asks for donations (too subtly)

By Steve Outing

I seem to be one of the few media writers who believes that there’s potential for newspapers to earn a decent revenue stream from donations by loyal website users (and even drive-by’s who want to reward journalistic excellence). It’s not that I think it’s going to save lots of newsroom jobs, but done right, asking readers to support the cost of professional journalists covering their communities could become one of multiple revenue streams that keeps newsrooms alive.

The Miami Herald has begun asking its users for donations to support its news operation, though it’s so subtle that I doubt many people visiting its website will even notice. Perhaps this is just dipping a toe in the water to see what happens, and a better-thought-out or alternative model will come later.

I couldn’t spot any call for voluntary donations on the site’s homepage, but at the end of each article is this small graphic, at right, which reads, “Support ongoing news coverage on – Click here.” That click will lead you to a donation page, which includes this:

There’s also a form with lots of fields to fill out, and you can pay whatever amount you want with a credit card.

Ugh. Talk about how not to do this. It’ll likely fail miserably unless the Herald changes its approach to asking for donations. Then Herald executives can dismiss the whole notion of asking for money as pointless.

First, here’s what’s wrong with how is asking for reader support now:

  1. Only alert is at the end of an article, and the graphic is small and competes against a bunch of other surrounding links and graphics. Eyetracking and other newspaper website readership studies demonstrate that few people reading a news website make it to the end of an article, especially a long one. And from my experience five years ago doing a website eyetracking study at the Poynter Institute, I can tell you that most people who reach the end of a story will not move their eyes below the last paragraph.
  2. This approach is really unsophisticated. How about instead tracking frequent readers, and presenting them with a donation pitch after they’ve read a number of articles? And put it in front of their eyes, like between the headline and the first paragraph of, say, the 10th story they’ve read on your site.
  3. The only payment option is by credit card! Not even Paypal? That’s dumb.
  4. The rule on the web, if you want people to do something specific, is to make it easy. Heard of Amazon One-Click? People who can be convinced to donate something to the website should be able to do it easily, in as few clicks as possible.
  5. I question the approach of an open donation amount. Better results will come by offering different specific donation levels. Or offer something back in the form of packages, with better goodies going with higher-priced donation selections. Listen to any NPR outlet’s pledge drive and learn form the experts.

I’ve written quite a bit in the last year about creative approaches to getting online users to support news websites and blogs. The “tip jar” approach begun by the Herald is pretty much the least creative option, and one that’s been rejected by entrepreneurs I’ve met this year who are trying to crack the code on online-content user financial support.

No one knows yet what will work. My gut tells me that a network approach, where web users can set aside money and easily give it to sites and blogs that they like the most with a simple click, will yield better results than every newspaper website separately begging for donations. Kachingle is one such experiment. (Disclaimer.)

It should be mentioned that a Kachingle competitor with a model which had similarities, Contenture, has gone out of business. A notice on its site says:

“Thank you to everyone who believed in our service by installing it on their site or signing up for a paid account. Unfortunately, we were unable to get any big publishers to use the service, which was going to be the key to our success. Without any large publishers, the economics just don’t work.”

Well, that’s interesting. Rather than try something innovative that just might work, big publishers like the Herald would rather try a lame donation experiment that is so unsophisticated that it’s certain to fail. WTF?

(Note: I’m writing this late at night, and haven’t spoken to or e-mailed anyone at, so I don’t know their side of the story. They’re welcome to respond below in the comments, or contact me. If I can fit it my day on Wednesday, I’ll reach out to them to get a reaction and any information about their plans that I’m not aware of.)

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!