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?
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I was also just as surprised (and disappointed) to see that the writer didn’t make it clear about the current state of David’s project. In any case, I’m sure Spot.Us will get a lot of well-deserved publicity when it does launch, and people are already putting their money where there mouths are…. I for one will continue to fund David’s Spot.Us efforts even though we’re not located in the Bay Area. Any project that solves a real problem with imagination and passion deserve our backing.
Well… I guess I don’t have much else to add here really. The one good thing about all this (and I don’t want to sound un-appreciative) is that it is helping to galvanize the community of people that are already interested in spot.us. They feel like they are part of something that, as you say, could learn some lessons.
The downside – this was a lost opportunity to grow that community.