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Letter to the Editor

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The Tartan’s April 12 board editorial (“Anonymity of Wikileaks could be future of journalism”) highlights one very dynamic use of new media to pursue investigative journalism.

In an age when investigative journalism is being slashed from mainstream print news because of its prohibitive expense, there’s a lot of anxiety over who will continue as the watchdog over the powers that be. The anonymous release of such an incredible piece of news on once-obscure Wikileaks — with its mysterious investigative methods and clandestine connections to a nebulous ring of high-powered research institutions — induced an anxious fit of navel-gazing among new and old media alike about investigative journalism’s new future on the web.

But before we use the Wikileaks incident to declare that the world of information is flat, there remains one inescapable truth: Good journalism, and especially the investigative kind, still costs money, even if it appears on a fringe website.

Followers of the story know that Wikileaks is kept afloat, like many important wikis, entirely through donations. In January, The Guardian, a leading news source in the UK and a supporter of Wikileaks, wrote, “If you want to read the exposes of the future, it’s time to chip in.”

And they’re right: Wikileaks brought you a really interesting and important bit of news for free. But it still has battalions of servers to maintain in three different nations, staff to pay, and even people that travel and check stories out in person. That’s expensive, and like news on the printed page, there’s no guarantee it’s going to stick around unless you are willing to pay for it.

Other journalists, hoping to use the community as a resource to fund this often-expensive process, have banded together on a site called 12Spot.us. Spot is a very simple concept: People who would like to write a news story, but don’t have the funding necessary to do the journalistic work, can “pitch” a story to, well, you. And everyone. Story ideas are listed online, and if you like the idea, you can give the future author a donation to start or complete his or her work. Would-be writers list how much they need (usually a few hundred bucks), what they would like to cover (“Agriculture Poisons Water for 1.3 Million in San Joaquin County”), and what their qualifications are.

In the short term, the idea of individuals and groups paying for the investigative journalism they want to see instead of turning to large newspapers is exciting, and not so unlike hiring a private investigator instead of relying on the police. In the long run, though, sticky questions may arise about whether it’s a good idea to introduce such a clear bias in journalism. It’s going to get very hairy when large, civic-minded, and (mostly) unbiased print newspapers no longer provide investigation as a public service.

Either way, the moral of the story is that a free press is actually quite expensive. If you’d like to continue benefiting from the contributions that high-quality investigative journalism makes to a free society, it’s going to cost you. And you’d better pay up.