Can newspapers be like mega-churches?

By Steve Outing

No, this post is not about religion, it’s about media and how to pay for online news.

So the debate rages on about “micropayments” for news and other techniques to get Internet users to pay for news content, so that newspapers and other news entities get a nice supplemental revenue stream and don’t go out of business as their legacy advertising businesses drop through the floor.

If you’ve followed my blog or seen my latest column at EditorandPublisher.com, you know that I believe any model that forces people to pay for website commodity news content and puts up barriers (no matter how small a payment might be) is not only destined to fail, but could bring down some already weakened newspapers.

But the voluntary pay-for-content model (I’m most impressed so far with the Kachingle network-of-content-sites approach) has a lot of people moaning, “Voluntary schemes will never bring in serious money and certainly won’t save faltering newspapers.”

My (perhaps unusual) response: Look to churches.

Well, I guess you can pray for business redemption if that’s your thing, but I don’t think that’s going to help. But what I mean is that some churches are financial machines that are supported by voluntary donations from their members.

If people can be convinced to voluntarily give that much money to their church (they could let those collection plates slide by), I don’t think it’s unreasonable to believe that we can get news consumers to voluntarily pay a monthly fee — probably less than they give to those churches — to support their favorite news websites and blogs.

Why do church-goers fill the collection plates? And why do churches collect money in this manner? Obviously, there’s the peer pressure; you don’t want to embarrass yourself by putting nothing in the pot and having your pew neighbors notice!

So for a voluntary online content fee system to work, the news industry must apply similar persuasive techniques. If religious people value their churches enough to give regularly and significantly, I see no reason why we can’t get citizens who care about staying informed to voluntarily support the news gathering industry when they come to understand that advertising alone can no longer sustain newspapers and their websites, and other forms of news outlets.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!

14 Responses to "Can newspapers be like mega-churches?"

  1. Jonathan Este
    Jonathan Este 8 years ago .Reply

    Steve,
    I’m with you on this – but I also agree with the likes of Robert Thomson and Walter Isaakson: there are certain things – people, ideas, information, columns, etc, that I would happily pay a monthly subscription to have access to. Like a mega-church (or, to use a slightly different expression, a “broad church”, if a news organisation can give me everything I want online, from news and information, to comment and opinion, to reviews that I trust (perhaps linking to some online shopping – why stop at reviews, travel services may work in this space too).
    If that site attracts a community of people I’m interested in getting together with online for a regular verbal joust or just to pass the time of day, then rapidly it starts to give me everything I want online.
    I pay a fee to get broadband internet (rather a lot, as I live in Australia where it is expensive). Why would I begrudge paying for high-quality content.
    Quality: there’s the rub. The rush to free has been accompanied by a general deterioriation of the quality of content.
    News organisations must remember that the quality of their content will lend them authority, while the breadth and novelty of their ideas will win them new audiences.
    The Guardian is one news organisation that appears to get it and has turned itself from a mid-market liberal broadsheet with a circulation of 350,000 to a global liberal voice with 25 million unique users, two-thirds of whom are outside the UK.
    And I believe a lot of people would happily pay to be a member of their online community.

  2. David Hakala, Denver, CO
    David Hakala, Denver, CO 8 years ago .Reply

    Steve, this is the best laugh I’ve gotten out of over 500 Tweets received this week! You “see no reason” why churches’ business model won’t work for newspapers, eh? OK, I’ll play along and explain it to you:

    Newspapers sell news, most of which is depressing and I don’t want to read it but think I have to.

    Churches sell the feeling of being in Love, which nobody can get enough of.

    Might as well ask why mortuaries don’t operate like strip clubs.

  3. Martin Langeveld
    Martin Langeveld 8 years ago .Reply

    Sure, Steve, tithing for news would keep journalists in McMansions, just like megachurch preachers!

    But seriously, I think a better model for that kind of voluntary pay is NPR, which is what the big nonprofit startups like MinnPost and StLBeacon aim to emulate.

    One problem is that a good contributing base for a public radio or TV station doesn’t spring up overnight. It takes years of cajoling, fund drive after fund drive, to “train” that audience to give — I have watched this happen during the last 30 years with WAMC in Albany, NY, a station that once was supported almost 100 percent by a college and then had to build up contributing members from scratch. So I’m saying, it can be done, but it takes a long time. And you’d have to invent the equivalent of a pledge break. I can’t quite see: “We need 15 contributors during this break, before we bring the site back online.” But I don’t think a “pledge now” pop-up ad would work, either.

  4. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 8 years ago .Reply

    Jonathan: Note that I emphasized COMMODITY news content as what you don’t want to charge for. Absolutely news publishers should develop premium content that people will pay for — either one-off or subscription. Even NYTimes.com recognized that its high-value op-ed columnists (Friedman, Dowd, et al) are commodities; people weren’t willing to pay for them because they could click over to some other top columnists for free. So there’s a high bar on the content-overloaded Internet for content that people find willing to pay for.

  5. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 8 years ago .Reply

    David: I’m pleased that I made you laugh. Alas, you twist my words. I did not advocate that newspapers adopt churches’ business model. I said that if people are willing to pay to attend church (they aren’t required to pay), they may be willing to pay for commodity online news (again, which they don’t have to). Churchgoers donate to their individual churches; I’m saying that donating to individual news websites won’t work, because we Internet users visit and value many sites, while churchgoers only go to and support one church. Ergo, for a donation model to work for web news it must deploy the power of the network, making it easy for the online user to easily and automatically donate on a monthly basis, with a simple means to identify which sites and/or blogs to financially support.

    You say, “Newspapers sell news, most of which is depressing and I don’t want to read it but think I have to. Churches sell the feeling of being in Love, which nobody can get enough of.”

    I respectfully disagree. Some churchgoers donate for the “Love”; others attend and donate out of a sense of duty and tradition and because that’s how they were brought up — you just GO to church without feeling the fervor of some evangelicals.

    I can say the same sort of thing about newspapers and their websites. Some of us are news junkies and love to keep up with the news, and enjoy the fun parts (Dear Abby, comics, et al); others read news out of sense of duty but don’t enjoy it.

    “Might as well ask why mortuaries don’t operate like strip clubs.” Hmm, I’ll have to think pretty hard to come up with a rationale, but perhaps it can be done! 8^)

    I think you’re dissing me for thinking out of the box, which is exactly what newspaper executives don’t do enough of. They’re so stuck inside their boxes that they’re about to be buried still inside them.

  6. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 8 years ago .Reply

    Martin: I think I addressed your point in my response to David above. So MinnPost, StLBeacon and a thousand other sites — all worthy of people’s support — ask for money separately. That can never work, and that’s why the web developed into a primarily free-content environment, with only the very highest value content having price tags, and few sites making more than a pittance off donations. Most news content isn’t worth the typical web user paying for. That’s not saying that the content isn’t very valuable (and costly to produce), but when there’s a competitor offering the same thing for free, you’re screwed if you try to charge.

    If MinnPost and similar sites can make a bit of money from their own individual application of the NPR model, fantastic, but it won’t be enough to sustain them. And as you point out, it will take a long time to build up a decent base of user financial support.

    What I think everyone is missing — and I guess I haven’t articulated it well enough — is leveraging the power of the Internet and the several billion people now using it. MinnPost by itself asking for a monthly donation (repeated automatically on your credit card for convenience!) will grow way too slowly. But a system that includes everyone (news sites, blogs, whatever), and that those people disposed to donate money automatically each month can sign up for once, and click a Support button on every site/blog they like to give their money — well, the overall system works so that when someone signs up on another blog, that benefits your site.

    This is still theory, but I want to see it in action to find out if it will work. Google makes billions by putting AdSense ads on all manner of websites (probably millions of them). I want to see that kind of reach applied to a distributed monthly contribution model. Even if 10% of users said yes to a monthly donation to support the sites and blogs they like best, the numbers could be impressive.

    Going it alone on the NPR-like donation model? Forget it.

  7. Digidave
    Digidave 8 years ago .Reply

    I’m with you on this one Steve. It’s very much akin to Spot.us. The gift economy in the U.S. was 300 billion in 2006. Seventy-five percent of that was from individuals (228 billion). The majority of that 228 billion goes to schools and churches.

    The question is: can journalism be seen as a public good in the same way and merit some of that 228 billion.

  8. TomKoltai
    TomKoltai 8 years ago .Reply

    Actually – churches do have something to sell.
    Guilt Bandaids.
    Atonement tithes and
    Forgiveness for all that Blaspheming, cussing and fornication.

    The Baptists have an interesting way to present it – If you cussed this week then drop a dollar in the collection plate – If you blashemed this week, then it better be two dollars and if you …. fornicated – well then that better be five dollars.

  9. […] daddy? That’s not earning revenues. Paywalls, donations, tip jars, Kachingle? Forms of pay-for-content. Targeted search ads, upsells in business directory, […]

  10. Eric Kaiser
    Eric Kaiser 8 years ago .Reply

    Hmmm, if my local paper offered me eternal life I would gladly tithe to them ;+) Seriously though, as a Christian who does tithe, it’s not about any of things you wrote about here. Your analogy is so off base. I might be wrong, but my guess is you don’t go to church. And you likely did at one point but it was likely a legalistic church where it was more about how you looked and acted. However, I do think churches can offer a lot of insight into the business world, and not all of that insight involves money.
    Christians tithe as an act of worship. Not out of guilt or coercion.

  11. Rebecca Gunnels
    Rebecca Gunnels 8 years ago .Reply

    Hey – nice article – I kind of agree with Eric, there.

    Lakewood asks that you give to the church a percentage of your income and God will give it back ten-fold (or something equally exciting).

    When I attend, I almost never give – and I don’t feel guilty.

    But at yesterday’s service, they unveiled their latest project: a state-of-the-art, Mind-Body-Spirit facility for special-needs children.

    If donations are spent so generously and wisely for its people, then they will donate your $75 mil.

    Think about it.

  12. Meridith
    Meridith 8 years ago .Reply

    After reading your thoughts, I am really beginning to wonder what people will pay for when it comes to online journalism. I agree that no one wants to pay for commodity news content. If a site charges for this, it is simple to find it for free elsewhere. However, I wonder how long users will pay for premium content and interaction. I think you are right about sustaining the quality of journalism. If adds are not enough to keep online sites functioning and providing high-quality journalism, then it seems the next best option is either monthly subscriptions or donations. I agree that some people will donate in order to keep the quality, but how many people are like that? Are there enough devoted users?

  13. himagain
    himagain 8 years ago .Reply

    Once upon a time, people bought newspapers for their content. However, they were greatly supported by advertising content.
    Unfortunately, the advertisers become very important and affected the content greatly.

    Even today, the options to get your news and information while so greatly expanded, are very uniform. All you really need is a Reuters feed.

    “Donations” are for Good Causes.

    I object to the nutters in the Open Source internet program movement, who cannot grasp that there are still costs involved and ALWAYS require sponsorship/donations to survive. What would just ten bucks for a copy of Linux really mean?

    As for supporting the Times or any other publication, it is simple.
    They have to come up with a value that is perceivable by the prospect.
    News? No
    Entertainment? No
    Let them eat cake!
    If a new uni graduate can start up a free dating service for his friends in his kitchen-based computer and a year or two later be making a million a month from his part-time biz ……..
    (all from Google Ads)

    Shut down the hard-world cost elements and get out in Cyberspace for a few bucks costs. But you better be either unique, or at least honestly superior to the rest. Then the pipples will pay.
    Perception?
    $25 suitcase virtually identical to a $12,500 Louis Vuitton.

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