Cohn developed the idea of creating a Web site where writers could pitch news stories and solicit funding for them directly from the public, a concept that drew from bloggers such as Christopher Allbritton and his Back-to-Iraq blog, as well as innovative charity sites such as DonorsChoose.org.
Stories published by Spot.us are then licensed under the Creative Commons, allowing anyone to use them for free and spread the work. News organizations can also buy the rights to an article by repaying Spot.us, or they can get the site to help fund their freelancers by paying for half up front and letting donors cover the rest.
"Everyone can benefit: the news organizations, the writers, and the public. But the market needs to be rethought," Cohn told us, noting that the success of his venture will be up to the users. "It depends on whether people will see journalism as a public good and want to fund good stories."
Media outlets that aim to have a full-time news-gathering staff need to tap into more stable funding sources — or they have to start slow and hope their new ideas catch on.
"With the extremely limited funding we're starting out with, we're planning to start a hybrid freelancer/volunteer news operation, and that's not terribly sustainable in the long run," Stoll said. "But we hope to increase our financial wherewithal on pace with increasing our news operations."
Although finding resources for his new model is a difficult task in the current fiscal climate, the need becomes stronger all the time. "When talk centers on how long the commercial press will be able to operate in our community, it's never too soon to talk about long-range alternatives," Stoll said.
Stoll left the Examiner in November 2002 after clashing with the owners, the Fang family, about how to cover the city. After that, Stoll joined the media watchdog group Grade the News and taught journalism at San Jose State University, where he still works.
"The readers probably guessed that public interest coverage was not the Examiner's top priority, and they voted with their quarters not to support the paper long enough to see it survive in that incarnation," Stoll said, referring to how the Examiner was sold to Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz after the Fang's court-ordered subsidy ended. "And I see the same thing happening with the Chronicle."
WHO GETS PAID?
Still, there are some new journalism experiments that have shown they can be moneymakers, most notably HuffPo, which has translated its enormous popularity into a substantial revenue stream from its online ads, a dynamic it has parlayed into increasing venture capital funding to expand its operations.
But HuffPo is still struggling to find a business model that allows it to expand its original reporting and pay journalists a living wage, a problem highlighted recently by a controversy about HuffPo stealing content without permission.
In an interview with the Guardian, Huffington admitted that HuffPo did inadvertently steal content from newspapers including Chicago Reader, which highlighted the issue on its blog, triggering a lively online discussion.
"With regards to the Chicago Reader, that was completely our editor's fault, and it completely violated our guidelines, so I sent a letter to them wholeheartedly apologizing," she told us.
Huffington said it's important to honestly admit mistakes and use integrity to win the public trust. "We want to be very transparent about what we're doing," she said.
As for the larger issue of not paying for content, she makes a distinction between journalism and blogging, citing the mantra, "Facts are sacred, opinion is free."