I met David Cohn through my association with Jay Rosen’s NewAssignment.net and have kept up with his sometimes frenetic activities online. Recently Cohn won a grant from the Knight News Challenge for Spot.us, a service he’s developing that’s trying out a new model of paying for investigative journalism by raising money online through aggregating small donations (i.e., “crowdsourcing”).
It’s a promising idea, David is an energetic and creative guy, and I have high hopes for what the experiment can teach us. (I tossed in a small contribution to Spot.Us’s pilot project — a study of political ads in the upcoming San Francisco election.)
But Spot.us is in what you might describe as a pre-alpha state. It’s an idea that is in the process of becoming embodied on the Web. Cohn is bravely developing it in public, showing his blog readers his designs as they evolve, plunging forward with improvised test-bed proof -of-concept efforts.
This is all well and good: it’s the best way to get a Web project moving. But it did cause me to do a double-take when I saw this extensive Sunday New York Times think piece on Spot.us. The piece calls Spot.us an “experiment” but barely gave its readers any indication that the project it was describing remains in the fetal stage.
I suppose when you work transparently this is the risk. And getting a big piece in the Times isn’t something to complain too loudly about. For the Times, I can’t fault them for spotting a trend early and wanting to highlight it. But there’s something a little careless, even sloppy, about not acknowledging — up front and in bold — that this thing they’re writing about really, you know, doesn’t exist yet. Cohn wrote yesterday about his concern whether Spot.us “deserves the attention yet”: “I honestly want to scream at the top of my lungs, ‘come back in the Fall!’ ”
The impression we’re left with is that the news industry is so desperate for salvation (or so lacking in confidence) that it will grab at the thinnest reed of any story that suggests a way out. What I want to know is: will the Times, and others, be there to give Spot.us more attention once it is fully functional and cranking out stories?