Insights on Modern Journalism from David Cohn

David Cohn has participated (and shaped) many facets of modern journalism as:

  • A journalist with a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism
  • A journalist with work published by major publications including Wired and the New York Times
  • An editor (back in 2006) of Newassignement.net with NYU professor of Journalism Jay Rosen, which explored citizen and online journalism
  • A frequent speaker on topics realted to journalism and new media, as well as a lecturer at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute within the University of Missouri’s Journalism school
  • The founder and director of Spot.Us, a nonprofit organization that acted as a Kickstarter for journalists (long before Kickstarter existed) 
  • An advisor to several journalism and new media-related startups, including OffTheBus.net, Beatblogging.org, and The Public Press
  • The founding editor of Circa, a news app that assembles important quotes and updates (sans fluff) related to major news stories in easy-to-follow collections

Those looking to craft a career as journalists in the 21st century can learn from his driving interest in the cutting edge and ability to adapt to a wide variety of new media formats.

Key Lessons from David Cohn

From his career (and insights shared in greater detail in the exchange below), we can learn from David Cohn that:

  • Anyone working in journalism now has to be able to provide unique value beyond articles and basic reporting; an entrepreneurial spirit is advantageous in the industry
  • Journalism still operates on an apprenticeship model, you have to work hard and pay your dues
  • It helps to decide what your speciality will be as a journalist- whether you will be more of a curator or the type of investigative journalist that does a great deal of primary research and reaches deep into a subject about which there is little publicly-available information
  • Being engaged and active online is not the same thing as actually getting work done

Q&A with David Cohn

Why did you decide to be a journalist? Do you have a particular mission behind your work?

I got into journalism late in my undergraduate years. I became fascinated with the idea of the exchange of information and how that helps a society inform itself. I also became interested in how the exchange of information itself was evolving (the internet) - hence I became a technology reporter.

So much of your career to this point incorporates involvement with startups doing something new with journalism and news media. To what extent do you think successful, modern journalists have to be innovators and/or entrepreneurs in addition to researchers and storytellers?

To some extent, right now at least, everyone has to have a little bit of that spirit. Even if you are in a big organization - your career is yours and you need to be able to prove your value beyond just being a byline at another organization.

What are the most notable ways in which citizen journalism and online journalism have evolved since you were an editor of Newassignment.net in 2006?

Re: citizen journalism - It has evolved tremendously. It has matured and is no longer gawked at. It's also no longer held up as a solution to everything (that's crowdfundings role currently!). Our ability to understand the role of citizen journalism and how it can best be accomplished has also evolved. It has been exciting to see the conversations around it change over the years.

What are the biggest distinguishing factors between a citizen journalist and  a "professional" journalist these days?

Whether or not somebody is getting paid or doing it as a hobby. Here's my breakdown of terms.

To what extent does a degree in journalism make one a trustworthy journalist? Are journalism degrees mandatory for those who want to go pro?

Definitely not required. Journalism still operates on an apprentice model. Going to grad school doesn't mean you skip past that apprenticeship phase. It just means that when you start out you will excel beyond your peers and rise faster. But don't go to journalism school and then expect to come out working as an editor at the NYT. Everyone, including graduates of j-school, have to pay their dues. And with that in mind - if you don't go to grad school - again be prepared to pay your dues. As somebody that has done hiring - I don't look at a lack of j-school as a black mark at all. I'm looking for talent, gusto, etc. I have found, however, that folks who went to j-school excel. But I wouldn't say that correlation is causality.

Many people are saying the profession of journalism is dead; others are saying it is just evolving into a different form. If journalism is dead... what now? If it is just evolving, what do 21st century journalists need to change so that they can have a sustainable, full-time career within the field? 

I've written a lot about this in the past. One post that comes to mind is here (start mid-way where I get to "Generations in the Desert."

I wouldn't proclaim to know what is ahead. But I do believe that there will always be professional journalists (even if we don't recognize them in the same way we do now).

The beauty of Circa lies in its simplicity, practicality, and excellent curation. Is curation, presentation of context, and simplification of information what effective professional journalists do these days? What else should they be doing?

It's one of the things that journalists can do these days. I would contrast Circa with CIR (Center for Investigative Reporting) for example. I think the two may be polar opposites and specialize in different things. I think the reporters at CIR couldn't do what Circa does and vice versa. There is a need for both (and they serve two different purposes). I would say a young journalist now needs to think about what kind of reporter/journalist they want to be and focus on that.

What is the biggest mistake you see journalists making online? How can they avoid it?

David CohnI have a good friend that says something akin to: Being a journalist is 3% talent and 97% not getting distracted by the web." There are a lot of demands on a young journalist to be "social" and engage and "insert buzzword here." I'm not saying we should ignore those - because they are importnat - but don't confuse them with getting the job done!

What are your favorite online resources (monitoring tools, educational resources, publishing tools, devices, etc.) for journalism today?

Tweetdeck is a must-use.

I also use Google Reader, although that needs to be replaced by the end of this month (trying out Feedly now).

I'm still a big believer in owning your own blog (wordpress) rather than a proprietary publishing system like Tumblr as your main presence - but that's probably old-school nerd of me and not really required.