All About the Benjamins

June 7, 2008

You’d think that the alternative media exist in some sort of netherworld where the mundane realities of life don’t ever intrude, where purity of communication and moral purpose are the only things that matter.

Um, not exactly.

As new media occupy a growing position, they have to figure out how to pay their bills, too, even if their bills are much smaller than those of traditional media, with their armies of reporters, editors, camera people and production facilities. At one panel discussion, the topic of money kept recurring.

Jeremy Iggers, executive director of the Twin Cities Media Alliance, explained how the group got a grant to start its community news Web site, Twin Cities Daily Planet. Now, he said, the challenge is making the site “economically feasible.”

“We’re looking closely at a model that a lot of community news organizations are looking at,” said Iggers, a former Star Tribune editor and reporter. “You might call it the public radio model: some foundation support, some advertising and a lot of support from our readers.” Similar comments could be heard from other non-profit media groups.

The blooming of voices in the alternative online media is an amazing thing, and I believe it’s a huge positive for our society. But these online alternatives are helping to destroy the traditional media, and part of the reason is that they’re free. There are untold numbers of people who are willing to blog and report without pay, both for the thrill of engaging in journalism and the satisfaction of advancing a cause.

That’s a tremendous contribution to our society. At the same time, it sets up a tough situation for the emerging new-media organizations. How can they get people to pay for their content when the model they’ve helped to build makes so much available for free?