d24e022a.jpg?v=0
UPDATE: VIDEO: Tanja Aitamurto describes her research into the website Spot.us, a innovative to support civic journalism through "crowdfunding." Aitamurto spoke Nov. 17, 2009 at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism.
By MGP researcher Sara Majka, December 18, 2008
At twenty-six, David Cohn is an experienced hand in the citizen journalism/ crowdsourcing field. He has been a tech reporter for Wired, worked as a research assistant for Jeff Howe's book on Crowdsourcing, and was part of NewAssignment.net, where he worked on the citizen journalism projects Assignment Zero and Huffington Post's Off the Bus.
But about a year ago, he had reached a point where he wanted something more stable. He considered returning to Wired. This, he said, wouldn't be a bad gig, "but I would have been going back into the routine of being a reporter, when what I really wanted to do was to continue to experiment and find out what we can do to help spur on journalism."
When he learned he had received a Knight News Challenge Grant---which gave him $340,000 to start a website called Spot.us---he suddenly had a job for the next two years.
We talked with Cohn on December 8, 2008 (listen to the whole interview by clicking on the audio link above), when he was a half year into the project and the site had been going for about a month. Spot.us is a micro-funded journalism website based in San Francisco. Freelance writers go to the site, pitch a story about San Francisco, and ask for money to write the story. The public donates in amounts as small as five dollars, and not much more than twenty-five. With the dwindling of resources for journalists, some people, like Cohn, hope this model could help keep independent journalism going.
Many of these people also believe in making their efforts---the success and failures---transparent. Cohn was frank in saying he wasn't sure if the micro-funding model was working. "I'll tell you this, I try to remain skeptical at all times, and I am finding that that skepticism is completely warranted and merited. Because what I'm asking people to do is make a donation to support journalism which is not something that they're used to at all. People aren't used to that at all, and I have to make the argument that journalism is a public good, right? It's a civic good that's worthy of people's small donations, and what I'm finding more and more is that people disagree with that."
He continued by saying that we (and here he meant those people working to help preserve independent journalism) may have to face the facts, that "we're in the minority, and that most people don't value independent journalism that much. And they might not be willing to give five or ten dollars for it. So far, that's actually what I'm finding out, slowly but surely is that it's a smaller minority of people that really want to support independent journalism."
It wasn't that he was pronouncing Spot.us a failure, but he wanted to be open about the process and the struggles he was having, in the hopes that being open will help towards finding solutions. He had spent the day working to fund a pitch about the problems with MUNI (San Francisco's bus system). He emailed groups like rescuemuni.org, telling them it was a chance to get reporting that they could use, but that people needed to donate money to get the article written.
His days mostly go like that, hours spent trying to convince the three sides (reporters, donors, news organizations) that this is worth their effort. "All I'm basically trying to do is create a marketplace where they can interact with each other, but somehow I still have to convince all three," he said.
He likened his job in one instance to being a fundraiser for independent journalists, and in another to being a community organizer.
Other interview highlights include:
At seven minutes in, he explained that all pitches on the site have videos, where the reporter explains who they are and why they want to write the story. These are candid videos–the reporter at home, their belongings around them, nervous twitches and all. He called the videos "crucial," and the most important part of the process. It has to be deeply personal, he said, and without that, it would be difficult to ask for money.
At 15:30, he said that the Knight grant supports local journalism, but he thought doing this on a national or international scale would be easier to fundraise for.
At 16:50, he said the Spot.us software code was open-sourced. He wanted people to use it to create a spot.us for other areas, or a national one, or ones around different interest niches.
Cohn's bio from Digidave.org:
His first big break in journalism was writing for Wired. By following technology, specifically the build up of Web 2.0 after the first bust, David realized many of the trends he was following can and should be applied to journalism.
You can read his blog entries for New Assignment.net here.
For a list of most of his clips from Wired News, go here.
To learn more about online micro-fuding, Visit Kiva.org. It's an often-cited example for the success of the model, this one for charitable giving.
Cohn's personal blog, digidave.
Cohn's blog on spot.us.
An August 23, 2008 NY Times article covers Spot.us: "Crowd Funding: A different Way to Pay for the News You Want."
From the Knight News Challenge Grant page:
The 2009 Knight News Challenge is year three of a contest awarding as much as $5 million a year for innovative ideas that develop platforms, tools and services to inform and transform community news, conversations, and information distribution and visualization.