School of Journalism hires online media outlet founder

Tony Zhou/Staff
The Graduate School of Journalism recently hired the founder of a media outlet.

In an effort to keep up with business developments in the world of alternative media, the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism has hired the founder of an online media outlet to explore new business models, the school announced Monday.

David Cohn, the founder of the community-funded online news site Spot.Us, was hired by the school to work on developing sustainable business models for the online, community-based news sites the school runs.

Cohn, a new Ford Foundation Fellow and lecturer at the school, will research ways to fund the three hyper-local websites run by the school — the Oakland North, Richmond Confidential and Mission [email protected] — which are currently funded in part by the foundation.

“All three sites are doing really well,” he said. “But we want to come up with new products that might be used on the editorial end to increase the way the sites work and make it better for readers and consumers in the community, but also come up with products that will make money.”

Cohn, a 2004 UC Berkeley graduate, founded in 2008, in part because the community-based model allows community members to have a say in what stories are reported.

“People are taking an active role in journalism and helping to define and redefine it, and that actually makes journalism stronger,” he said.

Several ideas for restructuring the hyper-local sites have already emerged, Cohn said, including the possibility that local businesses may be able to sell their products online.

School lecturer Alan Mutter, who specializes in new media ventures, said that, although such locally focused news sites excite both journalists and the community, long-term funding for the projects is often an issue.

According to school lecturer and Ford Foundation Fellow Jeremy Rue, the school raised the idea of filling an open position with someone on the business side of news site operations. Then, the school’s sites could be used as a testing platform for developing ideas.

Cohn, who Rue described as having “a forte in community-funded media,” had the experience with developing business models for alternative news sources that made him a good candidate for the job, he said.

“We go to a lot of journalism conferences and the topic of discussion is almost always on business models,” said Rue. “I don’t think there’s a silver bullet that will solve all of journalism’s problems, but I do know that ever since we started these hyper-local sites, we’ve seen a growth all over the country.”

Mutter said that finding a solution to the problem of funding community and start-up news sites is a central problem in journalism today.

“David’s got a very important job because there have been a lot of hyper-local news sites who try to come up with in-depth coverage for small communities,” said Mutter. “I hope (Cohn) can find some solutions.”