It's a question that can get lost in all the talk of business models and content creation: how might journalism best serve the public?
In Australia, the latest group to ponder this is The Foundation for Public Interest Journalism, directed by a group of journalists, editors, academics and members of the community. Part of the Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University in Melbourne, it is setting up a project called YouCommNews, modeled on the American site Spot.Us, which will allow the audience to commission the stories they want to see.
The Editors Weblog spoke to Dr Margaret Simons, chair of the foundation, and to David Cohn, founder of Spot.Us.
"Journalism is in many ways facing a crisis," says Simons, who is herself a journalism academic, freelance journalist and media commentator. "Like most crises, there are also opportunities."
She adds that this crisis is different in Australia, which has seen a substantial amount of journalists laid off, to the US, where some newspapers have closed. She also points to the transformations that the internet has brought to the news industry and the difficulties of charging for online news. "Most newspapers are profoundly challenged by new technologies," she says.
In response, the foundation is launching the YouCommNews website, expected to be up and running before mid-year. "Anyone can pitch an idea on the site," she says. "A professional journalist can, a publisher can, or a member of the public can." Articles will then be written from these pitches by a network of professional freelance journalists. Audience members will chip in to fund the stories they want.
Pitches will come with a quote. A particular story might be expected to take two days' work, for example, and will have a corresponding cost. A hundred freelancers have already signed up, and they will be paid according to the union rate card. The board of the foundation will act as an editorial subcommittee.
"The Foundation itself might seek philanthropic funding," Simons says. It has already received a grant from the Victorian state government to help build and maintain the site. But large grants aren't they key to its operations. "The core idea is to allow the public the power to commission."
This model is familiar to anyone who's used or read about Spot.Us, founded by David Cohn. This started as a combination of three different ideas: freelance journalism needed more transparency; citizen journalism had potential as well as limitations; and 'crowdsourcing', distributing tasks among a large group of people or crowd, had given rise to other 'crowdfunded' projects. He put them all together and came up with a model of community-funded reporting.
Writing in this way changes the idea of what the public is, or what the community is, Simons points out. For example, a story about a local council may have a different public to an international piece, she says.
"One of the things that new media is creating is the possibility of serving niche audiences, and they might be geographically remote from each other," she says. "So you're talking about many, many different publics who are overlapping."
She hopes that there will be stories with a local focus as well as those with on national issues, but emphasises that it's not for her to decide.
"It should be said that not every kind of journalism can be done on this model," she says, adding that stories which require secret investigation can't be pitched on a website for everyone to see. But she frames the project as an experiment that will focus on the kind of journalism that it is able to do well.
The articles produced through YouCommNews will be available for publication by anyone who wishes, and a number of outlets are already on board. They include news website Crikey, whose former editor Jonathan Green is on the board of the foundation. The group has also talked to public broadcaster the ABC, book publishers and public radio stations.
Other plans are in the works: the foundation, operating under the name PIJMO or Public Interest Journalism Movement, has already announced that it will hold a conference which aims to bring journalists and community members together, and run a resource centre with databases and professional training programs for journalists.
The reaction from the US
"I got really excited," Spot.Us founder David Cohn said. "I think it's an excellent project and proposal." It's his view that more people should be experimenting in this way. He's even offered to share his code.
"The best pitches, I find, are ones that are phrased as questions," he says, "which is a question that can't easily be answered via search." Questions that are rooted in a particular community, such as a geographic or ethnic community, tend to do well, he adds. Stories about the environment have been popular, and he suggests that that may be because they launched in the Bay Area.
In cases where a journalist's safety trumps transparency of the model, there are ways of getting around the lack of secrecy, such as writing very broad pitches, he says. Perhaps there are ways of covering breaking news as well, he adds, such as writing a pitch to cover a beat.
"Creating a public pitch is a new art form, and we're still learning what is and isn't possible with it."
Will it work?
Non-profit journalism is becoming more widespread in the US: outfits such as ProPublica, the Bay Area News Project, the Texas Tribune, the Chicago News Cooperative and California Watch have been springing up across the country. Their proponents argue that their protection from market forces enables them to focus on quality journalism, while their critics have suggested that the non-profit structure only props up the dominant yet flawed business model and limits innovation. And others have pointed out that this is not necessarily transferable to large, established media organisations: The New York Times, for example, would need an endowment of around $5 billion to become non-profit.
Crowdfunding, though, adds an extra twist to the idea of the non-profit journalism project, shifting a higher degree of control to the audience.
It's often too easy to overestimate the power of the audience in the age of web 2.0: commenting on blogs, while certainly empowering, is not comparable to being able to set the agenda for a news publication. So the idea of allowing the public this degree of editorial control, and then removing the profit motive, is something quite new. At its best, it could be an important way for readers to learn about issues that are under-reported in the mainstream media. On the other hand, it risks not attracting a wide enough audience to really serve and represent the public as it purports to do.
At the same time, it's important to remember that YouCommNews isn't competing with, or trying to replace, the broadsheet newspapers or major television networks. Indeed, it relies on other outlets for publication. But in time, it has the potential to become a key addition to the Australian media landscape.
Could we see large media organisations operating on an audience-commissioned or community-funded model? In part at least, suggests Cohn. He points to the plans to introduce a paywall on the New York Times website next year, and suggests a mechanism allowing subscribers to choose which beat their payment will fund.
Simons agrees. "There's no reason why not. It would take a shift in thinking." She points out that her project is very much an experiment, which would be risky for a mainstream organisation but is easier for a start-up.
"We're trying not to have too many preconceptions."