Commentary: Have Web Site, Will Investigate

By Spencer E. Ante

It was early April, war had just broken out in southern Iraq, and freelance journalist Christopher Allbritton was trying to get into the country. The borders of Iran and Syria were closed. So Allbritton spent $3,000 for a Kurdish guide to take him over the fortified and mountainous Turkish border into the land of Saddam Hussein. Thirty-six grueling hours later, he stumbled into the country. He then spent three weeks reporting from Iraq, breaking news on the fall of Tikrit and highlighting the "Yugoslavia-style" ethnic tensions between Kurds, Arabs, Turkomen, and Assyrians.

Allbritton didn't have a juicy contract with The Washington Post or CNN. Rather, his trip was funded by 320 people who donated $14,334 through his Web site, Back-to-Iraq.com. Months before the conflict began, the former Associated Press reporter posted a notice on his site: He wanted to cover the war and asked for readers' financial support for "independent journalism." As the cash rolled in, Allbritton hit the road with his laptop computer, filing via a satellite phone or Internet café. Donors were put on a premium e-mail list, so they received stories early and got extra reports and pictures. They also passed along story ideas and occasionally berated him for overheated metaphors. "Readers were my editors," he says.

Is this the future of journalism? The New York Times may have nothing to worry about, but Allbritton's story hints at a new business model that could remake the lesser tiers of the media world. Call it pay-to-read journalism. Reporters, individually or in groups, could use the Net to raise money directly from readers interested in specific stories or journalistic styles. That could be independent journalism, in the spirit of the old Village Voice, or withering cultural criticism, a la The Baffler. Instead of aiming for the mass market, journalists have a way to target an audience of thousands, more easily pursuing stories that lie off the beaten path. "The good news is, there's more information," says Charles Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit that raises money for public-service journalism. "A talented young journalist can do great journalism. And that's a great thing."

Although no one tracks the number of pay-to-read Web sites, there are probably a few dozen today. Like many successful Net technologies, reader-subsidized publishing is a grassroots phenomenon. Consider freelancer David Appell, a physics PhD who has written for Nature. After seeing Back-to-Iraq.com, he asked the public to donate $20 apiece to fund his investigation of the politics of the sugar industry. So far, he has raised $425. "I thought I would raise $50," says Appell. Subscribers should receive the story in a week or so.

Ultimately, pay-to-read journalism may have its greatest impact overseas, in countries that are more starved for information. The best example is OhmyNews.com, an online publication in South Korea that generates 80% of its news from more than 25,000 citizen-reporters who are paid depending on how a story is ranked by editors. The barely profitable site has been widely credited with helping elect the country's new president, Roh Moo Hyun, formerly a little-known human rights attorney. OhmyNews.com gets 8% of its $1.7 million in revenues from donations.

Allbritton and others are building on a flourishing Net trend: Web logs, or blogs. These are do-it-yourself sites where writers publish diaristic articles that anyone can read, typically for free. Now, some entrepreneurs see a future in pooling the work of bloggers and charging for it. The Blogging Network, a site started this January by ex-dot-commer Mihail S. Lari, charges readers $5.95 a month for articles on topics such as business or religion. Lari says he has raised about $40,000 to be distributed among the most popular bloggers.

True, pay-to-read journalism won't replace the Times. But it offers an increasingly powerful megaphone for the little guy.

Ante, who covers technology, is looking for a few good blogs to fund.

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