‘Voluntary won’t work!’ reminds me of ‘Craig who?’

By Steve Outing

Almost forgot to plug my latest Editor & Publisher Online column here: “Readers Want to Pay for News Online — So Let Them.”

It’s a summary of the growing number of solutions to allow online users to voluntarily financially support the websites and blogs they visit, or like, or individual stories (and other content). A growing number of Internet entrepreneurs have concluded that asking people to pay for web content rather than demanding them to do so; utilizing networks to make voluntary support of many online publishers easy; and making the barriers or “mental transactions” extremely low to contribute is more promising than competing plans to put price tags or subscription walls on online news. They’re using not only technology, but also leveraging the power of social networking and psychological techniques like “social proof” to encourage contributions.

A lot of traditional media people are skeptical that any scheme to make money on the web by just “asking,” a la National Public Radio or Public Broadcasting Service outlets’ fund drives, can work. A couple of my friends who I’d put in the “digital media guru” category have even expressed dismay that I think the voluntary schemes have a chance at creating revenues streams that amount to more than a trickle.

Because the services I write about in the column are so new, or aren’t yet launched, there’s no track record to cite. We need some publishers to take this model seriously and experiment with these new services, adding optional contributions by online users to their other revenue streams. (Advertising of course will remain dominant for many or most websites, especially news sites, though I can envision some popular, quality blogs making more from reader contributions.)

The knee-jerk rejection of the voluntary model that I’m encountering so much of reminds me of a few years ago when Craigslist really started to boom and chip away at newspapers’ classifieds revenue. Most newspaper publishers and classifieds managers back then dismissed Craigslist as a threat, and even as Craig Newmark and his small team were making paid newspaper classifieds evaporate with their offer of free web ads, the newspaper executives ignored him. Many had not even heard of Craig Newmark, and if they knew what he was doing, they considered him a pesky fly and not a mortal threat.

I hope my traditional-media colleagues will read my column and take it seriously. Otherwise, it will be the bloggers and online entrepreneurs who implement the voluntary solutions first, and they’ll pocket the money as old-media entities bypass yet another opportunity because it falls outside their comfort zone.

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!