Hey LA Times and other newspapers: please give me a way to give you money to support journalism (vs subscribe to a product)

By Mary Lou Fulton

This week, I canceled my L.A. Times subscription. Though I only received the newspaper four days a week, on most days the print edition went from the porch to the recycling bin without being opened.

However, I do read LA Times content online, and believe in doing my part to support local journalism.  So I offered to simply give the newspaper the same amount of money I was paying for the print subscription (about $60 a year) so that I could support LA Times journalism in the same way that I support programming on my local National Public Radio station.

Unbelievably, this wasn’t possible.

When I asked the very polite subscriber services representative if I could simply give the newspaper money, she first asked me if I wanted to switch to a Sunday-only subscription, and then told me about an e-edition that allowed me to read a digital version of the newspaper layout online (but only if I also subscribed to the print edition).   In response to my explaining, again, that I just wanted to donate money to help offset the costs of journalism, she put me on hold for a few minutes and then returned to say that I could give money to Newspapers in Education, which provides newspapers to schools as a teaching tool.  But I wanted to do none of those things, and so the call ended with the cancellation of my subscription and her suggestion that I contact the LA Times reader’s representative to see if there was anything that could be done with my idea.

I can explain what to do in one word:  PayPal.  All that the LA Times or any news organization needs to do is set up an account on PayPal that allows people to give money.  Have this money go into an account specifically designated to support the costs of running the newsroom.   If the LA Times has the technology expertise to build an iPhone app, then setting up a PayPal account is a no-brainer. Every nonprofit news organization I know has a Donate button somewhere on its web site and is counting on this kind of support as an important source of revenue.  And if you really want to make me happy, throw in some extra perks, like giveaways for event tickets,  or maybe even forge a partnership with Zocalo to stage some events of your own to highlight issues reporting by the newsroom.

If 30,000 people gave the LA Times $60 each per year, that would be $1.8 million.  That’s about a third of what local NPR station KPCC raises in individual donations per year, according to an LA Times report.

This membership concept is not going to be a silver bullet for local media, but what is the downside to making it available?  It just doesn’t make sense that the only way for a consumer to support newspaper-based local journalism is through subscribing to an unwanted print edition or buying a classified ad.

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6 Comments

  1. December 29, 2010 at 7:26 am

    […] via Hey LA Times and other newspapers: please give me a way to give you money to support journalism (vs …. […]

  2. Digidave said,

    December 31, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    I too have wondered about this with newspapers. The Miami Herald did it about a year ago. When they finally tried this experiment I slapped my face and said “you’re doing it wrong.” While it is as easy as you describe (put a PayPal button up) they made it overly complicated. The experiment closed and I’m sorry to say that it probably made other newspapers wary of the concept. I think pride has more to do with why they don’t collect contributions in this manner than anything else.

    But what you describe is TOTALLY possible. Nonprofits do it ALL the time. Some give you things in return (a mug). On spot.us the idea is that we let people have transparency about where their funding goes: YOU decide.

    I could easily see the LA Times doing something like that too: Give to cover the environment, give to cover local government, etc. Or – if you want the money no strings attached – just send them a shirt, an event, etc.

    In truth – the LA Times wouldn’t get THAT much money from it. But they would get some and all they’d have to do is put in a PayPal button ONCE and be done with it. Seems like an easy choice. But again – I think pride is the biggest reason why this isn’t done.

  3. January 1, 2011 at 5:53 am

    I agree that this would be nice, and am considering making a similar call to my own paper, the Chicago Tribune. I suspect the main reason they try to prod you into a print subscription is that they still price their print advertising (still their biggest cash flow source?) by the number of papers delivered, so if you want to subscribe, they want to add it to the papers-delivered numbers.

  4. January 1, 2011 at 10:23 am

    Thanks, Dave and Brendan, for your comments.

    I love the idea of community-funded beats at newspapers, not just as a fund-raising idea but as one that would help explain what beats are and how they shape news coverage. The process of how news decisions are made is still a black box to most readers, but it doesn’t have to be.

    Brendan, you’re right about newspapers wanting to hold on to every subscriber because (1) print advertising still generates more revenue than online, and (2) print advertising rates are largely determined by the number of print subscribers.

    But there’s more to it. I expect this has more to do with back-end accounting systems than anything. These systems are what the advertising sales department uses to enter each ad and each advertiser, and what the circulation department uses to enter information about each subscriber. There is a category of revenue associated with every item entered into these systems, allowing the finance department to report back on how much revenue came from print real estate classified ads versus online display ads versus the printed circulars distributed with weekend newspapers. These systems are also what generate the bills that advertisers and subscribers receive.

    The subscriber service person I talked to probably had access only to the circulation/subscriber database, which has no category for accepting revenue unrelated to subscriptions. But even if she had access to other systems, there probably is no revenue category associated with the newsroom, which is considered a cost center. Changing anything about how these back-end systems work is not a simple thing. The systems are developed by vendors that serve a multitude of newspaper companies. It can take months for even a simple change to be made in these systems.

    I say all this as an explanation, not an excuse. These systems were one of my great frustrations when I worked in the newspaper business. Unfortunately the tail of the back-end accounting systems can often wag the dog of established businesses like newspapers that are being forced to react and compete in new ways in order to stay relevant.

    Dave, you’re right that this probably wouldn’t generate a lot of money — at least not at the start, and not without the proper marketing of the idea. But diversification of revenue is essential in this new world, and ironically, the online world has reduced revenue diversification because there is almost no money coming from online subscriptions for media sites today. For the future, unless something changes, this means a huge dependency on online revenue (which has generated only from 10 cents to 25 cents of every dollar that had been spent on print advertising). I just don’t think it makes sense for traditional media to put all the revenue eggs into this basket, but that’s where things seem to be right now.

  5. donna myrow said,

    January 4, 2011 at 5:17 pm

    Mary Lou,
    Print is still important to the ethnic press. Spanish language papers are stacked in neighborhood shops, not delivered on the doorstep. Asian language newspapers have a wide home delivery circulation in the San Gabriel Valley while the Russian papers are published in West Hollywood and available to Soviet emigres in stores throughout the same neighborhood. The ethnic press is growing, their readers are hanging on to cultural traditions — the printed word.

  6. January 4, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    Hi Donna. Yes, absolutely! Print is still important in many ways and my intention was not to denigrate print. My point is that a print subscription should not be the only option for supporting good journalism.

    – Mary Lou


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