Q&A with David Cohn, founder of Spot.us moving to Circa

David Cohn has been busy. After three years developing Spot.us, a non-profit for community-based reporting, he’s handing over the reins to the Public Insight Network and moving on to a new project, Circa. I met David Cohn last year while I was interning at the San Francisco Public Press, where we used Spot.us to fund the housing and homelessness beat that I reported on. Cohn was in Istanbul when I emailed, so I sent him the questions for this Q&A and he was nice enough to send me some video clips recorded on his iPad. Ah, technology!

Was there a Eureka moment when you started Spot.us three years ago?

There kind of was. At the time I had worked a lot in distributed reporting, or sometimes called citizen journalism- I was doing that with Jay Rosen. I was also the research assistant for the guy who coined the phrase “crowd sourcing” a guy named Jeff Howe. So I was researching a chapter on crowd funding. The Eureka moment was when I was reading a friends blog, it’s late at night, it might have been three four in the morning and I thought he was writing about crowd funding for journalism. I remember my heart started beating fast. I was like man that was a really good idea; I wish I had thought of it. I couldn’t sleep that well that night and I woke up in the morning, not that much later maybe 8 o’clock and I realized he wasn’t talking about crowd funding at all, he was talking about something completely different.

The non-profit model seems like a natural fit for Spot.us, what were some of the benefits and drawbacks of using the non-profit business model?

The main reason I did it was just because the nature of what we were doing was asking people for money—money for what I would call a common good or communal good. The best way I thought to get people to do that would be quick and easy via a tax deductible donation. So that was one of the benefits, was to earn peoples trust in giving donations. They weren’t purchasing something, they weren’t getting exclusive access to anything, it was for the common good. The main downside was non-profits and for-profits all have to raise money. I think it’s a little bit easier to actually to raise money when you are a for-profit. I’m learning that a little bit now with Circa. People are ready to give $50,000 or $100,000 if they think it’s going to come back two or three fold, whereas non-profit people are willing to give you $100,000 if they think it is for is a cause they believe in. Which is much more nebulous and there are fewer types of people giving in that philanthropic sense.

You are no longer involved with Spot.us as of March, following the Public Insight Network acquisition it in November. Is it hard to walk away after three successful years?

Certainly it’s a little difficult. Spot.us is something I started from scratch. I started it when I was turning 25 about to turn 26. As a result I feel invested in it. It’s sort of my baby on the web. At the same time I think it was just time for me to move on personally.  I’ve been working on it over three years, and on the web that’s a long time. It was the longest time I had ever worked on a project or any organization. I am always interested pushing boundaries and the boundaries I was interested in pushing on Spot.us had been pushed. I was also really happy Public Insight Network was there, there was no reason to shut us down, and there was money in the bank.

Was it difficult to transition? How did you prepare to hand over the reins?
The transition was about six months and I also stayed on for another 4 months so it was almost a full year.  All in all, the main thing was just that the spirit of Spot.us remains and that they are going to honor the spirit of it.

Will the integration with the Public Insight Network change anything about the way Spot.us will fundamentally work?

In truth its not up to me that’s the point. I think that Public Insight Network may change certain things American Public Media may change certain things. If they do change it I’m sure they are doing it because they earnestly think its stuff they have to change to make the site better. That’s certainly fine. Any organization that goes from two or three people which is what Spot.us has been for two or three years to an organization the size of American Public Media which is very very large, $110 million non-profit, they are just going to do things different— that’s the nature of the beast. So I think there are things they are going to change and I look forward to seeing it. I hope it’s going to make it better than it is now.

 What was it like being your own boss?

There’s certainly a lot of freedom but what you gain in freedom you give up in relief— or you gain in stress. There is no complaining about the boss. If something’s not going the way you want it to, there’s nobody to blame but yourself and you just have to get up and go and do it. That’s the downside but that’s also the upside.

What do see for the future of online community-based reporting?

I will say I do believe I am bullish about the future of community reporting. I think journalism is healthier than it has been before. The journalism industry isn’t necessarily as healthy as it was before, but I do believe there are more acts of journalism than there have ever been before in history. One follows the other, there’s been lot of disruption but there will also be a lot of new business models and things to build upon them. It’s important to keep in mind we’re in the top of the second inning or maybe the bottom of the second—it’s way too early to call any game.

Did you learn any lessons from Spot.us that you’ll take into your next project?

I think there a ton of lessons. I like to break it down for lessons for me personally and lessons for the larger journalism community. On that second one, there’s a few things there. One is the specifics around community or crowd funded reporting are low hanging fruit. It’s very possible. It’s not hard for news organizations to try or individuals to try. I don’t think that it is the saving grace of how to fund journalism, but I do believe it is low hanging fruit and it will actually continue to grow. Now there is this sense of entrepreneurial journalism more people are into it, studying it, preaching it and practicing it, which is fantastic.  Spot.us was an early example of that, this sort of fail early, try an idea and see what happens kind of attitude, which I think is benefiting the larger community.  Me personally it is sort of impossible to list all the many things I learned. Obviously everything from running a non-profit, dealing with taxes, having a payroll, managing the development process, working with freelancers, and that’s not even to touch the editorial lessons, working with all types of different journalists and news organizations, so it’s sort of countless.

Can you tell me anything more about Circa?  

While I won’t say anything too specific I will that it’s going to push more boundaries— a totally different set of boundaries from Spot.us, which is about transparency and participation in the process of journalism, particularly around the finances of journalism,  and exposing that in a way it hadn’t been exposed before. Circa is going to push boundaries more in how we think of and understand the process of journalism and the consuming habits of people with journalism. It’s really early to tell so we’ll see.


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