So the debate rages on about "micropayments" for news and other techniques to get Internet users to pay for news content, so that newspapers and other news entities get a nice supplemental revenue stream and don't go out of business as their legacy advertising businesses drop through the floor.
If you've followed my blog or seen my latest column at EditorandPublisher.com, you know that I believe any model that forces people to pay for website commodity news content and puts up barriers (no matter how small a payment might be) is not only destined to fail, but could bring down some already weakened newspapers.
But the voluntary pay-for-content model (I'm most impressed so far with the Kachingle network-of-content-sites approach) has a lot of people moaning, "Voluntary schemes will never bring in serious money and certainly won't save faltering newspapers."
My (perhaps unusual) response: Look to churches.
Well, I guess you can pray for business redemption if that's your thing, but I don't think that's going to help. But what I mean is that some churches are financial machines that are supported by voluntary donations from their members.
- The Catholic Church is estimated to be worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Just in the U.S., Catholic parishes brought in total revenue of $7.375 billion in 2000.
- American evangelical mega-churches likewise bring in big money from collection plates. Houston's Lakewood Church brings in an average of 45,000 worshipers each Sunday and has an annual budget of $73 million. (One church!)
If people can be convinced to voluntarily give that much money to their church (they could let those collection plates slide by), I don't think it's unreasonable to believe that we can get news consumers to voluntarily pay a monthly fee — probably less than they give to those churches — to support their favorite news websites and blogs.
Why do church-goers fill the collection plates? And why do churches collect money in this manner? Obviously, there's the peer pressure; you don't want to embarrass yourself by putting nothing in the pot and having your pew neighbors notice!
So for a voluntary online content fee system to work, the news industry must apply similar persuasive techniques. If religious people value their churches enough to give regularly and significantly, I see no reason why we can't get citizens who care about staying informed to voluntarily support the news gathering industry when they come to understand that advertising alone can no longer sustain newspapers and their websites, and other forms of news outlets.