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.

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Miami Herald tries an online ‘tip jar’

I read with a bit of bemusement about the Miami Herald’s push to ask online readers for donations as their read stories on the website. The plea is subtle, with a button at the bottom of each story asking to  “support ongoing news coverage on miamiherald.com” The link takes you to a more detailed page where, with a credit card, you can give as much as you wish.

At first, my colleagues and I reflected on how the industry has come to a point where we’re doing virtual panhandling (“Here’s a great story, buddy. Can you spare some change?”). Or, better yet, we’re adopting the Salvation Army business model to save the industry.

But,  after a few moments, I thought, “Well, why not?”

Certainly give the Herald credit for trying such an out-of-the-box idea to raise some revenues. With the sympathy/guilt factor beginning  to build for the newspaper industry, it could gain some momentum among newspaper web sites. It’s simple to set up and maintain, and is totally voluntary among the readership.

It is, in effect, an online tip jar. If a reader values what he’s just read — in the same way he values that perfect double-shot mocha the Starbucks barista just drew — he’s likely to drop some extra change into the jar.

But the key remains ‘value.’ Any waiter can tell you that the best tips come from outstanding service. If a newspaper expects to turn over revenue through this method, it must continue to look at what it is offering readers and assure that the content is unique and relevant. It must be of value to the reader in order for the reader to pay for it. There are still a lot of publishers out there that haven’t figured that part out.

I hope the Miami Herald find some success in this.  It won’t be the savior of the industry, but this has a lot of potential to provide a revenue stream.

And if it earn enough to keep at least one more journalist employed, then it’s definitely worth it.

Today’s flotsam:

* Three newspapers in Florida are going to test the waters in content sharing. What makes it unique is that none of the three — the Miami Herald, Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and Palm Beach Post — are owned by the same company, but all three compete in the same regional marketplace. The experiment will continue for three months and will be re-examined after that.

Remember these words: “Your enemies become your allies” in the new media world.

Someone is catching on.

*Crain’s Chicago Business reports that the Chicago Tribune redesign will not look like the prototype leaked to Editor & Publisher earlier this week. Too bad, I thought it showed that those in power at the Trib had the guts to try something radical to attact a new breed of readers.

Let’s hope that the redesign that debuts in late September will be as fresh and radical as the leaked prototype. The last thing the Trib needs is to apply fresh makup on a dying horse.

* A few readers have asked me why I haven’t chimed in on the recent departure of Sun-Times sports columnist Jay Mariotti. My answer: Why should I waste my time?