Online Journalism: Donations Accepted

Amid traditional media's bloodletting, nonprofit news outfits like Spot.Us are experimenting with community-funded journalism on the Web

The news business is in disarray. Thousands of journalists have been left jobless by deep cuts at Time (TWX), Gannett (GCI), Viacom (VIA), and other large media properties. Small newspapers and trade publications around the country are shutting down operations, and many that survive have eliminated bureaus, reduced printing schedules, or cut their print edition entirely.

Most publishers have followed the advertising dollars to the Web, only to find revenues from online ads growing too slowly to offset declines in print ads. So, if online advertising can't save the media any time soon, what will? A growing number of entrepreneurs and journalism advocates around the country are experimenting with a new type of business model for news: community-funded online journalism.

Organized around a group of readers bound by location or an area of interest, these new Web sites solicit donations to pay for the work of professional journalists. While the collection plate is small, and in most cases the sites are relying on supplemental funding from advertising, grants, or other institutional donations, their founders say that readers who help underwrite the news become engaged in the process of reporting and storytelling in meaningful ways.

Giving Donors a Say

There's little sign community-centric models are intriguing mainstream media outlets, but if some of them do prove successful, perhaps they will be gradually introduced into a business that's already reliant on advertising. They could be seen as new sources of revenue and community engagement. "Much of the discussion in journalism has been looking to replace one model with one model," says Jeff Jarvis, associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. "It's not going to be that simple. It's going to be a bunch of slices making up one pie."

To be sure, publicly funded news is not a novel concept in the U.S. Both the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio rely on audience support. But they also collect sizeable donations from the government-backed nonprofit Corporation for Public Broadcasting. And while PBS, NPR, and their numerous local affiliates have established reputations for quality, investigative journalism, they typically don't offer donors a hand in the process, as many of the new sites do. "I think this is about the public's desire to play a larger role in news and journalism," Jarvis says.

For starters, how about letting readers handpick the stories they want produced? That's the model being pioneered by Spot.Us, a San Francisco-based community news site launched in October. On the site, freelance journalists pitch stories to readers, rather than editors, and set their own commission. If readers like the idea, they pitch in a small amount—usually about $30—towards the total cost, which might be as high as $2,500. If enough readers chip in, the story gets produced and posted to the site for anyone to read. "The Internet helps people find each other and aggregate around a story they love," says David Cohn, who launched Spot.Us with the help of a two-year, $340,000 grant from the Knight Foundation he received in May.

A Focus on Public Good

The challenge of this model is obvious: Consumers aren't used to spending money on news, since they've grown accustomed to surfing blogs and other free news sites on the Web. "I could probably find many similar stories somewhere else, but not necessarily the angles or the approach that I feel these specific journalists have taken," says Jaan Orvet, a San Francisco resident who recently heard about Spot.Us and donated $15 to a story on bringing solar power to more residential homes in the Bay area. That story, along with eight others, are still in need of funding before they can get made. while four others are being produced.

So far, Spot.Us has raised nearly $6,000 and published four stories, which have covered locally oriented environmental issues, political campaigns, and energy. Since many of the stories are focused on promoting a public good, or combating local corruption, Cohn believes visitors to the site who donate are acting more out of a sense of charity than as consumers buying a product. If that's true, it bodes well for the future of Spot.Us and its model. Research published by Gallup on Dec. 19 reveals that more than four out of five Americans gave money to a charitable cause in the past 12 months, even as consumer confidence sank like a rock. But, if true, it also means that this model probably won't work for journalism that lacks such a strong public-service component.

Rather than sponsoring a story, what if you allowed readers to sponsor a reporter? In July, the rural town of Northfield, Minn., "hired" Bonnie Obremski to cover local topics like crime, education, and events on an existing blog called Locally Grown. Obremski's assignment is the pilot phase for a program being developed by Leonard Witt, a professor of communication at Kennesaw State University, just outside of Atlanta. Currently, Obremski's salary and expenses are paid for entirely by a grant from The Harnisch Foundation, but in coming months, Witt plans to raise enough local support from Northfield residents to pass the entire cost on to them. A community of 1,000 potential contributors, he says, each paying between $1 and $2 per week, would be sufficient. People in the community understand that eventually they'll be asked to ante up.

Two-Way Conversation

Obremski is confident the experiment will work, judging by the way she's gotten her readers involved in her reporting. "I invite my readers to participate in all parts of the story-making process online," she says. "Readers understand that I'm engaged with them in a two-way conversation. They see how I get my information and how I process it."

Witt's larger vision, a project he calls Representative Journalism, is to bring this model to a hundred or more different communities in the country, both geographic and topic-centric. For example, one group of people with an interest in endangered species in Florida might sponsor its own journalist to write stories specifically focused on that topic. "We have this assumption that news is free," Witt says. Unless people become willing to pay, "We're going to reach a critical point where we're not going to have the kind of news we want anymore."

One online publication already exemplifies a hybrid model of community- and ad-supported journalism. In November 2007, former editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune Joel Klein launched MinnPost, a site that relies on some display advertising, Knight Foundation grants totaling $390,000, and donations from more than 1,150 readers. Donations and advertising revenues are growing, and Klein says the business will be sustainable without any further foundation grants by 2011. "We're clearly experiments," Klein says, referring to his site as well as the other community-supported news outlets. "But I think it's an environment where everyone has to try new things."

In fact, not to try would be tantamount to buggy makers attempting to ignore the onslaught of the automobile.

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