A Field Guide for SciCom

15 05 2012

By Meghan Rosen

Two quarters ago, David Cohn—the web whiz and crowd-funded journalism advocate who invented Spot.us—left the SciCom class of 2012 with a note-worthy nugget of internet advice.

“It’s cheaper and easier to try something,” he said, “than to debate about whether or not to try it.”

Instead of carefully considering the pros and cons of making a webpage, starting an internet-based project, or creating a social media network, his thinking goes—just do it. Instead of trying to iron out all the possible kinks before launching a new idea, figure them out on the fly. Or, in Cohn’s words, “Fail early and fail often.”

In essence, the best way to carry a new idea forward on the web is to dive in and get started. Cohn calls it “agile and iterative” development. This learn-and-go method helped him pick up new tools, develop partnerships, and nail down the ideas that eventually built the backbone of Spot.us. It even helped him generate a little pre-project buzz.

In this spirit of experimentation, I decided to do something a little different for this blog post. I decided to create another blog. A field guide, of sorts, for SciCom.

As we wrap up nine months of science-writing boot camp, I’ve been thinking about how much our class has learned over the past three quarters. We haven’t just learned how to write and report, we’ve learned how to navigate the program too.

So I wanted to create a place where future classes could come for advice: tips and tricks from the class of 2012 (and past classes too, if they want to contribute.) The platform is simple: a tumblr blog that’s open to posts from former SciCom class members (or people who know the password: scicom).

Because I want visitors to quickly find the advice they’re looking for (without scrolling through pages of past entries) I’ve included a list of tags to help group advice into categories (such as fall, winter, and spring quarters, multimedia, investigative report, etc.).  But I’m open to adding more tags, if anyone has suggestions.

I’ve also set up a questions page for new students to ask about anything that pops up during their classes and coursework. The page will forward questions to me, but I’m thinking of sending them to our class Google groups email address. This way, anyone who has the time, interest, and expertise can take a crack at answering (while letting the rest of us know who’s fielding what).

As of this posting, the SciCom Field Guide has advice from four members of this year’s class. Initially I envisioned practical tips and technical advice, but I was surprised (and a little warmed) to see that many of my classmates offered support and perspective instead of tricks of time management. So I added tags for ‘encouragement’ and ‘life.’ “Agile and iterative” in action, I suppose.

I don’t know how inspired my class will be to post to the Field Guide, but for it to work well, it will have to be a community effort (otherwise, I might overrun the blog with advice that’s specific to me—like how to pump between classes.) I also don’t know if next year’s class will look to us for help. (I, for one, would have loved to learn the clever tip about carrying business cards in your nametag at meetings. I had been stuffing my (slightly rumpled) set into a purse pocket.)

But I do know that the collective knowledge of SciCom class 2012 could potentially help students struggling with internships, class assignments, and work/life balance.

This might not but be the best way to gather and group our thoughts, but I thought I’d give it a shot. After all, it was cheap and easy.


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.

Who You Gonna Call?

9 11 2011

Natural Bridges, photo by Meghan D. Rosen

By Meghan D. Rosen

On Halloween, an adventure-seeking Santa Cruz surfer braved wintery water temperatures and paddled a half-mile out past Seabright Beach wearing only a bikini.  But she wasn’t trying to catch a wave.  The scantily clad surfer was trawling for an intimate look at the humpback whales that had been feeding off the coast. And she was in for a treat — or maybe it was a trick: two titanic whales burst through the water’s surface mere feet from her surfboard, scattering silvery anchovies into the air.

A nearby kayaker caught the close encounter on tape, and the video surged through local media circuits.  But “surfer-swallowing whales” aren’t just big news in Santa Cruz.  On Nov. 3, Anderson Cooper aired the clip on CNN, and three days later the YouTube video had nearly 2.3 million views.

The past week has been a special thrill for whale watchers: a pod of humpbacks settled unusually close to Santa Cruz’s seashores to hunt for food.  But curious crowds weren’t flocking to the docks just to spot a fleeting fluke: they were jamming into boats and kayaks and hopping onto surfboards to move in for a closer look. Though humpbacks don’t eat people, invading the whales’ space can still be dangerous. The marine mammals are powerful and massive: they range from the size of a school bus to the size of a semi-truck.

Humpback Whale (Megatera novaeanglieae) wrapped in kelp, Monterey Bay, Pacific Ocean. Photo by (c) Peggy Stap / Marine Life Studies NMFS Permit 1094-1836-02

Peggy Stap, director of Marine Life Studies, wants people to remember to maintain a safe distance.  “It’s exciting to see the whales so close to shore,” Stap said.  “But when they are feeding they are sometimes oblivious to their surroundings— a kayaker or boater could be hurt as the whales lunge feed at the surface.”

Humpback Whale's tangled fluke, Monterey Bay, Pacific Ocean. (c) Peggy Stap / Marine Life Studies MMHSRP Permit #932-1489

Stap’s not just worried about overeager onlookers, though. She’s worried about the whales. Her Monterey-based nonprofit organization works to protect marine mammals, and educate people about whales and dolphin conservation. In 2006, they organized California’s Whale Entanglement Team (W.E.T.), a group dedicated to helping free whales from the insidious underwater webs of fishing gear and lines.  According to Stap, 50% of whales have entanglement scars.

Before the team was established, Stap said, “If there was an entangled whale in California, there was no one to call to help.”  Now, if someone sees a trapped whale, they can contact W.E.T. at 877 SOS WHALE (877-767-9425).

Stap’s team advises snared-whale spotters to stay with the animal, but she tells people to avoid getting in the water with it. The W.E.T. team is trained to assess whether a whale actually needs help (some will ‘throw the gear’ and extricate themselves on their own) and has specialized whale-extracting tools if it does. Marine Life Studies recently received a grant to expand their W.E.T tool cache. Soon, they’ll be able to transport a trailer full of tools —Stap calls “W.E.T on Wheels” her dream— wherever there is a whale in need.

Marine Life Studies' Ocean User's Guide

Though Stap’s dream project has come true, her organization is constantly looking for ways to educate the public about marine life protection. Their most recent project, a waterproof ‘ocean users’ guide’ — Marine Mammals of Northern California — outlines little-known rules of thumb for interactions between humans and marine mammals, and is illustrated with 25 different types of whales and dolphins, along with sea lions, sea otters, and seals. The rules are based on NOAA’s regulations to protect marine mammals.

Stap hopes the guide will help people remember to keep a safe distance from marine wildlife. So far, they’ve distributed the guides to boaters, kayak guides, dive instructors, docents, and teachers.

“The law says you need to be 100 yards away from whales,” Stap said. “People need to realize that humpbacks are an endangered species.”