‘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!

3 Responses to "‘Voluntary won’t work!’ reminds me of ‘Craig who?’"

  1. Crosbie Fitch
    Crosbie Fitch 8 years ago .Reply

    I think this approach should be called micropatronage.

    It’s enabling each of the most interested members of the audience to pay the artist a little to produce and publish good work – instead of a wealthy few patrons (state or plutocrat).

    This is a reversion to the natural business model for intellectual work. The 18th century legal artifice that enabled the sale of copies is over (the public are taking back their natural liberty to make copies).

  2. Stu Lowndes
    Stu Lowndes 8 years ago .Reply


    I have difficulty with two words: Free and voluntary.

    Newspapers continue to be a “viable” media entity because print advertisers continue to believe the spiel of paper-backed power brokers, a rather disturbing reflection of an industry founded on the premise of public truths and private interests.

    These carpetbaggers continue to grasp at straws, unwilling to change, unwilling to adapt, and unwilling to accept the many visions of a digital marketplace. They seem to find comfort and security in the company of fools and charlatans.

    Meanwhile, FREE in the media has usually been bought and paid for by the consumer with the compliments of Widgets Inc., Preparation-H, and Benny the Barber. The editorial message is spiced and sliced and packaged with a need or a want or a desire to buy or sell in a never-ending game of publicity and promotion.

    And, now, in this dawn of digital delivery the newspaper publisher would like the reader to pay for editorial content? Even 10 cents a yarn is exorbitant if the article or page has been pre-paid by an advertiser.

    It’s getting a little ridiculous to see some newspapers charge for content … to read an obit!

    Voluntary financial support?

    Wikipedia, yes.

    The Daily Rag, no.

    If you have to ask why, you’re part of the problem, not the solution.

    Mandatory fees?

    Try it.


    Prove me wrong.

  3. Digidave
    Digidave 8 years ago .Reply

    I would like to graciously throw Spot.Us in the ring.

    It isn’t as “micro” as the ones above. But it is a way for news organizations to solicit donations to help pay for their freelancers.


    And keep up the good stuff Steve.

Leave your comment