Friday, June 19, 2009...7:00 am

Can a donation model fund web content?

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Media owners and publishers are, to say the least, anxious about the financial viability of journalism, given the web’s capacity for undermining the usual business model for content (buying stuff) by, basically, giving it away free.

The UK government is even thinking about annexing part of the BBC licence fee to support regional news on commercial broadcasters.

Last month saw a high-level newspaper industry meeting in Chicago to address the issue. It was a get-together that seemed to underline how clueless they really are about how to tackle the problem, according to the usual cloud of not-really-journalist-bloggers who comment on these things and are parasitic on the real thing.

But we’re not interested in problems today on Freelance Unbound. Oh no. We’re interested in solutions.

By coincidence, two supposed solutions have been sent to me within the space of days.

The first comes via the always interesting Editor and Publisher journal. The author, Steve Outing, accepts that micropayments, as lambasted convincingly here by web pundit Clay Shirky, are a non-starter.

Instead, he is very taken with a donation model being touted by a California start-up called, slightly unappealingly, Kachingle.

Outing’s article is actually way too wordy. So I’ll precis the idea here:

  • Readers who want to pay for web content as a matter of principle, but don’t want to use micropayments for individual slices of content, can pay a monthly subscription (in this case to Kachingle).
  • Publishers can sign up to the scheme and put a “medallion”, or button, on their site.
  • While they’re happily surfing the web, readers click on the Kachingle medallion for each site they enjoy visiting.
  • At the end of the month, a subscriber’s reading habits are analysed and each site they visit gets a share of the monthly subscription. The share is based on the proportion of visits each site gets.

It’s quite a neat model. The metric used (site visits) means large sites with lots of content actually do worse than, say, a blog like this. But this could be adjusted for by having a sign-up medallion on different sections of a bigger site, for example.

But will it work?

Tellingly, Kachingle isn’t actually up and running yet – it’s just a beautiful Silicon Valley idea.

Nor is it unique. Within days of receiving the link to the Kachingle story (Hat tip: Jessica), I got a notification that some company called Contenture (what’s with these ghastly names?) had started to follow me on Twitter.

Like Kachingle, Contenture also lets readers sign up and donate money to be spread around the sites they nominate and visit. The main difference is that it seems to actually be up and running (I know this because I registered. This ought to mean that eager readers who have paid their $5.99 monthly sub will be filling my bank account with cash. Except the Javascript won’t work on WordPress. Curses.)

The key question, of course, is just how eager readers will be to fork over their cash.

One problem is that, as yet, I can’t see that any sites I know are registered with one of these providers. It’s all very well signing up and handing over my cash, but unless I can see it going to sites I actually visit, it seems a bit of a waste.

And just how altruistic are web users? The one-off donation to keep a favourite site going through a crisis is one thing, but regular monthly payments are another. I can only assume the rate is set low enough so that people may sign up and not really notice the financial drain.

Yes, there are some good things about the idea.

The automatic way it parcels out your cash to the sites you visit according to how much you use them is clever, and avoids you worrying about paying for stuff you don’t read.

And the one-off, one-click mechanism is a hell of a lot simpler than clicking a payment link on every piece of content or web site you visit, or subscribing individually to endless blogs or newspaper sites.

But really, for the life of me I can’t see that this will be anything other than a gimmick.

Remember the kids who wouldn’t pay for Facebook even though they live on it? People think most content is free. And if it isn’t, they won’t, as a rule, use it.

Over at Editor and Publisher, Steve Outing loves the idea – he thinks it’s the model we’ve all been waiting for:

I think that if Google used this same model […] its size and power could in time get Internet users paying billions of dollars for online content.

I’m not so sure. If a media presence as big and ubiquitous as Google got involved then, yes, a whole chunk of the web could become part of a donation scheme. Something like the donation medallion mechanism could be included in Google’s statistics function, for example.

But it’s the consumers who are the sticking point. At some point you have to prise the money out of their clenched hands. How would that happen?

Could the government’s slightly desperate plan to, essentially, skim money from the taxpayer’s often grudging support for the BBC point the way?

Some kind of centralised taxation redistributed according to reader usage might be possible I guess. But would you be happy to get a deduction from your wages to fund web publishing?

And what about people who don’t use the web for news or content, but for email and shopping? Or who use mainly the BBC, which we paid for anyway? Or who don’t actually use the web at all?

It’s a bit of a minefield. And it just doesn’t get over the core problem – that there is an almost unlimited supply of journalism content vying for a finite amount of reader time, let alone money.

[UPDATE 17/02/10: It seems this model didn’t work for one hopeful player. Contenture has shut up shop. I don’t like to say I told you so…]


  • Nice idea, but it won’t work. As you suspect.
    ‘Fraid the only way to prise money from reluctant fingers is to offer the three things we know people WILL pay for online (because they pay for them in other industries):
    1. Data
    2. Services
    3. Software/apps
    Trad journalism is lousy at providing data (pace WSJ)… so far. Selling services direct (tailored expertise in our area) is something we’ve not even begun to think about. And software/apps are, of course, totally off most publishers’ radars.
    But I live in hope.

  • I’m still sceptical, too.
    But, Soilman, there are a lot of services online which are already free. And I’m pretty sure that nobody’s going to pay for them in future. Facebook is a service, blogging is a service, too. The problem is you can’t tell which is a good service and which is not. So you have to let the user (reader) decide what he/she thinks it is and if one’s willing to pay for the content voluntarily. If you want to have money for your work. I’m sure we have to think about totally new ways of work and payment as long as we need money as the exchange value as it is now.

  • Good point, Jessica, but I didn’t make myself as clear as I should have. I mean personalised services, ie using your expertise in a particular market to create bespoke services for clients to order.

  • freelanceunbound
    June 19th, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    I’m curious about the whole software/apps idea. What kind of product would the media offer in that line? Blogging software? Er, free with WordPress. CMS? Er, free with Drupal et al. Special tools to track reader behaviour and monetise content? Free, too, with Google et al.
    More on this please, if you wouldn’t mind…

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