Monday, February 22, 2010

‘Tip jar’ vanishes at Miami Herald website

In an utterly unsurprising development, the tip jar quietly has disappeared from the Miami Herald website.

Guffaws and groans greeted the paper’s decision in mid-December to add a heartfelt plea for voluntary donations from readers to the bottom of each of its web pages. But the plea and the link to an accompanying payment page were nowhere in evidence on the website over the weekend.

The now-missing plea, which thoughtfully was archived by Editor & Publisher, said, in part:

Thank you for helping to make MiamiHerald.com South Florida's most-read news destination on the web…. If you value The Miami Herald's local news reporting and investigations, but prefer the convenience of the Internet, please consider a voluntary payment for the web news that matters to you.”

Although a number of publishers have attempted – with varying degrees of success – to charge for some or all of their online content, the Herald is believed to be the first major newspaper to try the tip-jar approach.

Industry surveys have shown that the average number of subscribers at paid newspaper sites is equal to 2.4% of the paper’s print circulation. Newsday famously admitted that only 35 web visitors have coughed up the $5 a week now required to view its site.

Herald officials steadfastly refused to detail the response to the novel program, which debuted in mid-December. However, Herald editor Anders Gyllenhaal said shortly before Christmas that “the first few days of this experiment have elicited an encouraging steam of gifts, ranging from $2 to $55.”

The paper published a short article on Saturday saying it decided to discontinue the program, without explaining the reasons for the decision or the amount of money that had been raised. UPDATE: In an email at mid-day today, Gyllenhaal said the paper felt the request for reader donations conflicted with a campaign for Haiti earthquake relief that has raised more than $1 million.

In his pre-Christmas column, Gyllenhaal said the idea of seeking voluntary donations was inspired by the offer from an online-only reader of the paper’s free website, who wanted to send the Herald a check to support future investigative reporting. While the paper at the time did not have a mechanism for accepting such payments, management decided to test the waters by soliciting voluntary donations.

Judging from the comments attracted by Gyllenhaal’s column, the program was not universally embraced.

“I thought those advertisers actually paid you guys to put all this stuff up that we have to see if we want to look at this site,” said a reader identified as jstella. “Silly me.”

“Yeah, I'm going to tip a for-profit business,” said a commenter identified as lucky0111. “I'd rather burn my money.”

11 Comments:

Anonymous Chris said...

I actually think tip jars have merit, though I think they work better if they're sold as ways to support individual journos versus the institution. But I think there are some bigger problems for news outlets installing tip jars.

1. Few have a sophisticated online payment structure since the sites offer everything for free.

2. You have to market it. I bet papers could make a few percent of their revenue off tip jars. But I also think that by (anonymously) allowing people to support the types of stories/journos they like papers would learn about important hot-button topics, etc. It's also a nice way to incentivize journalists

I don't buy the column commenter's gripe about donating to a for-profit institution. It's done more often. But tips have to have a purpose beyond the cash: what does a tip say and what does the institution do with the tip information when the money starts to flow?

7:41 AM  
Blogger -30- said...

I'm always a little dismayed when the overlords of news operations refuse to answer questions. They seem to have no problem forcing answers out of others, yet when the tables are turned their knees buckle.

8:13 AM  
Blogger Carah H. said...

** Good point -30-**

Let me preface my comments by saying I am a 26-year-old woman with Southern and Midwestern roots.

I think the tip jar is a GREAT idea. People always want to complain about every damn thing. Goodness, complaining has become as American as apple pie, extra-marital affairs and reality tv.

The MH's tip jar is a completely voluntary mode of giving. If you don't agree with it, fine: don't give. Ignore it! I would definitely contribute to the tip jar on a newspaper's website that I frequent. I'm sure others would, too. And I think with the right marketing plan (a Goldilocks approach -- not too little, not too much, but just right) the results would be surprising.

The alternative to the tip jar is charging for site access. And as you pointed out with Newsday, people will not be wild for that particular route. We've been spoiled with freebies for too long. Ask the music industry.

I believe people inherently value good journalism. And though they may not prefer being locked into yet another contract (paper subscription, online subscription), they'd contribute a few bucks (or more) to the cause. Give the public a little credit.

11:23 AM  
Blogger Sean said...

As a professional journalist with ten years of experience and a lot of education who makes less than half the salary of many of my bartender friends, I second the tip jar concept.

4:08 PM  
Anonymous bernard zimmermann said...

I have seen tipping used successfully in magazines that promote a cause.

It is also being pushed with much software today, I do not know how successful this approach is.

4:46 PM  
Anonymous HK Journalist said...

Don't Americans routinely tip 20% or more at restaurants? Aren't they "for profit" businesses or did I miss something?

The tip jar is not a long-term solution but it’s not as bad as some ideas that I’ve heard recently about how to make newspapers profitable online. It makes more sense to me than the “link economy” I keep on reading about. It also reminds me of Radiohead’s pay what you want approach when it released its last album.

It could work for a great feature, a genuine scoop or an insightful piece of comment. It’s not going to work for everyday news. It also points to one of the problems with trying to get a decent online payment system going: for a really good feature article that speaks directly to me I would happily pay a couple of dollars, which is also the price of an entire hard copy of a newspaper. But if I paid $2 upfront for an article that didn’t deliver I would feel very ripped off.

11:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, we tip our waitresses, and a good waitress will earn more in tips than a lot of first-year reporters. The cultural concept of who we tip and why is interesting; a person will tip a guy $10 to park his car but won't pay anything for his news? One commenter said he'd "rather burn (his) money" than tip a for-profit business. Aren't restaurants and hotels for-profit businesses?

6:48 AM  
Anonymous John Reinan said...

Alan, Scripps just released earnings today and noted that newspaper revenue declines are moderating. Ad revenue was down only 20% in Q4, vs. 27% in Q3.

I've seen similar reports in recent weeks from Gannett and others, and some commentators are latching onto these as hopeful indicators.

I'd be interested in your thoughts -- I think you did post something about this some months back.

But it seems to me that an industry is in trouble when it's touting revenue declines of only 20%.

Shrink it to 10% and it's still not a good basis for long-term health.

7:29 AM  
Anonymous Perry Gaskill said...

Somehow it strikes me as annoying that the Herald has declined to reveal how much was actually generated by the tip-jar revenue stream even to the extent of gereric metrics such as average donation numbers and percentage of unique visitors. It's not hard to infer that the tip-jar experiment failed, but we have no way of knowing to what extent or why based on the given implementation. For all the ridicule Newsday has generated for its 35-subscriber paywall, at least they've provided the rest of us with a guage to use when contemplating chargimg those who are not existing print or cable subscribers in a given market. Newsday may have provided a laughable number, but it's a specific number in a specific context.

11:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The experiment accomplaished what was intended -- to learn whether people were willing to pony up cash voluntarily. The answer, obviously, is no. Could The Herald have more aggressively marketed the idea (the icon was at the end of stories, a surefire way to make sure few readers would see it)? No doubt. But McClatchy, The Herald's parent, is on the record as being uninterested in paywall models. The result bolstered that position, so it's no surprise that the experiment ended.

1:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a 23-year veteran journalist, I can say with clarity that newspapers, and TV media as we once knew it is OVER.

I saw it all starting downhill as a cub reporter in 1987 when the Baby Boomers in management failed miserably to take to the Internet platform, and to enter into the digital age fully with reporters, copy editors, editors, and photogs.

The scarcity of advertising dollars to the media has been declining rapidly.

That model is ending, and we need to subsidize newspapers as was done at the start of the 20th century.

Americans have a right to a free press, and communities are suffering because of all the bankrupted newspaper outlets.

New media is commenting on old media but is not adding true journalistic content.

This is a PR zone we are in and American journalism is dying on the table while the Boomers watch with their hands in their pockets. It makes me sick.

I always knew it was coming. The Boomers who ran things completely into the ground have been CLUELESS to the max when it came to integration of news content digitally while providing quality journalism to the public.

This year will see the death come, and by 2011, it should be nearly all over with some bigger companies falling by the wayside in the early 2010s.

We are going to have to start over from scratch, and in the process train new reporters in the manner that should have been done in the late 1980s and 1990s - but the Boomer execs screwed that over casting blind eyes to the potentials, while at the same time laying off the younger reporters of that era who were trying to lead their respective newspapers into the digital age.

For all the crying from Boomers out there about the disaster that is the end of 100+ year-old newspapers - look in the mirror if you want to find blame.

It is OVER.

5:08 PM  

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