When David Cohn first started the site Spot.Us in 2007, the idea of crowdfunded journalism hadn’t quite entered the modern lexicon.
Kickstarter was still a few years in the future, and the only practical example readily available in the journalism world was the Back to Iraq project, where thousands of readers chipped in nearly $15,000 to send reporter Christopher Allbritton to report on Iraq.
As a freelance journalist for major print publications on technology, Cohn was dissatisfied with the hold that advertisers had on the kind of content that was produced.
“Nobody goes into journalism for the money, right? It’s not what you’re doing it for,” Cohn says. “There’s a certain story you want to tell.”
Meeting a community need, paid for by the community
Cohn says he thought readers were just as dissatisfied, and wanted greater input into what stories were produced. Perhaps more importantly, he was willing to bet they would vote with their wallets.
So with the help of a two-year grant from the Knight Foundation, Cohn launched Spot.Us. He envisioned it as a marketplace or platform where reporters, readers and editors could collaborate to determine the types of content that are worth everybody’s time and money.
The site takes and presents story ideas from readers and reporters. Readers can browse the stories awaiting funding and pitch in a few dollars for stories they want to see produced. If a pitch receives the requisite funding, a reporter produces the story and offers it for free to any publication that will have it. Or, failing that, it is published on the Spot.Us site itself.
Nearly 250 stories were produced using the model on the Spot.Us platform, on topics ranging from the bullying of Asian-American teenagers to sham terrorism investigations conducted by a Minnesota sheriff.
Stories funded on Spot.Us appeared in more than 100 different publications, some of which paid for exclusive access to the content.
As important as the bottom line was for Cohn, he was just as pleased with the degree of community engagement fostered on the site.
“When you present people with different opportunities of where they can put $5 or $10 into a story, it’s a very empowering experience,” Cohn says.
A merger gone awry
In late November 2011, it was announced that Spot.Us was merging with the Public Insight Network, part of American Public Broadcasting. PIN is a software platform that gives citizens a means to inform journalism.
At the time, the similarities between the two seemed to make for a natural fit.
The relationship did not last long, however. In April 2012, Cohn wrote a blog post announcing that he was handing over the reins of the organization and moving on.
When pressed for details about the conflicts leading to his departure, Cohn was deliberate in his choice of words: “The circumstances under which I joined ended up changing.”
He says he had originally planned on staying with the company after the merger with a team that PIN had in the Oakland area. For reasons on which he declined to elaborate, that did not end up happening.
He left Spot.Us with an operating budget that would last the site a year, and ultimately ended up joining the startup Circa as a managing editor.
Lessons learned, but for whom?
Despite his rocky departure, Cohn says he still thinks of the site as a success. He was able to take what was supposed to be just a two-year grant, and stretched it into a project that lasted more than four years and produced dozens of quality pieces of reporting.
“I think it’s biggest achievement was as an experiment, pushing boundaries for the way people use information,” Cohn says. “I think that there is a way for that to scale up.”
Sites like Kickstarter now offer would-be business owners even greater opportunities to use communities to fund journalism, and Cohn repeatedly cited Andrew Sullivan’s move towards independence this month as another potential avenue for entrepreneurs with large enough audiences.
Cohn says the lessons learned with Spot.Us are less applicable to such (relatively) small fish, however, and apply more to institutions like National Public Radio and the New York Times, which he says would receive more money and enjoy greater engagement with their audiences if they offered more transparency.
“It comes down to whether these institutions will allow community members to participate,” Cohn says. “That is the interesting question.”