As newspapers continue the struggle to adapt and survive in a digital world, just about everyone in the business is trying to figure out how to make journalism a profitable exercise in the 21st century, especially online.

Charging for content is back in vogue, but charging for valuable content that publishers have foolishly devalued through ad-supported business models that don’t look so great today is a tough proposition.

The Huffington Post, the American political news blog founded by political personality Arianna Huffington, is trying a new model. It has teamed up with The Atlantic Philanthropies and a number of other donors to launch the Huffington Post Investigative Fund.

The Fund was started with the specific goal of helping to save investigative journalism and will support 10 staff journalists with its initial annual budget of $1.75m. The Fund’s staff journalists will work with freelance journalists and focus on the most important news topics on the other side of the pond. Their stories will be published on the HuffPo but will also be made available simultaneously at no charge to any publication or websites that wants to make use of them.

While the HuffPo has a strong liberal slant, Fund director Nick Penniman stresses that it will report in a non-partisan fashion and noted that any failure to treat stories in an objective manner would be self-defeating.

So is this a viable model that could be scaled out to help save the type of journalism cash-rich newspapers previously supported?

It is certainly an interesting approach. As newspapers and digital publications alike struggle to find viable business models amidst a global recession that has advertisers cutting back, journalism seems like a worthy cause for non-profit foundations that are tasked with contributing to the public good.

As David Bauder of the AP notes in his article, “Foundation-based journalism will also require organizations to prove that
situations are being looked at with a truly open mind, a larger burden than that
faced by newspapers.
” Another plus.

But I do have my doubts. The Huffington Post Investigative Fund sounds like a nice idea but 10 staff journalists is hardly enough to cover everything. Just how many of these sorts of programs foundations can support, especially when many of them are having financial troubles, remains to be seen.

There’s also the question of the HuffPo as a for-profit venture. Despite having raised around $20m, it employs only 7 full-time staff journalists and relies heavily on guest authors who aren’t paid with anything more than exposure. The HuffPo has come under criticism for this.

The HuffPo’s critics do have a point and the cynical part of me sees the Fund as little more than a way for the HuffPo to acquire new content without having to pay for it. Even though the content the Fund produces will be shared publicly with anyone who wants it, that’s probably of little consequence to the HuffPo, which is one of the most trafficked political blogs on the web; all it cares about is acquiring more content at the lowest cost possible to generate more ad inventory.

So while I hope that the Huffington Post Investigative Fund contributes to journalism, what would be really nice: to see a company like the HuffPo find a sustainable business model that allows it to hire more journalists using actual revenue generated by operations, not donors.

That we’re apparently still searching for.

Photo credit: inju via Flickr.