by Emily W. Sussman
Maybe it’s just the idealistic blogosphere in which I immerse myself, but the rallying cry of “reader donations will ensure the survival of journalism!” seems to be picking up steam. Jason Preston of EatSleepPublish has a post this week about why local news sites like West Seattle Blog ought to offer their readers a “voluntary subscription” option.
As always with persuading people to adopt new ideas, it’s all in the pitch, and I think Preston is really on to something. At first glance, the term “voluntary subscriptions” may sound meaningless, cryptic, or a sucker’s game. (After all, the content’s already free.) But by creating a commodity (i.e., a value-added subscription) out of what is essentially a donation, it communicates to the readers that they would be getting something for kicking in some bucks — which, of course, they would.
Here’s how it would work: The site’s creators would post a secure link (via PayPal or Kachingle) on their homepage — through which readers could set up a recurring donation of, say, $5 or $10 per month. Alongside this link, of course, would be an explanation of the benefits of doing so.
And what, pray tell, are those? As a “subscriber,” you, dear reader, would be given a more prominent forum in which to post your responses to the site’s stories, plus maybe something tangible, like a beautiful print of the Seattle skyline.
As a local-blog consumer myself, I immediately thought, would this be valuable to me? Well, the Seattle skyline print is in the tried-and-true NPR coffee mug vein, but I think the former is an irresistible offer, given the contentious nature of local politics and citizens’ hard-wired desire to chime in on the debate du jour.
The alternative, of course, is to pitch donations as an act of goodwill, whereby you, dear reader, would get the blissful psychic reassurance that your valued news sites would continue to exist — as well as being able to enhance your own social status by announcing your philanthropic acts (however small) on a platform like Facebook. (For the record, I still think that could work for younger readers who use their social networking profile pages as a means of identity.)
But Preston knows there’s another pitch involved, too: persuading WSB’s creators that pushing the “voluntary subscription” concept and payment link wouldn’t scare off their readers. It would be easy enough to appeal to their pragmatic side — as in, hey, guys, the days of free-flowing ad revenue are rapidly diminishing, so what’s Plan B? — but instead, he appeals to… wait for it… their journalistic values (gasp!).
How? Getting an additional source of revenue from readers, he points out, would make WSB’s editorial content less subservient to the necessarily self-interested demands of its advertisers. And in these troubling days of disappearing newspapers, he notes, that kind of insurance will be critical as blogs start to pick up the duty of investigative reporting. (Note: I’m not saying WSB ordinarily kowtows to their advertisers, but realistically, every ad-supported publication has to deal with the issue to some extent or another.)
And who knows? Maybe readers would start to see the value of that editorial independence, too. After all, it seems to work pretty well with NPR listeners (and they just get a silly coffee mug).