Thursday, May 13, 2010

Free is Dead. Long Live Free.

As debates over paywalls, online subscriptions and the more-ubiquitous Internet tip-jar continue, there’s something interesting going on at

For the last few weeks, the popular web site – owned by non-profit Consumer Reports – has been soliciting visitors for donations in the hopes of raising $10,000 to pay for spoof videos, a mobile site, and other sundry activities – obviously, a drop in the bucket in paying Consumerist’s costs and a token effort by its corporate owner to engage readers by building ownership in the site.

That is raising money by soliciting donations isn’t all that interesting – it has been done before. What I find interesting are the comments. Read any of the comment threads on posts dedicated to the fund drive and you see an interesting phenomenon: People want their money to go strictly for what they like, and do not want it funding anything they don’t like, from improving the mobile site to making spoof videos to paying the salary of a particular editor.

Part of it sounds like a kindergarten free-for-all with all the sniping, snark and complaints that go along the lines of “I love this site but because you do this (insert whatever random this you want; they’re as numerous as are the stars in the heavens) I won’t contribute.”

Part of it, turned on its head, sounds like a model to get readers to pay for the content they want, and to pay for the writers that they approve.

I’ve criticized this model before, and for good reason: Funding like this quickly would turn into a popularity contest, relegating some writers, features and topics to the wasteland as others get funding and some don’t. For a newspaper, watch sports get all the funding, with news and opinion being left as the poor orphans except for the bright spots of niche special interests from the folks who whine about potholes to those who want equal opportunity everything.

But that’s how almost everything else is done. When we go grocery shopping, we’re not forced to buy beets if we don’t like beets. If we don’t have children in diapers, we don’t have to buy diapers. We spend our money precisely on what we want and need, nothing more. We’re not forced to subsidize another’s beet or beer habit even though we don’t buy either item.

So maybe the model could work – and maybe I’m changing my tune on my thinking it couldn’t.

But watching struggle to raise even $10,000 – the drive’s been going for weeks and they’ve raised just over a third of their paltry goal – tells me it’s not a sustainable model for a big, or even a small, news organization. In other words, we’re much more willing to pay a premium on our breakfast cereal and gasoline than we are for our news – because even in the pre-Internet days, we got our newspapers for fifty cents a day, a dollar or so on Sundays, and our broadcast news for free. Consumer Reports will continue to subsidize even if they were able of soliciting a million dollars from their readers.

No comments: