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Home > Publications > Quill > 10 - with David Cohn


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Thursday, August 6, 2009
10 - with David Cohn

Quill poses 10 questions to people with some of the coolest jobs in journalism

By Scott Leadingham

As a philosophy and rhetoric major at the University of California, Berkeley, David Cohn certainly experienced a traditional liberal arts education. He solidified an interest in journalism while writing for Wired magazine and attending the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. But as a technology journalist, Cohn was aware of the need to enable reporting through Web-based platforms. Thus, he produced Spot.us. The Knight Foundation thought Cohn’s community-funded reporting Web site was innovative enough to receive a two-year, $340,000 grant. Now half-way through his tenure as a Knight News Challenge winner, he shares his insights on why collaboration is the future of the news industry.

You won the Knight News Challenge and produced Spot.us as a result. What would you have done without Knight? Would Spot have happened?

It would be possible, but not in its current incarnation. But the idea, the concept of community-funded reporting, would still happen. It’s a concept that has been around for some time, and even before the Knight money came through, we did an “alpha” launch with a wiki. The concept is out there. But wikis can be chaotic at times. Definitely Knight has allowed us to explore the full concept of what Spot is.

This is from the “State of the News Media Report” by the Project for Excellence in Journalism: “The appeal of a news organization in the future increasingly will not be just the content it produces but also the fuller packages of information it assembles from multiple sources.” What’s your reaction to that?

I have two immediate reactions. Increasingly, what we’ll see is that people want packaged data. There’s a form of journalism called database journalism that is increasingly popular. I would call every neighborhood block a news organization for the data that can be collected and shared online in a database. We’re actually looking to do similar database stuff with Spot. We’re going to have air monitors in different parts of the Bay area. We’ll have, say, 10 human air monitors who collect air quality data on certain days and then post the information in the database for comparison.

The other thing is that people relate to individuals more than they do to organizations. The byline has always been there. More and more, people are going to trust specific reporters rather than branded news outlets.

The Associated Press announced recently that it will distribute content from nonprofit investigative outlets like ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity. Is it too little too late to help bolster online, independent investigative journalism? What does that say about the power of AP/newspapers still? About collaboration?

To me it says a lot more about collaboration than about the power of newspapers and the AP. Spot and organizations like ProPublica want to give away content for free. The thought on Spot is that the content is owned by the public. AP now opening up is saying that the future of journalism is collaboration.

[The AP] has an expertise in distribution. But for investigations, AP isn’t necessarily specialized in that area. They have investigations, but they’re more known for breaking news. Now, this is an opportunity to partner with the organizations that do investigative reporting really well.

In the future, news organizations will be about collaboration with each other. For example, Google has made it increasingly easy to collaborate. Here’s a great quote that I use often: “Competitors are really just collaborators in disguise.” And don’t forget about collaborating with the public.

In a recent blog post, you wrote about the benefits and negatives of graduate school. You also wrote about how a former editor didn’t have a journalism degree. Many people seem to say that journalism can be learned on the job as well as in school. What about entrepreneurship/business?

Without a doubt, in the end, the best way to learn is trial by fire. If you look in the comments of the blog post, that editor basically said J-school isn’t necessarily needed, but it certainly can’t hurt. So, from the business end, it can’t hurt to go to business school, but it’s not completely necessarily.

As media companies try to find business models to “save” newspapers and better fund journalism in all media, increasingly the consensus is that there’s no single fix — that the business models like micropayments and community-funded journalism are all pieces of “the pie.” How much of “the pie” is the Spot.us model?

A lot of people say to me, “You’re going to save journalism.” It’s very much that we (in the journalism community) are lost at sea, and there’s very different logs floating all around. Community-funded reporting is a log. Micropayments are a log. And with all these different logs, the news industry will build a raft. I’d say two-fifths to one-third of the raft is community-funded reporting. And in the end, you always need a diverse revenue steam.

You’ve written about your liberal arts education in philosophy and rhetoric. If you could do undergraduate work again, would you study journalism? Entrepreneurship? Something else?

To be honest, I’d probably do the same thing. As I joked in that blog post, they’re somewhat useless in a practical sense. But it was through philosophy that I discovered journalism. I was the editor of my undergraduate student-run philosophy journal. Then I volunteered for a liberal arts literary magazine. And then at a newspaper. In the end, undergrad is a way to explore your heart’s desire. I became a better person with those majors.

When you first started Spot, you called the site more of a “platform” than a news outlet. But a lot of the original news content still resides on the site. Is it possible for both to coexist on one site without depending on content sharing and collaboration with news outlets?

In some respects that’s the big question that we need to figure out. When we first started, I was adamant about saying Spot is not a news outlet. But now we need to re-examine this. If we are a news organization, we need to be one that works with other outlets to share content. The barrier to entry to collaborate with us is minimal. The news outlets have to register on the site, and that takes about 10 seconds.

Spot may work in San Francisco and other communities with a strong background in community activism (Portland, Ore.; Seattle; Minneapolis, for example). But does the model have to change significantly for smaller areas with less history of community activism?

The true answer is I don’t know. Spot.us is modeled off of Craigslist in some respects. And that works in large metropolitan areas, but not as much in North Dakota. So Spot works best in a major metropolitan city. And we’re hoping to expand to other cities soon.

Would it work in smaller cities in its current form? Probably not. But if you look on the site, people can donate money as well as time. And in a place like North Dakota, I think the crux would be people donating time and talent, not necessarily money.

It’s been a year since you embarked on this project. What have you learned? Would you change your business model/original idea if you knew then what you know now?

Without a doubt, I still believe in the overarching concept of Spot. One thing, and it’s still a problem, is that all the reporters are freelancers, and it’s a loose, nebulous community. We need to define our editorial process of working with freelancers and how to best streamline that process of a one-to-one conversation between editor and freelancer.

In some respects I was naive that all freelancers are motivated and can instantly start a project without much direction. Every freelancer benefits from having a structured work flow and strong guidance from an editor. Ideally, we’re about creating a platform for other outlets to work with the freelancers and help fund the project.

What’s the one news source, if you can pinpoint just one, you couldn’t live without?

I couldn’t live without Google Reader. That’s not really a news source, but a platform for aggregating news from sources all over the world. And this way I get stories from all over, from outlets that I never knew existed.

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