David Cohn Experiments with Journalism

5 12 2011

A new type of reporting? Photo by Meghan Rosen

ImageBy Meghan Rosen

David Cohn doesn’t look like the new face of journalism.  He’s boyish, with an untamed mop of black curls and a stubbly beard: Picture a darker Mark Zuckerberg, but more stylishly dressed.

It’s early in the morning when Cohn comes to talk with our class about Spot.Us, his three-year-old experiment in crowdfunding journalism, but he thrums with energy. If I had to pick one word to describe Cohn, I’d say ‘caffeinated.’ Or ‘bright-eyed.’ Or maybe even ‘feverish.’  You get the idea. Cohn’s passionate about his experiment, and it shows.

I’d heard of crowdsourcing before (Wikipedia), and even crowdfunding (my husband and I registered at the microlending site Kiva.org for our wedding), but crowdfunding journalism was a new idea for me.  It probably shouldn’t have been; Cohn’s website, Spot.Us has been matching freelance reporters with funding for three years.

But he’s the first to admit that he didn’t invent the concept of donating to journalism: People have been contributing to NPR for decades.  The difference is the level of transparency.

“When you donate to NPR,” he said, “You cover your eyes, throw money over a fence, and hope that it goes towards good journalism.”

With his organization, donors don’t have to trust that their money is being used for good; they see exactly where it goes.

So, how does Spot.Us work, exactly? Reporters come to the site and pitch an idea for a story. They estimate the cost of reporting (travel, freelance writing rates, etc), and then, they wait for people to donate.

“They’re pitching to the world,” Cohn said, “And the world collectively has a freelance budget.”

Potential donors peruse a ‘menu’ of story ideas, and contribute to those they’d like to see fleshed out and reported.  People can choose which news to support, and they can donate just a few bucks. (Reporters can pitch anything they’d like to write about, but Cohn weeds out certain types of stories. Breaking news, for example, doesn’t work because Spot.Us reporters have to wait for funds.)

Most of the money Spot.Us raises comes from small donors, though the largest donation they’ve received came from Barbra Streisand, for a story about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

“My mother was thrilled,” Cohn said.

60-65% of pitches get funded, and Spot.Us typically publishes two to three stories per week. Spot.Us isn’t going to sustain a freelance career, Cohn said, but it can be part of multiple revenue streams for a reporter.

“It’s just another thing for reporters to have in their toolkit,” he said.

Cohn talked with our class for more than an hour about the changing world of journalism, and how to use the Internet as a testing-ground for new ideas. How does a 29-year-old writer (he started out as a tech reporter for Wired, then worked at Seed Magazine) conceive of and market a radical concept like Spot.Us?  What can beginner journalists like us learn from this self-proclaimed ‘geek reporter’? I wanted to know more.

So, I interviewed him.  Here’s what he had to say.

20 minutes with David Cohn

How did you spread the word about Spot.Us in the beginning?

Well, first of all, I was a relentless self-marketer. And, I was lucky that I had some kind of connections and media relations already.

I also blogged about it.  At the time we launched Spot.Us, the concept of community-funded reporting was weird. So, I created this narrative: ‘Hey guys we’re trying a crazy experiment, and I invite you to follow along.’

I’m a big evangelizer in terms of experimentation. One general rule of the Internet is that it’s cheaper and easier to try something than to debate whether or not to try it.

People were watching what we were doing not just to see what happened with Spot.Us, but for this meta-narrative.

Do you think it’s important for journalists to use social media like Twitter and Facebook?

I wouldn’t get caught up in the ‘Twitterness’ of Twitter. It’s just a new way for people to communicate.

Do you tweet?

I do tweet. I am a tweeter. I jumped on it relatively early- in 2007. In the beginning I followed everybody, but now I follow around 2000 people.

How many people follow you?


[David Cohn’s twitter handle is Digidave. As of Dec. 5, he had 10,381 followers, including me.]

After Twitter, what’s the next new thing in social media?

Twitter is not going away. The company might die, or change, or a better product might come along, but the vocabulary isn’t going to change. So, even if you spend a lot of time on Twitter, your time isn’t going to be wasted, because you will learn from it.

What topics did you initially think Spot.Us would cover?

When I first launched Spot.Us I was in San Francisco, so I had on San Francisco blinders. But I instantly started getting stories about the Oakland police.  So, we’ve done a bunch of Oakland police stuff, but there are all these other issues in Oakland that just don’t get covered- like crime spotting, neighborhood associations, and certain PTAs.  They are serious issues. The Chronicle doesn’t cover them, and neither does the Tribune.

Things are bubbling up even more lately, with the Occupy Oakland stuff.  We’ve raised $2000 to help reporters cover it.

Now that Spot.Us has spread beyond San Francisco, what’s next?

Spot.Us will continue growing. But we have big news — We’re becoming a partner with the longtime nonprofit organization, American Public Media.

It’s an acquisition, though, not a buyout. I’m not going to be a millionaire.

[David says he’s a shameless self-promoter, but when he talked with me about the APM partnership, he was really very humble. He didn’t, for example, tell me that APM is the largest owner of public radio stations in the country, or that after NPR, it’s the second largest producer of public radio.  But I didn’t have to know those things to understand that the news was A Big Deal.  David’s excitement was palpable. He made me promise not to spill until APM announced the acquisition publicly, which they did just six days ago, on Nov. 29.]

Congratulations! What does that mean for you and Spot.Us?

Spot.Us was just me and one other person, and I wanted to see if we could make it grow. As an experiment, I consider it a success. Now, it needs to become part of a larger organization.

I’m still going to be there, but technically, I’ll be ceding control. I’m excited to pass off some of the business duties. I don’t want to cut any more checks!

Are you working on any new projects?

I have a few babies in the idea phase. Some wouldn’t require that much time, but I’ve just never taken the time to get them started.


Buzzline: Community Scientist at Work

2 12 2011

Daniela Hernandez




By Daniela Hernandez (Twitter: @danielaphd)

Neuroscience, physics, biology and birds are recurring topics of my conversations with Dennis Taylor, the community conversations editor at The Salinas Californian, where I interned during fall quarter.

Western bluebird perched on bare branch. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Every time I speak with Dennis about anything remotely scientific, a look of genuine excitement and interest comes over him. During one of our chats, he told me about the work he does with the National Audubon Society as a citizen scientist in Gilroy, California.

Here is a brief Q&A about his work. It has been edited for clarity:


What inspired you to volunteer at the Audubon Society?

I have always stayed abreast of developments in threatened species – what are the pressures reducing their numbers? And overwhelmingly the greatest pressure is habitat loss. I stumbled into the Audubon Society because I wrote a story about an older gent who I would walk with as he would check “bird houses” constructed by the Audubon Society that were hung in trees or perched atop poles in open grasslands. Norm was his name, and what we were doing was providing habitat that was lost to sprawling home construction.  He had several miles of trails with over 100 houses he would need to check weekly. He died about a year after we began working together and Audubon came to me because no one knew the species and the trails like I did.

What kind of work have you done for them?

I begin in early spring by checking all the houses to get rid of roosting waste from the winter and make sure there are no wasp or yellow jacket nests built inside the houses. Then I walk and watch. Within a couple of weeks I begin to see mating flights, flirtatious mid-air dances. Within another week or two, I begin to see the birds carrying debris for their nests. (Different species use different materials for their nests; some use straw, others use twigs.)

When I don’t see the mother out flying, I carefully lift open a special door to the box and feel for eggs gently with one finger. I record the number of eggs in each of the 100 houses. After another week or two, there’s usually a furry head: the chicks. I compare the number of chicks hatched to the number of eggs and note the mortality rate. Then I walk and watch some more, and when I see little heads sticking out I know they are about to fledge, so I count the fledglings and compare that number with the number of chicks to see if there were additional deaths.

I collect that data onto a spreadsheet and transfer it to a database at Cornell University, which tracks bird populations all over the country. So when you read a story about “Western Bluebirds in Decline,” that’s how they know. The program used to be called the Bluebird Recovery Project, but about three years ago it was changed to the Cavity Nesting Project, to more accurately reflect what we do.

Western Bluebird Sialia. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

We track all species of birds that must nest in hollows of trees. In my region this includes western bluebirds, tree swallows, chestnut-backed chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches. When you cut a tree to build a house in an oak forest, you eliminate habitat for these particular birds.

You mentioned you worked with kids. What do you teach them during the field trips?

My teaching is geared to the age of the children that come with me on a particular field trip. “Certain birds will only have babies in holes of trees,” for the youngest. Or, “The way certain species protect themselves is by entering a cavity in a tree that is only millimeters wider than they are, protecting them from larger predators like other birds, raccoons and even snakes,” for the older kids.

I take the kids on one of my shorter walks during which I usually pull down a house [so they can see the birds]. I usually wait until the chicks are about to fledge but can’t quite fly yet. This reduces the chance of injury to the fledglings [and the kids!]. I point out characteristics such as yellow bands that often appear on the inside of the beaks of the fledglings that help the moma bird zero in on the little mouths when they are dropping food such as insects.

Sometimes I will gently reach in the nest and pull out a fledgling and let the kids gently stroke its head. One time I was doing that, and as I was feeling down in the nest I found a dead chick. I need to remove dead chicks straight away because as they decompose it creates opportunistic bacterial infections for the other chicks whose immune system isn’t fully developed. So I hid dead chick back in my palm, covering it with a couple of fingers, while pulling the live one out with my thumb and index finger. [The kids] were never the wiser.

Western Bluebird using Nest Box. Brood unknown. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

And then there was The Day of the Blue Jay. One nest had fledglings that could actually fly a little ways, to my surprise. Three bolted out of the nest and a cacophony of screams followed three skirting chestnut-backed chickadee fledglings down the path we were on. I caught one, and my assistant caught another. As I turned to go after the third, a blue blur whizzed by a few feet to my right, down the slope on the side of the trail. Of course I had 20 pairs of little eyes following the jay as he swooped down on the fledgling and … poof! …. Little brown feathers exploded into the air. Little heads slowly turned to me, mouths agape. “Well,” I said, “Blue jay chicks need to eat too.”

As the kids were walking back down the trail, my partner turns to me and says, “Blue jay chicks need to eat too? That’s the best line you could come up with?”  And we begin laughing. So I’m sure in the kids’ minds Mr. Birdman was not only a chickadee chick killer, he’s a sinister one that laughs about it.

Then of course I tell the kids that if we keep cutting down trees the babies you are looking at will have no place to live.

Why do you volunteer?

It’s cathartic for me. We tend to view biology in compartmentalized frames – birds in this sector, canines over there, and humans in this square. We don’t live in a vacuum, and the sooner we realize that the better off we and other living things will be. Author John Muir (and my grandmother, less eloquently) said “that when we try to pick anything out by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

[The work is] also immensely interesting. The longer I do it, the more science I learn – migratory patterns, food variables, acute avian viruses (because of West Nile I’ve taken to wearing masks and latex gloves when opening the houses, but I draw a smiley face on the mask – hey, it works for human babies), seasonal nesting variations, anomalies in any of these, and on and on.

Is there anything else you want to tell me?

Programs like this are critical to supplementing children’s science educations. With standardized testing, the lion’s share of effort is being spent on math and language arts. Sacrificed are the sciences and humanities. The broader science community needs to step up and help get children excited about science – no better place than in the field.

Follow Dennis Taylor (@scribedenny) on Twitter.

You can read more about his work in an article by the Gilroy Dispatch.