Q&A with Dave Cohn of news marketplace Spot.us, about doing better reporting


Spot.us aims to be a sort of marketplace for news articles. Launched on Monday, the site lets anyone offer up story ideas about the San Francisco Bay Area and pledge money towards others reporting on them. Self-defined journalists can then pick up these ideas or come up with their own and get paid to write. The finished stories are published on the site.

News organizations can reprint these articles for free; if they pay enough for the article ahead of time, they can get the exclusive right to publish first. Reporters keep 90 percent of the revenue, with the last ten percent going to self-defined editors on the site. The San Francisco-based site is a non-profit, so people who finance stories can get tax refunds on the money they put in. It has received funding from the Knight Foundation.

Conceptually, Spot.us is a cross between so-called citizen journalism, where anybody can do the reporting but not get paid for it — as exemplified by NowPublic or CNN’s iReporter — and sites that do pay people. AssociatedContent, for example, is a for-profit that pays writers an up-front fee along with an additional performance fee depending on how many page views they generate. Of course, on the far end of the online media spectrum, there are blogs like VentureBeat, where full-time journalists earn salaries, benefits and bonuses.

The premise of Spot.us is that there are some stories that people want to have written, that no print or online publication is writing or can afford to write. As a professional journalist, I took this as a bit of a challenge.

So I interviewed founder Dave Cohn, below, to find out more:

VentureBeat: You’ve been a reporter, you’ve gone to journalism school and you’ve worked on various ‘new media’ projects like NewAssignment.net. You’re also big into Digg and Twitter and other community-focused web services. So what pieces of your experience led you to do Spot.us and try to combine the crowd with professional journalism, rather than doing a more traditional sort of long-form reporting site like Pro Publica, or a more crowd-sourced idea?

David Cohn: All of them have combined to influence Spot.Us. I think two of the biggest inspirations were Digg and my experience in citizen journalism. Digg and other social news sites showed the power of social news and that journalism can and should be participatory. My experience with NewAssignment and other citizen journalism projects showed me that people do care and are dedicated to journalism, but there are limitations. Often people want to contribute but don’t have the time. Asking a citizen to do a big long investigation is hard. Their response is sometimes “this is hard work, it’s like asking me to do a college midterm.” So I wanted to find a way to keep journalism professional and pay people for their labor, but also make it participatory so the public can be involved as part of the process.

VB: So far, the blogs I’ve seen succeed have relied on a deep focus on some sort of niche — say Web 2.0 startups, or Silicon Valley investing. A deep focus, combined with distinct voices of individual bloggers who write between 1 and 10 posts a day. That’s what readers seem to want in a news web site. Spot.us seems to be missing those ingredients. How will Spot.us build and maintain an audience, given the diffuse and possibly irregular writing?

DC:
Spot.us isn’t a blog. In fact, we aren’t even a “news organization” — we are more like a platform. Also, we aren’t shooting for daily news or stories, but long-form investigations. I do think that blogs work best on strong niches, but it’s also hard for blogs to do long-form journalism, usually because they don’t have a freelance budget to do long-form work. But imagine if VentureBeat wanted to hire a journalist to do an investigation for two months into something Silicon Valley-esque. You could approach your readers and if only a small percentage chipped in, you could keep doing your daily work but also have a long-form piece on the way.

Right now, Spot.us is just starting out and we only have six pitches in, but the hope is that in the future we will have several topics of interest being pitched all the time. This, again, would make it a platform, not a news organization — just as YouTube is not a content producing video company, but a platform for people to upload their content.

VB: Got it. We do manage to get an investigative piece or two out from time to time, like Dean Takahashi’s Xbox story (or one that I’ll hopefully publish in the next couple of weeks).

DC: True: But you could stretch your freelance budget with Spot.us ;)

VB: We do have freelancers, guest columnists, etc. How is Spot.us better than us making in-house editorial calls on every aspect of any longer story we might do?

DC:
We don’t make in-house editorial calls. That’s just it: We are creating a marketplace where VentureBeat can make its own editorial calls — but do it in collaboration with citizens and freelance reporters. Example: Next time you want to get a freelancer to do a long piece, why not just make it public on Spot.us? VentureBeat funds half and we try to crowd-fund the other half. You get the same quality for half-price — but the public gets to be part of the process.

VB: What if we come up with a cool story idea, go through Spot.us, then another publication sees what we’re working on and scoops us/Spot.us

DC:
That’s a great question and I get it a lot. I have three responses: 1. The best pitches on Spot.us will be evergreen stories. So, for example, if another reporter were to do the “Solar Panel” story that is up on Spot.us right now, does that mean the story is done and the reporter should give up? No, it just means he has pre-reporting and it makes his job easier. So crazy scoops about the mayor embezzling money won’t work on Spot.us, but other pitches will. 2: This is journalism done in public and for the public. 3: If another news organization does obviously steal your idea, they just look like idiots or jerks. You still can work on your evergreen story and you’ll have the time to do it right. I also think, from the reader’s perspective, it’s okay if you get “scooped”. Will they all of a sudden regret having supported your pitch? Doubtful. Scoops are a barrier to collaboration and in many respects news organizations need to learn to be flexible and unafraid of working in public.

VB: Why wouldn’t we just run a short post about such an evergreen story idea and then use Twitter, etc. to get reader participation? Maybe run a poll or something asking readers what they wanted to read more of — this stuff is done by blogs from time to time.


DC:
I think that’s a fantastic model as well. Won’t pay your bills, but it always helps to get reader participation. If you are going to do database journalism, however, you’d have to find people willing to give more than just their thoughts/comments — you’d have to find somebody willing to donate a lot of time and work. Or you can pay somebody to do that. It’s obviously easier to do the latter — but it costs money. So perhaps the people that don’t want to donate time can donate money. Again, I’m a big believer in citizen journalism and reader participation, but I think it also has limits. I mean, how in-depth can you get from 140 characters?

But again: I want to state for the record: I think these things are great for journalism and I don’t chide them at all. I just think they have natural limits.

VB: So Spot.us is a neutral zone of sorts, where readers can get a sense of more control over a story, as it evolves.

DC: Yes. I think that’s fair: They can determine with their money what is and is not relevant to them. Just like in Digg you can vote with a click of a button, on Spot.us you can vote with your money.

VB: Once Knight funding is gone, how will you guys sustain? Being a for-profit isn’t just about making money, it’s about building an organization that can optimize its chances of always paying the bills. In other words, I worry about the idea of non-profit journalism.

DC: Same way that Kiva.org is sustainable. If you give $25 they ask that you also give $2.50 to the organization. Something like 80 percent of people go ahead and give the extra 10 percent, although it’s optional. Now, I’d need a high rate of participation, but that could keep the lights on — which, as a nonprofit, is all I’m required to do. I hear you, though, on the for-profit versus nonprofit model. I’m often asked why I did this as a nonprofit and my standard response is “because I’m young and naive.” I think there are ways to do this as a for-profit and either take a percentage from the reporters, or charge news organizations a fee to join/remain as members. But for now I’m trying to keep the cost low for participation and just operate at a loss. Operating at a loss will have to change very quickly though.

VB: Makes sense. Going back to your idea of having this be a place for long-form journalism… What about the idea of doing both — having a couple daily bloggers to keep people coming back? I’ve told you this before, but why don’t you take a more active editorial role on the site? It would help build community and maybe drive more people to donate. Like what if you just did short posts pointing to other Bay Area news coverage?

DC:
It’s really a matter of resources. Obviously I have a blog: blog.spot.us — but that’s more for meta-spot.us stuff to help build community — it’s not for local Bay Area reporting (although I do want to start linking to stuff more from it). The problem is, I don’t have time to blog every day right now, and I don’t have money to hire somebody. So unless I can find somebody to do it for free, I have no blog. That or I can crowdfund it. I have done the short posts linking to other Bay Area news stories. I can dig up a link now. I had a summer intern who was doing most of them.

VB: What about paying people a revenue share based on pageviews and money earned from ads?

DC:
I don’t have advertising. I’m not in the business of selling news against advertising. Part of Spot.us is to challenge myself to see if I can get long-form journalism funded without advertising.

VB: So, let’s say you find some good long-form writers to write on Spot.us. What happens if, say, other publications just watch and steal your talent pool as soon as you start developing it?

DC: It’s not my talent pool — that’s just it. They are freelancers. Why would they “steal” something that I would gift-wrap for them. If they work with Spot.us, they get the same content for half-price. If they really want to “steal” from me, they are doing themselves a disservice.

VB: I mean hire your freelancers to be their full-time employees.

DC:
Ahhh… Hey, I would never get in the way of a freelancer getting job security and a full-time job. I would applaud them and be happy if Spot.us got them some name recognition to get hired. There will always be more freelancers — especially in today’s economy with the pressure news organizations are under. It’s a marketplace I’m dealing with, not a news organization that needs to be territorial.

VB: Print may be dead, but online media still makes its money off the asymmetry of information — and that profit incentive will always drive media owners to try to pool that talent for themselves. So how are you going about recruiting writers?

DC: To recruit freelancers — just posting where I can. Letting people know that they can pitch the public and news organizations at the same time on Spot.us. Everything from recent graduates of journalism schools to recently laid off 20-year veteran reporters. You’re right that online media isn’t dead, but the margins are tougher there. Online advertising doesn’t create the same revenue as print did, which is why online blogs have so much pressure to create quick and fast content that will be big hits on Digg — making it harder to do long-form local journalism. Take SFist as a great example. I love SFist, but I’d also love to see an in-depth investigation from them. They have freelancers, they just can’t afford to lose one of them for a month. But with Spot.us, they could. So the freelancers can be people that already have a relationship with a news organization, etc.

VB: How are media organizations reacting to Spot.us? Any bites in terms of them financing stories?

DC:
So far — one. Local public radio station KALW and a smaller blog have teamed up to fund half of this story on increasing homelessness in the Bay Area. In exchange they get first publishing rights. That is our first relationship with a news organization. I’ve also talked with a lot of other news organizations that get it and have talked about participating. We’ll have to wait and see if they’ll follow through or if they mistakenly see Spot.us as a threat.

I sincerely believe that journalism is a social good that keeps our local democracies strong. Whether or not spot.us is the answer, we need to find something to keep journalism strong. I’m just happy to try one experiment that might push some boundaries.

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