By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Paying for the news voluntarily

How much are you willing to pay for high-quality coverage of your community? Our local weekly costs $46 a year for a mail subscription. The local daily costs $4 a week, with tip. So we’re paying more than $250 a year.

But what if we were talking about a free community Web site? If the site had a chance to hire a journalist, would you be willing to contribute, say, $50 or $100 a year, even if you could still access it for free if you chose? It works for public radio. Why not for online local news?

That’s the idea behind Representative Journalism, a project started by Leonard Witt (above) of Kennesaw State University, in Georgia. Witt plans to give it a try at Locally Grown, an ambitious-looking site that serves the town of Northfield, Minn.

Witt described the project this past Saturday at a “Sharing the News” symposium at UMass Lowell, sponsored by the New England News Forum. You can watch a video of Witt’s presentation here.

Witt said he got his inspiration from a GPS his wife gave him for his car. He entered “barbecue,” and was presented with a list of options — and he realized he would never again consult the newspaper for restaurant listings. The Internet, he explained, has “decoupled” advertising and editorial content.

“The economic structure behind the old model of making the news is falling apart,” he said. “If we want high-quality news in the future, somebody’s got to pay for it.”

The discussion got bogged down when Witt offered two hypotheticals that he presented as being similar, but were actually very different. In one case, a community site might hire a journalist to cover important regional stories, as is the idea in Northfield. In another, a Web project of some kind might be looking for a reporter to cover, say, endangered species in Florida.

The first idea seemed to go down a lot better than the second, as it was pointed out that folks contributing money to the coverage of a particular issue, as opposed to a geographic region, would be tempted to demand that the issue be covered in a certain way. Witt responded that there would have to be some educational efforts undertaken ahead of time. And he admitted that he hasn’t worked out all the bugs, explaining that the Northfield experiment will be a chance to test out the idea.

“The whole reason I’m doing this is that I believe journalists should be paid a fair wage,” he said.

Will it work? I think it’s a promising model. One thing I wonder about, though, is that community sites are not necessarily driven by journalism. At a recent “Future of Journalism” conference at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Jan Schaffer, executive director of the Institute for Interactive Journalism, said the best community sites tend to be run by local activists who see their role as making connections and expanding the civic conversation.

Grafting a hungry young reporter onto that model could be a recipe for trouble. But it’s certainly worth trying.

More: Here’s a comprehensive rundown on the Lowell conference by Aldon Hynes.

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  1. mike_b1

    Enterprise journalism is being handled very well by some periodicals, many of which are doing better than ever. No reason to think that will change any time soon.

  2. Bill

    I’ve paid for for years now, about $30 to $40, because I value the information and want to keep it around. I sent an email to the Boston Globe about 10 years ago telling them that if they offered me the option of paying to access their website, and the fee was reasonable, I would do it. Obviously, I’m nuts, and they never took me up on the offer. It’s puzzling to me, however, why other newspaper sites haven’t gone thbe Salon route, making the content available to everyone, but offering an advertising-free version for people willing to pay for it. I value the work that the Globe does, and would certainly pay for more hyper-local content if it was available and good. I don’t see how you can get the without paying something for it. Bill

  3. Mark M.

    I wasn’t even aware people used to consult newspapers for restaurant listings…I think the internet relieved any need for that a decade ago.

  4. DigiDave

    I think RepJ is a great project. I’m working on something very similar in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s called Spot Us – at the URL http://spot.usI think Lenn and I are trying to tackle the same thing: How to ensure reporters are paid for doing quality work.

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