Times are tough for the traditional news organizations. Their business models battered, many question the future viability of the investigative journalism these organizations have historically funded.

Some suggest that nimble internet-based upstarts, possibly staffed with citizen journalists and volunteers, are the future. With lower overhead, these new media upstarts may be able to step in and fill the void. Or so the thinking goes.

But it may not be that easy. Wikileaks, an anonymous award-winning whistleblower website that has hosted a number of prominent leaked documents since its founding in 2007, has been forced to shut down because of, you guessed it, a lack of money.

Text on the Wikileaks website currently reads “We protect the world—but will you protect us?” and the non-profit organization that runs Wikileaks, the Sunshine Press, is asking for donations. Its annual costs approach $200,000 and that’s without staff being paid (that would bring the total to $600,000). So far, Sunshine Press has only raised $130,000 for 2010.

While the Wikileaks websites declares that it will be back online “soon“, its parent’s financial situation makes it clear: despite the fact that the documents it has obtained are of significant value to the public and have been the subject of front-page news, Wikileaks faces the same challenges as any other news organization. Despite its low operating costs in comparison, to say, the overhead of a New York Times or Washington Post, Wikileaks still struggles to bring in more than it spends.

Obviously, Wikileaks is run by a non-profit. There’s no robust moneymaking model. But even if Wikileaks was filled with obtrusive ads, for instance, a quick look at its traffic figures makes it pretty clear: there’s no way Wikileaks could generate enough advertising revenue to be a self-sustaining enterprise. Which is in reality the same problem that most traditional news organizations are facing. No matter how hard they try, the value of what they offer to the public always costs more to provide than what it brings back in the form of money. Even though the intangible value of what’s being offered is really, really high.

There are no easy answers here, and it’s not encouraging to see such an important example of the power of the internet struggle to raise less money than popular gossip blogs pull in each month. As I think about Wikileaks’ dilemma, it occurs to me that in an ideal world, a company like AOL, which says it is trying to ‘reinvent‘ journalism, might pony up a donation so that its freelancers can develop the stories that await behind Wikileaks documents, but I suppose there’s about as much chance of that happening as, well, AOL reinventing journalism.

Photo credit: Muhammad Adnan Asim via Flickr.