Update: Miami Herald pulls the tip jar

The Miami Herald this week decided to pull the plug on one of the more unique experiments in paid online content — the voluntary pay program, or as it was known among media critics, the  ‘tip jar.’

The program started last December with the paper politely asking readers to make a donation whenever they read a story on the Herald’s Web site. Although the Herald did not disclose just how much money it collected through the program, it is assumed that it barely generated any cash for the paper.

Give the Herald credit for trying it. But as we’ve seen from other attempts at soliciting payments to read online news, the public isn’t ready to give up free content the way they gave up free television to cable and satellite in the ’80s and ’90s.

I think tip jars do have some merit for garnering minor revenue, and in hindsight maybe the Herald went about it all  wrong. Tips tend to be of a personal nature, a reward given to a person for a job well done. They rarely are given to aid a large, faceless business. For example, when you go into a Starbucks, you’ll find a tip jar at every counter. But people who put money in the jar are not doing so to contribute to Starbucks’ corporate success. They are contributing to the hard-working barristas behind the counter as a way of saying thank you for excellent service.

Would people tip a big, faceless newspaper for a well-done story, or would they be more likely to tip the reporter writing the story, or the photographer who took the photo? If the Miami Herald said in its plea that the donation would help reporter Joe Smith keep his house and ward off his creditors, would readers be more sensitive to tipping?

Like the barristas — and waiters, bartenders, barbers and all those who receive tips on a regular basis — I wouldn’t expect to make a decent living off such a tip jar. But, it may be a way for journalists — especially freelancers or independent bloggers — to make a few extra bucks to help support their work.

A lesson from the past speaks to the pay wall debate

A recent discussion I had about online pay walls  stirred an old memory that, in today’s debate, still holds a current lesson.

In the early 1980s, I worked for a small newspaper group in northern Illinois. I was managing editor at the one daily newspaper the group owned; the remaining papers were weeklies in small communities. A corporate decision as made to start a new weekly in the second largest town in our county, which also happened to be the county seat. It was the only part of the county we didn’t have a presence in, but the town itself had a long-established daily newspaper owned by another group.

The man assigned to the project was a young, out-of-the-box thinker. His plan was to launch the paper with free blanket delivery to all households for the first six weeks. During that time, a massive subscription drive would try to sign up  readers who were willing to pay a smaller price than the daily newspaper – and get a local paper weekly.

However, as the end of the free sampling period neared, few new subscribers were signing up.  So, to show what these potential subscribers would be missing when the freebies stopped, the young GM had an idea.

One the first week of paid delivery, two sets of papers were printed. Subscribers got the normal newspaper. For the rest, they found a similar newspaper on their driveways– only without news copy, photos or advertising. It was a paper that contained only headlines and photo captions — and lots of white space — with a banner line saying “See what you missed.” A postcard to subscribe to the paper was inserted inside.

The two-paper deliveries went on for another two weeks, and it shouldn’t be surprising that the event failed to grab a single new subscriber.

It wasn’t that the paper was bad. The small editorial staff did a nice  job providing news and features, and the advertising staff did get a number of commitments for the start-up. What they failed to do was sell the paper to readers, who felt the paper just wasn’t valuable enough to their lives or not unique enough to switch from the already-established newspaper.

Fast forward almost 30 years, and we’re watching a number of news web sites try to establish pay sites with limited luck. It seems that, unless you’re the only game in town, online readers aren’t finding much interest in blanket subscriptions.

It’s not that people don’t want to pay. They just want value in return for what they’re paying for.

Are you sure you’re providing that?

Respect the content; respect the writer

An interesting conversation was brought up from blogger Alan Mutter, who recently issued a battle cry for journalists being paid nothing — or next to nothing — for their work in traditional and non-traditional news sites. His call: Journalists should just say no to working  for nothing, and start demanding they be paid like the professionals they are.

Numerous readers … many of the part of the ‘exploited’ group Mutter was talking to … responded that while the idea was well-received, the reality is that news organizations traditionally paid next-to-nothing for content. Coupled with the increased pool of unemployed and underemployed journalists seeking work, any efforts to demand a reasonable compensation will be undercut by those who are willing to work for nothing.

Mutter’s well-positioned response to that argument can be read here.

While the nay-sayers are steeped in the fact of the present, I’m amazed that so many freelance and unemployed journalist are willing to accept their fate. Granted, being in the midst of a serious economic downturn isn’t helping the industry any, but those who chose to make journalism their livelihood should be willing to fight to support the credibility and respect it deserves.

Successful online sites like Huffington Post, examiner.com, etc., are surviving and thriving on the ‘low overhead’ of not paying — or paying at minimal levels — for its content. In many ways,writers are making less now than they did at that first job they held while going to j-school. That is just not right

You would think that journalists — who work hard to right the wrongs of others — seem to accept this fate for themselves.  Journalists must come to the realize that they are college-educated professionals, trained in a craft that has value to its customers. Businesses that rely on content produced by journalists  need to respect that and pay a reasonable compensation.

Ironically, it seems that employers outside the news industry recognize that. My wife and I both have done contract work writing and editing for other businesses. We have submitted invoices that would make Arianna Huffington laugh so hard she’d spit milk through her nose — but we are paid without question. I’m sure a lot of freelance writers have noticed the same thing.

 I can understand that start-ups companies may have a problem paying a stable of writers a decent living wage. But if a start-up is truly committed to success, it may want to consider hiring a select group of writers and offering an incentive package that would give writers a share of the company’s success once it becomes successful. Start-ups in the Silicone Valley in the 1980s used stock options to entice new talent to help build the company with the reward of sharing in its success later. Probably not a good option today, but creative compensation could help a new content provider entice and keep writers by giving them a stake in the company’s success.

Allowing the Huffington Post content model to continue in the industry lessens the value of content and the respect of those who create it. It’s time for employers to respect the writer and compensate them as professionals. It’s time for writers to respect themselves as the professionals they are and demand reasonable compensation for their work.

The last blogger on earth to weigh in on the iPad

OK, I may be slow in responding, but I felt I needed some time to really digest whether Apple’s new creation would really save the newspaper industry.  But now that the hype and hoopla over the iPad is making way to Super Bowl fever, it might be a good time to reflect on just what that all could mean.

And in the calm, it becomes clear: The iPad is not the savior of the industry. But it can be a help, if publishers are willing to accept it and utilize its potentials.

The device itself is not the must-have replacement for everything you already own. But, in reality, it has raised the standards of the e-reader to a point where publishers — if they are wise enough to recognize it — can create a revenue stream by providing a news product that offers readers an experience they cannot get from the web or print.

The iPad could be a Kindle-killer if Amazon doesn’t upgrade the product to meet the new capabilities (i.e. full-color touchscreen, ability to play videos, etc.). Same with Sony, who is also trying to carve a niche in the e-reader market as well.

What the iPad offers to e-readers is a multisensory reading experience. For example, instead of just reading “Where the Wild Things Are” to your kids at bedtime, the iPad can also offer the color illustrations and, if taken a step further, animation or video as well.

This multisensory experience is something publishers need to tap into. I expect that, in the rush to be a part of the iPad bandwagon, most newspapers will simply offer a slightly larger version of its iPhone app, or at minimum set up a PDF version of its print edition (or maybe a version of the print that uses the “page turning” technology of e-books). Unfortunately, this offers nothing new to the readers, and I expect that most will not use it. Those who do will probably not be willing to pay a premium for it.

Publishers need to take a serious look at developing products that offer iPad readers an ‘experience’ beyond what they are currently used to getting from other platforms. This will mean some R&D investment in developing products that integrate words, audio, video, animation and graphics to tell and analyze the news. This experience can set up two-way dialogs without going to third-party sites like Facebook or Twitter, and can also be used to enhance ads that can directly connect your advertiser to his target audience.

Two great examples of the potential of this reader experience are flyp, a multimedia e-magazine which does an excellent job in merging different storytelling forms into a unique reading experience, and the Sports Illustrated demo for tablet media I highlighted in  a previous posting.

The reading experience can create a renewed value of your content. The iPad and subsequent readers could bring back the “wow” factor for readers, and that could translate into a product readers will be willing to pay for.

Bottom line, I fear if current conditions continue, publishers will be faced with the reality that keeping a press will become too expensive. If publisher are proactive with the this emerging technology instead of being reactive, they may be able to transfer the newspaper reading experience from one medium to another without giving away the goose.

The iPad isn’t the answer, but  the new standard its set for e-readers is. It’s now up to our industry to meet that standard.