But profit motive may soon be added to the mix. GetLocalNews.com, a nationwide network of 6,000 local news sites, is planning to share its advertising revenue with thousands of volunteer writers.
The idea is to reward and motivate contributors whose stories and photos generate the most traffic, which in turn fuels ad revenue, said Edgar Canon, chief executive of the San Francisco company. He hopes the quality of contributions improves, too.
But it's also the principle of the matter. "I think the writing-for-free thing is kind of demeaning to content producers," Canon said.
It's a smart move, and a concept that may catch on among more commercial blogs, said Steve Outing, a senior editor at the Poynter Institute journalism school. About.com, recently acquired by The New York Times, also pays volunteer writers, he said. But he expects noncash compensation, such as T-shirts, mugs or free classified listings, will be more common.
"You've got to figure out a way to entice people to contribute," Outing said.
It may also further blur the line between professional journalists and amateur scribes--a line already made fuzzy.
For the time being, however, most people will likely find it difficult to eke out a living as a "citizen journalist"--a fact that may never change, Outing said.
At GetLocalNews, which started in 1999, it helps to be established. In its earlier years, the company had little left over from its start-up costs to pay writers.
Now the company will pay writers half the net ad sales their stories garner, Canon said. That figure is based on each story's "page views," or the number of times visitors view its Web page. Canon expects it to work out to about $2 to $5 per 1,000 page views. The company will send checks quarterly to all writers that rack up $25 or more in payments, he said.
GetLocalNews posted a further explanation, including how it will deter cheaters who try artificially boost their payments, on its Web site.
The company publishes up to 4,000 stories on a good day, nearly all of which are submitted by amateurs from across the country. Its most frequently visited site, BeniciaNews.com, covers the San Francisco Bay Area suburb of Benicia, Calif., and gets as many as 500,000 page views per month, Canon said.