Patronage


So far, we have examined direct revenue from users as a matter of access and ownership: a copyright-era model. And we have dealt in one currency: money. There are other models that exchange value with users in currencies including but not limited to cash. Consider for illustration’s sake the idea of a reverse pay meter, which values not just content but also values people and relationships with them. Let’s say I pay The Times a deposit of $20 this month to get access to its content. But then let’s imagine I can earn down my fee next month by bringing value to The Times in ways that help the company make or save money, receiving so many points for:

  • coming back often and seeing its ads;
  • sharing my demographics and other data with The Times so it can sell higher-value advertising and better target its services to me to increase my use and engagement;
  • bringing content — news tips, photos, engaging discussions, assignments in crowdsourced projects — to The Times;
  • buying products from or through The Times;
  • marketing The Times by recommending its good work on Twitter and Facebook (acknowledging the moral hazard that people may game the system and link just to earn points) or even selling memberships to my friends (acknowledging the risk that The Times could turn me into a spammer).

If I bring sufficient value to The Times, I get it for free and possibly earn other benefits; if I don’t and come just once or twice a month, then perhaps I should no longer be allowed to freeload. Perhaps I should pay (unless, of course, The Times can convert the freeloader into a valued customer).

My point with this illustration: We need to understand that a relationship is an exchange of value. Our users bring value of different sorts and at varying levels. We need to find ways to calculate that value and we need currencies other than just cash to exploit and reward it. The Times can reward valued users with more than content: admission to events; special status in online discussions (because I put my money where my mouth is and converse under my actual identity); special status and thus social capital in real life (why do you think NPR listeners carry public radio tote bags?); and even a voice in some of the decisions of the paper (I know that will make journalists nervous but such a model is being explored on Kickstarter, with members of the public supporting one reporting initiative over another).

These ideas bring us to the edge of patronage, philanthropy, and crowdfunding — from the pledge to an NPR station to the pledge for a journalist’s project on Kickstarter: Some people will support the journalism they want to exist. Their reward is not necessarily access. Our motivations could be many: generosity, altruism, activism, justice, credit, social capital, or just warm fuzzies. Journalists — including many of my students before I’ve had the chance to corrupt them and turn them into capitalists — tend to love this model because it seems so easy and clean (no need to sell advertising, they think) and because it plays to their editorial ego: My work has worth and it deserves this support. But patronage has its issues. First, there simply isn’t enough generosity, whether from foundations or individuals, to pay for all the journalism the nation needs. Foundations will warn you that they will not support operations forever; they expect grantees to find other means of sustaining themselves. Second, there is no free lunch; charity often comes with strings. We have seen plenty of cases of fat cats wearing white knights’ armor “saving” newspapers only to try to use them as their personal and political bully pulpits. I have watched journalistic not-for-profits forced to deal with the demands of philanthropists and foundations. Before assuming that advertising is corrupting, we would do well to remember that it was advertising that freed newspapers from the ownership and control of political parties.

That said, direct contributions are a potential source of support for the creation of journalistic enterprises as well as their ongoing operation. When venture capitalist John Thornton founded The Texas Tribune, I begged him to use his considerable capitalistic skills to make it a for-profit business instead of a not-for-profit, but he insisted that if Texas could support a ballet company or two, it could support his Texas Tribune. The Knight Foundation leads other media funders in subsidizing the creation of important journalistic experiments and infrastructure (Knight is a funder of my work at CUNY). New platforms such as Patreon enable fans of a lone journalist’s work to pay for each piece of work delivered. And in New Jersey, we will experiment with campaigns to allow neighbors to contribute support to their local bloggers.

The Guardian worked for a few years to develop its membership plan. In announcing it, Alan Rusbridger, the paper’s editor-in-chief, recounted a discussion with readers at a large Guardian event: “Most readers said they would happily contribute money to the ‘cause’ of the Guardian — but an overwhelming majority also wanted the journalism to be free, so that it could reach the maximum possible audience. A fair number were happy to be subscribers, but the most hands shot up when asked if they would like to be ‘members’.” The Guardian offers three levels of membership — friend for free, partner for £15 a month, and patron for £60 a month with varying benefits, featuring discounts and priority booking to events in new space near the paper’s London headquarters. I think membership can develop a richer definition around the idea of joining a cause and helping it succeed.

At CUNY, I get to brainstorm new revenue opportunities with our students: Youyoung Lee developed a platform called Gourmeet for people to organize and pay for dinner parties with friends and strangers (if you were to start a newspaper food section today, wouldn’t you want to help readers do what they want to do: cook and eat?). Brianne Garcia worked on turning the fundamental marketing relationship on its head, enabling a customer to say what she wants so marketers could come to her and compete for her business. At Informerly, Ranjan Roy and his cofounder are building an impressive business delivering personalized news feeds to executives. They started with customized email newsletters and found that with the right data about users and the right content in return, they could increase the open rate for email newsletters to an astounding 70 percent. At the Tow-Knight Center, we are publishing research on best practices for revenue — advertising products and sales, events, membership, and print — for small-scale sites. Companies old and new, big and small, as well as universities need much more experimentation with revenue and business models built around more than just the tried-and-true: charging readers for access to content and charging advertisers for access to readers. Slate’s editor at large David Plotz tweeted 71 ways for digital media to make money and then, in his 72nd tweet, asked, “What did I miss?” I’ll ask the same question as we challenge a few more fundamental assumptions about the news business.


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