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Media Notes by Howard Kurtz

Others, including the New Yorker's Steve Coll, a former Post managing editor, say an endowment should be raised to support quality journalism -- a $2 billion fund that, he says, could underwrite The Post's news operation by spending 5 percent a year. But that not only treats newspapers as a charity case, it raises ethical concerns: Who would manage the fund, who would contribute, and how could the newsroom be protected from donors' political influence?

Coll says many universities handle the dilemma through tight restrictions, while some "accept money from corporations for scientific research, and it turns out they didn't insulate the scientists from conflicts of interest. Some newspapers are used by their owners as tools of political manipulation from time to time." He says any trust could be based on a document "that made the independence of the editor sacrosanct."

Otherwise, says Coll, The Post will likely follow the cost-cutting path of the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Miami Herald and other metropolitan dailies that can no longer "support the breadth and depth of journalism they sponsored 15 or 20 years ago."

ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative newsroom that sometimes teams up with newspapers, has shown early promise. But much of its $10 million annual budget has been donated by Democratic Party donors Herbert and Marion Sandler, former bank owners who were named by Time as among the 25 people to blame for the financial crisis.

Editor & Publisher blogger Steve Outing touts a start-up venture called Kachingle, which would collect a voluntary fee for access to online news and blogs -- say, $5 a month -- and readers could direct money to their favorites by clicking on Kachingle buttons on those sites. Voluntary donations may sound fanciful, but during my online chats, readers often tell me they would happily pay a modest fee to support The Post's Web site if there were a mechanism for doing so.

Yet another idea is a San Francisco site called Spot.Us, underwritten by the Knight Foundation. Would-be journalists (news outlets can play, too) post story pitches and try to collect enough online donations to fund the reporting.

Still others, perhaps emulating such bailed-out banking giants as Citigroup, prefer a government rescue. The owner of the struggling Philadelphia Inquirer recently sought state economic-development funds from Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. But if the request had been granted, who would believe the paper would investigate the Democrat's administration quite as aggressively?

The disappearance of some newspapers would not mean the end of independent reporting. Some Web operations, such as Talking Points Memo, have broken valuable stories. Voice of San Diego, a Web site that gets 30 percent of its funding from a local businessman, has exposed several municipal scandals. But even in their shrunken state, local papers provide the bulk of watchdog reporting at city halls and statehouses.

After decades in which newspapers grew fat and happy as a near-monopoly, the business model is busted. Perhaps it is too late to persuade consumers to cough up the monthly equivalent of buying a vanilla Frappuccino (though it was once conventional wisdom that no one would fork over money to watch television). But if so, that's a shame.

You ultimately get what you pay for. And if there's not enough public appetite for the kind of journalism that holds politicians and public figures accountable -- ranging from Tom Daschle's tax problems to Citigroup's planned $50 million private jet to Barry Bonds's alleged steroid use -- then such efforts will wither on the digital vine. Of course, we might come up with a brilliant new strategy for financing newspapers. But don't count on it.

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