Interview: David Cohn, Crowdfunded Journalism Pioneer
What is ‘crowdfunding’? It’s when the money for a project is sourced from a wide base of people paying a relatively small amount, rather than a handful of investors who pay a lot more.
In a financially turbulent period for media, where the high cost of investigative journalism is becoming prohibitive for even the bigger news producers, Cohn’s model is one of the few ways that time-consuming, challenging journalism is being funded in the Bay Area. Spot.Us allows ordinary people to put their money towards information they value, and illuminate it for for the rest of their community.
We spoke with Cohn about the origins, finances and ideologies of Spot.Us, and how its revolutionary model fits into the rest the US media landscape.
Bad Idea: How did Spot.Us come about?
David Cohn: It was a confluence of things. I was the research assistant for a guy called Jeff Howe, who coined the phrase ‘crowdsourcing’– and in journalism, when you coin a phrase, you get a book deal, so I was his research assistant. I was researching the chapter on crowdfunding, things like kiva.org [an online microloans organisation] and I was thinking: can some of these same principles be applied to journalism?
The other part came out of being a freelancer. I was a freelance journalist for a while, and I really had the sense that the system by which freelancers work is somewhat antiquated. When they do freelancing it’s not that different from before the internet. Before, they would send snail mail to an editor, and the editor would decide whether or not they’re going to publish it. Now, they’re sending email, but other than that, it’s pretty much the same; it’s a one-to-one communication. And I wanted to see a system where freelancers could work in a much better market.
BI: How does the story-generation process work?
DC: All stories start with a pitch. It can be from an independent reporter, a news organisation, or from Spot.Us itself. If there’s an independent reporter working on it, then we’ll try and find a news organisation who’ll work with us [to publish the story]; if the pitch has come from a news organisation or from Spot.Us, then we’ll try and assign a reporter to it. Then we raise some money around it, and the reporter goes out and starts reporting. Then when they come back, if we’re not already working with a news organisation we’ll try to set up first publishing rights; if we’re able to, then the money goes back to the original donors so they can reinvest. Then we publish the story and have a beer.
DC: It goes back and forth – some news organisations are really easy to work with, and some still aren’t quite sure how to engage with other organisations. For example, working with Santa Cruz Weekly was really simple – they got the concept straightaway. Other organisations require seven meetings just to explain the concept to all the decision makers, then they decide whether or not to do it, then they decide who should be the one to engage with us… it’s three months of bureaucracy for something that should take two weeks. With the right news organisation we can fund a story in two or three weeks. So some news organisations are not necessarily beating down our door, because they’re not really equipped to work with other people. Other news organisations are.
BI: Is it the case that the larger the news organisation, the more bureaucratic it is?
DC: The larger as news organisation is, the harder it is to work with them, but then again I was surprised as all hell when I approached The New York Times for a story. Granted we met in person, but I just had one meeting with one key decision maker. The New York Times: you think they’d be the hardest to try and work with, but kudos to them – they were the lightest on their feet in terms of organisations we’ve worked with.
BI: Spot.us is obviously a reaction to the current state of investigative journalism – just how bad is it at the moment in the States?
DC: It’s definitely more bleak than it used to be. They don’t have the same resources to do investigations that they used to. I don’t think they’ve lost the will completely, I just think it’s becoming harder and harder for them.
Investigative journalism is always a loss leader – there is no way to make a profit off investigative reporting from advertising. That never happened, even in the past. But because classifieds were so robust, they could spend money on investigative reporting, and that was considered good for your brand. Now, since they don’t have the same profits from classifieds, are you going to dedicate your money to something that was making you money in the past, or are you going to go with the thing that never made you money? They’ll go with the thing that makes them money, even at the expense of their brand. Nobody likes it, but they accept it.
BI: Is Spot.us managing to make enough money?
DC: It depends. It’s enough to do what we want – nobody enters journalism because of money.
It’s important to know that we’re an experiment, and in transition – we’re still figuring out what this marketplace looks like, so it’s something that we’re evolving as we go. Non-profit journalism is making a rise in America, and that might be because we’re in this transition period. But investigative journalism might stay non-profit for a long time – either we’re in a period of transition, or a period of [permanent] change. Investigative journalism may never be supported by classified advertising ever again.
We have a couple of different sources of revenue. When people donate they are encouraged, but not required to donate 10% more to the operation of the site, and the majority of people do that, so that gives us a little bit of money. The 10% is almost enough to fund our hosting costs and other miscellaneous costs, so I feel pretty good about that. So as we expand to other cities, that too will expand.
There are other possible revenue streams, like advertising – I’m not against advertising on an ideological level or anything, so we might use that. Right now, the amount that we can make is so little that it’s not really worth it, but again if we expand it might make sense. We could also become a wire service, and syndicate our content.
BI: So Spot.Us is just one part of a larger revenue model?
DC: It is not the revenue stream. It’s naïve to think there’s any single revenue stream that’s going to replace what was a single revenue stream. Before, you had classified and advertising that paid for everything, because there was a monopoly on distribution. Now, the distribution is itself distributed, anyone can distribute, so the revenue streams are going to be distributed too.
I never try to sell Spot.us as something that will fund an entire news organisation, or fund an entire person’s career. We are ourselves going to be distributed, we’re raising money for all kinds of news organisations. I think that this kind of community-funded reporting could support anywhere from 5% to 30% of a news organisation’s revenue stream once it’s mature, but it’ll never support an entire news organisation.
DC: That’s possible. Essentially Spot.Us is trying to find out how to distribute the financial load of journalism, but we are going to try and branch out a little bit in the future at how to distribute the workload.
BI: A potential flaw with crowdfunded investigative journalism is that you have to announce what you want to write about before investigating it. Is that a significant weakness?
DC: It’s a weakness in that a lot of people have this concern, but I think it’s an antiquated concern if I’m honest. I guess there are some instances where you don’t want to broadcast, if it’s going to hurt a source – if you’re investigating the Mafia, you don’t want to put that on Spot.Us.
But the concern is often about scoops, and competition: “I don’t want another journalist to do this story first”. But scoops have the half-life of a link, which is very short, and in fact, by proclaiming the space and putting the pitch up there, you’ve already scooped everybody – you can elbow out that space. Even if people do similar articles you can link to it, incorporate that and call it ‘back reporting’ – they’ve done some of your research.
I think it’s naïve to think that stories are one-offs and the first person to do it is the only person who gets to do it right and everybody else sucks. And even if that is the case, you should put your pitch up as soon as possible, so if someone else does it you can point to it and say I knew this was going to happen and I’m working on it as well, and I’m going to do an even better job because you’ve already done some of it.
I think scoops have actually damaged journalism. Part of the reason why journalism is where it is, is because it created a sense of competition among journalists, which was good a long time ago but now, we have the ability to work with each other so easily, and we’re not using it because of this striving for scoops.
BI: So is there still an old-school approach to news in some newsrooms, that also manifests itself, for example, in a distrust of blogs?
DC: Some do still have that approach. Blogging is a content management system, not a type of reporting – you can’t say that’s ‘just a blog’, that’s like saying that’s just a piece of paper. What Spot.Us is doing is already way out there, and if they don’t understand what’s happening with blogging, they definitely aren’t going to understand Spot.Us. I also tend now to pick and choose my battles – it might not be worth it to try and engage with those news organisations.
But I think there is a lot of innovation in news organisations. I think we’re working out what the next model is going to be, and I think we need 10,000 startups, right? But I think news organisations are part of those startups, they’re trying to reinvent themselves too.
BI: A lot of the success of Spot.Us rests on whether the donors trust in journalists. Do you feel like you’re fostering enough of that trust?
DC: I think in journalism trust is always an issue, whether you’re trusting the organisation or you’re trusting the writer. Increasingly it’s going to be about trusting the writer; individual journalists are going to have their own independent careers, and people are going to like and dislike individual reporters just as much as they would have in the past liked or disliked news organisations. There’s a lot of trust in the writers, and usually with a pitch, a certain percentage of the donors know and like the reporter already. They already have a relationship.
BI: Do readers value investigative journalism enough, to pay for something that doesn’t directly affect them?
DC: That’s the million-dollar question – whether or not the public will view journalism as a civic duty that is worthy of their donation. We try and make it fun – you get to pick where your money is going to go, you can pick your cause. But in the end I don’t have a definitive answer to that – it’s what we’re trying to find out.
Do you live in the Bay Area and have a pitch to send David? Email him at email@example.com, or visit www.spot.us for more information on donations and pitches.