Voluntary Subscriptions: A New Spin on Pitching Reader Donations

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).


4 responses to “Voluntary Subscriptions: A New Spin on Pitching Reader Donations

  1. The NPR model works for NPR because of several factors. First, it offers the best in-depth radio news service available to the American audience. People know they’re getting something they can’t get elsewhere and they want to sustain its quality–so they give. (And remember, 90% of the audience DOESN’T give). Second, the audience knows NPR is non-commercial and non-profit. NPR exists to serve its audience with good programming–it’s not shilling products to pay for executive bonuses. Third, who else in radio serves educated liberals? It’s their only option—and both NPR and local stations are great at targeting that audience and massaging it with warm, fuzzy, multicultural, tree-hugging fellowship.

    Would the blogger asking for voluntary contributions offer a service not otherwise available? He/she would have to be pretty damn great—or at least be distinctive in a way that couldn’t be duplicated. This is good, of course, because “the marketplace” would be at work. In other words, the cream would rise to the top and the ranters and gasbags would return to AM radio. The blogger could not get away with claiming to be a non-proft, but people drop money into the corner busker’s hat all the time, don’t they? Okay, not much and not often. Have you ever worked for tips? The easiest part should be cultivating a given audience. I remember when I first heard about Romenesko—wow something for people like ME! There have to be treats for the audience. Or, as I once heard Bette Midler sing: “Pretty little legs—great big knockers—keep them comin’ round for more.”

    Nice job. Keep up the great work and keep me posted.

  2. For what it’s worth, since it’s come up again here, we’ve responded to Jason’s thoughtful post with explanations of why it wouldn’t be right for us, at least not at this time.

    For Mr. Edwards, we are not “bloggers” – we are journalists who publish in blog format. “Blog” is like “newspaper,” just a publishing format. (I wouldn’t have it in our name except that our site started three years ago as a somewhat more typical blog-format site, opinion and observation, but now we report local news 24/7. )

  3. Emily – thanks for the great summary. When you put it this way, I actually sound halfway intelligence.

    Tracy – I’ve been meaning to work up a response to your awesome comment, but I haven’t yet found the time.

    In short, I think you have an opportunity to morph your paypal donation button into something a bit more powerful without too much clutterification.


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