Soliciting contributions from community members has its perks. It obviously saves money, gives a place for community members to express themselves, and can attract a readership of people who are interested in the same issues as the writers, and that traffic and be leveraged for advertising dollars. But at what point does a venture like that just become another content farm, or another About.com, with bland, badly written articles by people with no critical distance from their subject matter? Loy concedes that this type of content doesn’t work for everything. “I get that some types of stories need to have some standard of fact checking,” says Loy, but, that being said, he reiterates: “the premise that paying pros creates a higher quality product, that’s a wrong assumption.” In his experience, he feels there is actually an inverse relationship between payment and quality: “The people who are not quite as good are the ones who usually demand more money.”

Loy’s perspective, of course, does not necessarily reflect the opinion of other individuals who were involved in New West. His observations come from his standpoint as an investor, or as he said, a “non-journalist.” “There seems to be a curious spectrum in the journalism community that quality is a function of dispassion, which may have been true at one time, when the media industry was more concentrated,” says Loy. From a business perspective, Loy’s interested in a for-profit media company that can actually survive, and make some money. “All the hand wringing about the future of media, at least half of it is the result of people not being comfortable with what actually does work,” says Loy. “A lot of media organizations are writing their obituaries by taking that stance.”

He goes on to say that the “eat-your-peas school of journalism, that’s what Jon [Weber] called it, that’s just not what works anymore. In my view, the market has spoken. In terms of viewership and readership, what people care about is how someone curates content, someone who is passionate about the community. Nobody seems to care that much if they are biased.” And for those who do this as a career? “People who view themselves as, ‘my skills are in dispassionately telling a fact driven, unbiased story, and I expect to get paid a professional salary to do that,’ are getting beat in every arena by less professionally trained, more passionate curators around content in that arena.”

But it’s not just a question of bias, or passion, or professional vs. amateur, but one of producing consistently readable content, and developing reliable writers. Courtney Lowery, who served as editor and food and agriculture contributor until 2010, co-founded New West with Weber, and says the citizen journalism part of their site made a lot of sense. “Our theory, shared by a lot of thinkers in the media, was there’s all these engaged citizens in these communities, and we can offer a voice for them.” They tweaked the idea a lot. “We started out with this submit your own article, we eventually called it a citizen journalism section, then we called it unfiltered,” says Lowery. But making it work proved challenging. “We found out that writing is work, but we all knew that. Doing big-J journalism is even more work, so it was difficult to get people to write about that.”

“On the other hand,” says Lowery, “we had people who wanted to do what we now know as blogging; the here’s-a-window-into-my-world sort of writing.” Lowery says this approach proved successful, and the community blog section, as it came to be called, cut contributors a check based on the amount of CPMs they received. Still, it was a delicate balance. “It was sticky from a trust standpoint for our readers. It was difficult to differentiate to our readers, like ‘hey, this is stuff we really stand behind, and this is stuff unfiltered by us.’” She says the pro-am model is still one that needs to be figured out, and its not as simple as it sounds. “It takes a smart editor to find and cultivate these writers, keep them happy, and put it together in a way that makes sense and gives context to where these voices fit in the community landscape.”

Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR.