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COMMENTARY: ON THE MEDIA

A new paid-journalism model, but it needs work

Reporters pitch story proposals for reader contributions on the website Spot.us, founded by David Cohn. The results aren't perfect, but the idea is succeeding.

February 08, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

Would you be willing to kick in $20 to have someone get to the bottom of the murky finances at your kid's school? How about contributing $30 to find out if your trash haulers really sift recyclables from the garbage, like they claim?

If that sounds intriguing, I give you David Cohn.

Cohn is a skinny young man of abundant enthusiasm who's primed to pump energy, and cash, into what sometimes feels like the world's most beleaguered profession: journalism.

He is the founder of Spot.us, a website that allows the public to propose stories and pay for journalists to do investigations "on important and perhaps overlooked stories."

On the website, visitors leave story tips and reporters pitch formal proposals, trying to persuade other folks to contribute $5, $100, whatever, to turn ideas into stories. Journalists on the site generally ask for $500 to $1,000. (And individuals can give a maximum of 20%, so no one person can have an undue stake in the story.)

That groundbreaking model has helped Spot.us to midwife and then post six stories in its first three months. Supporters have ponied up enough for six more stories, with five other writers in pursuit of donations for their ideas.

The finished stories appear on the site, although Cohn hopes to sell exclusive rights to future work to websites, newspapers or other outlets. In such cases, the initial "micro-donors" could recoup their investments.

Stories have so far focused around the project's Bay Area home base. The pieces have explored bay pollution, the expanding elderly population and sewage processing. Others in the works will delve into San Francisco's wealth disparity and police tensions in Oakland.

It's hard not to root for Cohn, 26, who had the chutzpah to try something new, the tenacity to get it off the ground and the maturity to know that it might not work.

God and Google know the old, monopolistic print advertising model will never make a full-scale comeback. So more power to any endeavor trying to push serious journalism into a new era.

Yes, there is a "but." To wit: The site's platform outperforms its product. Spot.us stories simply need to be better. The four I checked out -- three written and one a radio report -- did not particularly engage, incite or entertain.

A three-part series on how Bay Area communities are planning for a booming elderly population let experts drone on, while giving almost no voice to its actual subject: old people.

A piece on the aftermath of an oil tanker spill delivered no surprises, and a story on the gasoline additive ethanol meandered and choked on jargon. Can you say "scaleable oxygenate"?

The radio report didn't tell me anything I didn't already know about concerns over how potentially contaminated sewage "solids" get plowed into farmland.

Cohn won a $340,000 innovation grant from the journalism-centric Knight Foundation, so he's got a couple of years to get this right. He concedes, with only mild push-back, that the site needs to up its game, speeding up the micro-financing (which now can take months to generate reporting fees) and honing story quality.

Speaking to students and faculty last week at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, Cohn envisioned a time when Spot.us might put out an appeal for money for a reporter to cover a beat -- say the police or schools.

That sounds like a promising option to me, since reporters often can't go as deep on a one-off freelance job as they can when they stick to a beat and develop real sources.

Still, Cohn resists any impulse to deem him a savior. "I have said a million times, Spot.us is not a silver bullet. It's an experiment. We need all kinds of experiments in journalism."

The self-described "tech-nerd" graduated from Hamilton High School in Los Angeles and UC Berkeley, before getting his master's in journalism at Columbia.

He embodies the "If You Build It, They Will Come" Generation Web sensibility, blogging as "Digidave" on his view of the democratizing power of the Internet.

Spot.us holds out the promise of engaging an audience before, during (with e-mail updates to donors) and after the reporting process. It's a conversational approach with obvious advantages over the top-down style of old journalism.

I get a little queasy, though, with some of the evangelical fervor of the new school, particularly its confidence in the "wisdom of the crowd."

"Ideally Spot.us is a platform, not a news organization," he told me later. "That is really important to me, because I should not be the one to define what is and isn't journalism, what should and shouldn't be on Spot.us."

Cohn told the USC crowd that "journalism is a process, not a product."

That sensibility is evident in the site's nascent efforts. Although stories are edited, the initial results scream out for a stronger hand that demands better. Reporters -- yesterday, today and tomorrow -- need mentoring and cajoling to produce work that matters.

Only must-read stories assure that, when you build it, they will not only come, but come back for more.

--

james.rainey@latimes.com

On the Media appears Wednesdays and Sundays.

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