Is Community-Funded Journalism The Answer?

If news organizations continue struggling to pay their reporters, would you be willing to pick up the tab? Spot.us creator David Cohn is hoping people will say yes. Spot.us is one of many Web sites popping up to unite journalists with the citizens that care to keep them in business.

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MEDELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm not sure how I feel about this next story, as a journalist. Maybe you'll have a different reaction. We all know that newspapers, TV networks, radio shows are in trouble these days. One solution out there: have you, the listener, the newspaper reader - have you pay us to cover the stories you want. Martina Castro reports on this new model of journalism.

Unidentified Woman: Hello.

(Soundbite of door opening)

Mr. DAVID COHN (Founder, Spot.us): Hello. Come on in.

MARTINA CASTRO: David Cohn runs his journalism enterprise out of his one-bedroom apartment in the Mission district of San Francisco. It's called Spot.us, and it's a website where small donors can hire journalists to cover stories they care about.

Mr. COHN: A regular citizen can create on our site a quote unquote "tip." A tip can be like, you know, what's up with the river by my street; I think it's a polluted, to, you know, what's going on at my kid's school district? And they can pledge it and say, I would give $10 if someone did this story.

CASTRO: So, people donate 10 bucks here, 20 bucks there, until there's enough to pay a journalist to go out and report the story. To date, single donations have ranged from $2 to $250.

Mr. COHN: We recently funded an investigation into the Oakland Police Department. We raised $1000 dollars from I think it was like 45 different people who gave an average of about $20 each. And the reporter is going to investigate the Oakland Police Department, why they have such a high absentee rate and what's generally going on there in a city that has the fifth-highest crime rate in the United States.

CASTRO: And Cohn isn't the only one looking for a new ways to pay for good journalism.

Ms. BONNIE OBREMSKI (Representative Journalist, Northfield, Minnesota): My name is Bonnie Obremski, and I'm an independent journalist working on the Representative Journalism project in Northfield, Minnesota.

CASTRO: This project is similar to Spot Us, but instead of asking people to fund individual stories, O'Brumsky hopes the community will pool its money to pay her to cover the town for one year.

Ms. O'BREMSKY: Are we going to have this thing that people will buy into? I don't know. And if that doesn't happen, have we failed? (Laughing) I'm not sure either.

CASTRO: More traditional journalists are also raising some pretty serious questions about this funding model.

Prof. MICHAEL STOLL (Journalism, San Jose State University): How do you make sure there isn't undue influence by small donors?

CASTRO: That's Michael Stoll. He teaches journalism at San Jose State University.

Prof. STOLL: You don't want to replicate the potential conflicts of interest of old media. You want to be more transparent, more accountable than your predecessors.

CASTRO: Stoll also happens to be a journalism entrepreneur. His project is called Public Press, a non-commercial daily newspaper, funded through membership, like Public Broadcasting and Consumer Reports magazine. Public Press is an actual news organization with an editorial staff. It's similar to another venture out there called ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom funded by large philanthropic donations.

Mr. NEIL HENRY: I'm not sure there has ever been a real equation between quality journalism and the profit-making quality of this endeavor.

CASTRO: Neil Henry is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He's a 25-year veteran of the business, having worked at The Washington Post and Newsweek.

Mr. HENRY: I was always of the belief that good journalism, in and of itself, was valuable enough that the people would really come to recognize how valuable journalism was and would buy it. And I'm not sure how that's being translated today. There's a kind of disconnect between journalism and economic sustainability.

Mr. COHN: We might have to be open to the fact that journalism isn't sustainable.

CASTRO: Again, Spot Us founder, David Cohn.

Mr. COHN: And that sounds really scary, but if you look at things like art - right? - art or poetry, have those ever been sustainable? No. But we've always had art, and we've always had poetry.

CASTRO: Cohn says, whether we'll always have journalism depends on its perceived value to society, not on how much money it can make for a company. And as the economy worsens, more and more journalists may be out there pleading that very case. For NPR News, I'm Martina Castro in San Francisco.

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