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Why a New-Media Whiz Equates Journalism With a Tribe Wandering 40 Years in the Desert

December 14, 2015

Your journalism crowdfunding platform, Spot.Us, the first of its kind, was acquired by American Public Media in 2011 and has since been “retired.” What do you think went wrong, and what does it mean for the viability of crowdfunding for journalism in general?

David Cohn: Much like startups, the majority of mergers and acquisitions don’t work out—for all kinds of reasons. I think in this case, Spot.Us was squarely in the “platform” space, and I suspect American Public Media wanted to focus more on its content production. Who am I to judge their strategy? I also think that Spot.Us started before crowdfunding had really gained mainstream attention, and being a nonprofit hampered it. I used to joke, “startup, nonprofit—two strikes.” All that said, I am still bullish on crowdfunding journalism in general, and I’m encouraged by all the folks in the space now, like BeaconReader. There are several platforms that still cater exclusively to journalism, and I think that’s important. There’s a site——that keeps track of all the platforms and campaigns to analyze how they are doing. I always say: Crowdfunding is not a silver bullet. It’s not enough to sustain an entire organization (although the Dutch site De Correspondent might disagree, with their $1.7M raised) or [an] individual career. But it’s a great tool to have in your belt.

In addition to crowdfunding, what other new funding mechanisms do you see helping make journalism sustainable, if any?

David Cohn: I am bullish on “native advertising,” which is really just a way of saying “advertising that doesn’t suck.” If you think about TV commercials, they are “native advertising” in that they are of the same form as the TV shows they interrupt. They are mini-TV shows. But on the Web, we went with popups and banners—content that is not at all of the same nature as the content around it. I think only now are Web publishers starting to realize that the advertising experience has to be great. I also see more publishers going into the event space. If you add this with the growing prevalence of video, which is easier to monetize, I think there are lots of paths towards sustainability.

You’ve initiated several innovative journalism startups during your career, including Spot.Us and Circa, both of which ran out of funding after a short run. What motivates you to keep trying?

David Cohn: In a personal blog post, I describe it this way: “At its best, innovation expressed through entrepreneurship is a form of cultural critique. I want to work on projects that take us one step closer to a new understanding of existing institutions and norms. In this way, I don’t just see entrepreneurship as starting a business. It’s also making a statement about the world and how you think it should be. All code is political. All platforms define something about the purpose of the content it creates.” Viewed this way, how could I not keep going? I consider myself lucky that the “art” I like to practice is also about creating businesses.

You say in a YouTube interview with Breaking the New News that journalists need to learn the vocabulary of social media. How do you respond to critics who worry that social media contributes to a kind of societal attention deficit disorder and further degrades the quality of journalism?

David Cohn: They said the same thing about radio! The Internet doesn’t create new human motivations or behaviors. It just exposes existing motivations and behaviors under a brighter light. Journalism is the process of collecting, filtering, and distributing information. With that understanding, I’d argue that social media has made journalism as a practice more common and stronger today than ever before in human history. The same can’t be said for the journalism industry, but I think it’s important to make a distinction between those two. What we must realize is that technology companies are actually media companies. And it would follow that media companies have to become a bit more like technology companies. There is some kind of future where these two are indistinguishable from each other. And we might not recognize it. But they also called the first cars “horseless carriages” because they didn’t have the vocabulary to recognize that automobiles had nothing to do with horses.

In a different interview, you compare journalism at the present juncture to the Jews wandering the desert for 40 years after escaping Egypt. So what’s your latest vision of the Promised Land, and when will we get there?

David Cohn: Yes, I did! The comparison went like this: After performing ten miracles to free the Jews from slavery and then parting the Red Sea, God lets the Jews wander in the desert for 40 years. What gives! God did all these amazing things, but couldn’t just fly them to the Promised Land? Or at least someplace with air conditioning? The humanistic interpretation is that you had a generation of Jews who only knew bondage. They had to live and die in the desert before another generation could reach the Promised Land. I think journalists are a bit of a diaspora and are currently in that wandering phase. I like that analogy—I think I was “born” in the desert (my career started just after the first dot-com bust). This is all I know. And I think there is a duty to examine the traditions, ethics, goals, hopes, fears of previous generations and question what parts of those we can strap on our backs and carry with us forward, and which of those might be dead weight. All I can really say is … onward.

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