Interview with David Cohn, founder of Spot.Us

11 November 2010

Written by: Christopher Scanlon

David Cohn is the founder of Spot.Us, a nonprofit organisation that has pioneered ‘community funded reporting’ by enabling freelance journalists to work on stories that readers want covered. Madeleine Barwick spoke to him about Spout.Us, new media and the future of journalism.

Where did the idea for Spot.us come from?

Spot.Us came from a few places. First, I was a freelancer and looking for ways to modernise the process of freelancing to make it more transparent, open and participatory. Also, I was the research assistant on the book Crowdsourcing and I was studying things like kiva.org and DonorsChoose.org.

How do traditional media organisations view Spot.Us?

Most of them, I think, have a pretty good attitude about it. I think the industry recognises we are trying something very different and while it is too radically different for them to fully adopt they appreciate that we are doing it.

What’s been the reaction to Spot.Us?

We do have some [critics], although not as many as you might expect. Some of the criticism is pretty broad. Either a) that because we let people vote on the stories that the selection of stories will be about sex, drugs and rock and roll. In other words, the criticism is: people can’t make smart decisions that’s why we need editors. Or b) people will try and influence the journalism TOO much.

Both criticisms are silly to me. Then again, I’m not the one making the critiques.

For a) this is just cynical, no-faith-in-the-reader kind of attitude. I hate this. It reeks of ‘eat your vegetables’ journalism ie: We have to treat readers like kids and force feed them stuff we think is good.

For b) it’s paranoid. We limit how much people can donate so you need a group of people to donate. The next question is ‘what if a GROUP of people donate’ to which I respond: Isn’t that the point? If a group of people donate it’s not a group with an agenda, it’s a group with an issue and journalists should respond to that! In some respects Spot.Us is a marketplace — having a group of people clamoring to see a topic investigated would be a GOOD thing.

Neither of these criticism really hit on the pain points for Spot.Us. The pain point for us is not about our model but our organisation. We are a small organisation. When you talk about nonprofit news — the ones that really make waves — Texas Tribune, Voice of San Diego, and so on — have millions of dollars. We have a budget of $150,000 a year.

We get lots of attention because our model is different. But then people wonder why we aren’t producing as MUCH news as these other players and the answer is simple: We don’t have millions of dollars. I think we could raise that if we could get that money to scale up. But Spot.Us as an organisation is really here to experiment — not to become a nonprofit news organisation. We are interested in the concept of community-funded reporting and so far the concept holds

More generally, how can new media be of benefit to investigative journalism?

All kinds of ways. If you are talking about computer-assisted reporting, for example, the internet has fundamentally changed everything. You can now takes swathes of data, compile it online and search it like a database to produce amazing journalism. This was not possible without ‘new media’ and it is a form of investigative journalism.

That is just one of many ways where new media has made investigative journalism better.

Given the impact of new media, what is the future of investigative journalism?

I see investigative journalism using and incorporating new media. I see it strengthened by new media. I have to be so broad in this claim because the term ‘new media’ means everything and nothing.

If you are asking if investigative journalism can exist online, then yes, it can. It will be more interactive and reach more people. Journalism is a process. The process will not disappear. It is human nature to commit acts of journalism.

The news industry, however, is different and is going to go through more growing pains.

Madeleine Barwick is completing her honours thesis in Journalism at La Trobe University