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!

17 Responses to " asks for donations (too subtly)"

  1. abbie hoffman
    abbie hoffman 8 years ago .Reply

    Steve may have a few valid points, but his idea of “tracking frequent readers” strikes me as a misguided technologist solution, and it’s little Orwellian. When did it become newspapers’ role to stalk and shake down frequent online readers? Whatever happened to privacy?

  2. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 8 years ago .Reply

    Abbie: I wouldn’t call tracking readers (anonymously) Orwellian. This sort of thing is routine practice by the online ad industry and indeed many news sites. Nor is it a way to “stalk and shake down” frequent online readers, since it’s *asking* for a voluntary donation. Don’t want to donate? Click “no, thanks.”

    The term “shake down frequent online readers” might better apply to forced paywall models at some news sites and supported by vendors like Journalism Online. One JO option is to have a mandatory paywall appear after X number of articles are viewed. Unlike the voluntary approach above, the user has no choice but to pay up or go elsewhere.

    I’m experimenting with an alpha service on this site called Surfshare. If you read I think it’s 5 articles on my site, next time you click a link you’ll see a pop-up/overlay asking if you’d like to support my site (since I know you’re a regular reader). Options include: no thanks and keeping reading; sign up to pay 1 cent for each article you view; or make an instant donation (tip) of various amounts. On the latter, it’s a 1-click experience if you choose one of the preset options; or an additional click or two to choose your own amount.

    Again, an experiment. And Surfshare’s developer, Jeff Reitman, is playing around with all sorts of ideas.

  3. Nick Jungman
    Nick Jungman 8 years ago .Reply

    I wonder about an approach that creates some peer pressure to donate. The Herald uses a Pluck commenting system with prominent avatar images. What if a donation at a minimum level (say, $30 a year) gets you a “member” badge on your avatar. Suddenly, you’re proclaiming to the community that you’re a real member of it, not just an in-and-out gadfly. Every serious commenter would probably feel some urge to join the club.

    This is not an original idea. I’m a board game enthusiast, and this approach seems to work very well on a site I frequent called Perhaps the enthusiasm for local news is not at geek-level strength, but I’d say it’s worth a shot.

  4. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 8 years ago .Reply

    Nick: That’s exactly the kind of thinking that the Herald staff should be doing. Peer pressure, social signals … I think that’s the ticket when it comes to voluntary donations.

  5. abbie hoffman
    abbie hoffman 8 years ago .Reply

    Thanks for the clarification Steve. Orwellian may have been an unfair descriptor. But online content managers should still remember that newspapers are rooted in public service and not all readers, frequent or otherwise, can pony up to PayPal after five clicks. Say, for instance, you’re writing a series about the CIA, the Contras, crack cocaine and South Central L.A. Do you want to limit your online circulation to those with credit cards?

  6. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 8 years ago .Reply

    Abbie: That’s one reason I’m not fond of mandatory paywalls for news on the web; it could prevent a low-income person from going to the public library to use its computers and Internet access from reading the news. The voluntary approach solves that. The trick is to figure out techniques to persuade those who can afford it to pony up, which I believe can be done with the right psychological, social-pressure, and user interface techniques, as well as (more importantly) voluntary “membership” programs that dole out extra benefits to paying members.

  7. Raj Mehta
    Raj Mehta 8 years ago .Reply

    A model we are offering includes several of Steve’s ideas. We’re days away from deploying to a medium sized publisher and will share that on this forum shortly.

    Our model allows a “network” approach. A user starts with a small free credit with a very simple registration (name, email). She can use the system on multiple sites seamlessly, without requiring to re-login or provide credit card info.

    We’re working with our publisher customers in defining ideas that people would pay for. For example, provide the article for free, but request a donation when reader clicks on an embedded video.

    I’m curious about the results of Miami Herald as well.

    Thanks for a great blog.


  8. Jon Donley
    Jon Donley 8 years ago .Reply

    Newspapers rooted in public service? The people at a newspaper who believe their careers are public service are exactly those most likely to be laid off. Newspapers are rooted in profit margins. They have many times performed public services, but it’s never been the cornerstone of the business. Hence the current mess. The cornerstone of the newspaper business has been advertising revenue – classified and display. Public service is a byproduct of the business, not the root.

    Most journalists I rub elbows are true believers in journalism as public service. But that’s not what drives the Newspaper Factory. “Journalism” in the board room is what drives circulation and advertising.

  9. Just Me
    Just Me 8 years ago .Reply

    Newspapers are unique in that they are rooted in public service but also require a fee to pay for items of ink, paper, reportes pay, etc. Thus they turned to charging a fee for the paper, and to advertising for a supplemental income.
    Its been my opinion news sources (paper and tv media) should charge for electronic content as they do for the paper. The obvious method would be a quick summary of the headline/story with a fee for detailed or complete information. Let the user decide how far to proceed but also keep them quickly informed. Of course, some information would have to be provided for free, ie, elections, city meetings, emergency service information. Just my 2 cents.

  10. […] »  Is the Miami Herald asking for donations too subtly (and clumsily) on its website? [Steve Outing] […]

  11. Richard R. Klicki
    Richard R. Klicki 8 years ago .Reply

    I totally agree, Steve. In fact, I’ve often wondered why newspapers don’t adopt the Amazon business model. Track where your regualar readers are going on your site and offer related material (but, unlike Amazon, for a nominal fee), packaged and delivered when the reader wants it, in the format he prefers (e-mail, mobile, Kindle, etc.) People generally are willing to pay for a something that provides individual value and convenience.

  12. Jerry Baker
    Jerry Baker 8 years ago .Reply

    I saw Gary Weiss’ comments about this, posted on Beethoven’s birthday, on his blog. Gary doesn’t like the idea of newspapers adopting the manner of mendicant entertainers, à la Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” Mr. Bo Jingles, and Joni Mitchell’s “one-man band, by the Quick Lunch stand, he was playin’ real good, for free.”
    This is something to consider.

  13. […] asks for donations (too subtly), […]

  14. Bill Garber
    Bill Garber 8 years ago .Reply

    When the Miami Herald asks for quarters on the street but leaves their boxes open is when I’ll believe they believe in donations.

  15. Anders Gyllenhaal
    Anders Gyllenhaal 8 years ago .Reply

    Steve, first thank you for your thoughtful critique of The Herald’s donation experiment. We aboslutely view this as a modest starting point to test the waters. I think the reaction both in South Florida and beyond says this is a worthy idea that needs to evolve based on how readers make use of it. There’s no question that the appeal isn’t prominent enough and that the actual pay system needs work. But we thought it best to take the low-key approach in the beginning. We’re a week into this and talking a great deal about how to make it better, which is the only way to really test out this idea. Again, thanks for all the feedback on this.

  16. Frymaster
    Frymaster 8 years ago .Reply

    Well, I’m late to the party. “Curiouser and curiouser” keeps ringing in my head. I’m certainly interested in MH’s results and yours, Steve.

    But rather than talk logistics, let’s do the ‘higher math’.

    Equation 1: Online CPMs
    This is a complex equation that sets the value of an impression. By releasing inventory to “the networks”, NPs have effectively decimated their own CPMs, and I think the CBS move to cut the networks entirely will generate important data for this equation. Other key variables: click-thru rates, awareness (eye-tracking shows horrifying results), relevance, and engagement (time spent per session).

    Equation 2: Content vs Community
    Is Content still King? Maybe, maybe not. Community is a strong, strong rival. Where Content is the NPs strength, Community is their weakness. And the trend is toward Community. At some point, it won’t matter how good the content is because community-driven information will be essentially equal. CF, Sacramento Press.

    Equation 3: Us and Them (Paywalls or any other kind of wall)
    Anders, I call to your attention a small matter of language. On your story today, you refer to “readers”, but Steve refers to “users” here. He uses the more accurate term, and, IMO, NPs failure to understand this core concept represents their largest stumbling block. Symptoms other than chronically calling users ‘readers’: source articles have no links or only links to internal pages, link URLs in comments do not render as ‘hot’ links, comments are not moderated, journalists/authors do not interact with users (you get full marks here, Anders), commenting rules not fully disclosed (including available tags), site requires login but does not use any common ID systems (OpenID, Disqus, IntenseDebate, etc). I could go on and on.

    So these three equations are swirling around, interacting with each other. In my analysis, NP efforts will almost inevitably fail because thus far they have only approached one or a few variables within any one equation. Success would only come through dumb luck.

    Given enough time and enough experimentation by enough different newspapers, we could probably greatly simplify these equations, if not solve them entirely.

    But if the newspapers have failed to give themselves enough time for enough of them to do enough experiments to cobble together a solution, what then?

    Why not start _now_ with a systemic approach that seeks to drive user engagement (views, time spent) by building community around the content to create opportunities to place high(er) CPM ads that are relevant to the community and the content?

  17. […] »  Is the Miami Herald asking for donations too subtly (and clumsily) on its website? [Steve Outing] […]

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