US Outlook: The Miami Herald has got a lot of abuse for asking online readers for voluntary donations to support its free-to-air website. "Once-proud" newspaper "reduced" to "holding out the tin can" and "begging", seems to be the headline reaction. But how about "pioneering" media organisation "saves journalism" with "bold experiment" and "builds an online community that will protect its heritage"?
The Miami-based daily, whose history stretches back to 1903, is a typical case study of decline in the US newspaper industry. Sales of the print edition have collapsed by a quarter in just the past year and it has cut hundreds of jobs. Not surprisingly, it has been doing a lot of thinking about how it might make money from what is now its main way of delivering the news: publishing on the web.
Rupert Murdoch is off trying to put all his content behind a pay-wall and prevent it from even showing up in Google News (the equivalent of taking it off the newsagent's shelf). It is conceivable that this will shore up the profitability of his newspapers, but it will collapse his readership relative to publishers who deliver news for free online, and it may therefore amount to the unilateral surrender of his status as a political power-broker.
The Miami Herald's looks the much bolder move. It has started putting a link at the bottom of each online news story, asking readers to click to "support ongoing news coverage on MiamiHerald.com" and then to enter a credit card donation. Only a few people have done so to date, but it is not hard to imagine this snowballing. Public radio stations and public television in the US sustain themselves on regular pledge drives, appealing to listeners' and viewers' desire for unbiased factual information. And of course this is not just an old media phenomenon. On Tuesday, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales launched the online encyclopedia's annual fund-raising drive, generating over $430,000 from about 13,000 individual contributors, the most it has ever managed in a single day. It is shooting for $7.5m before the year is out.
National Public Radio and Wikipedia are community organisations. Newspapers at their best also have a community feel, appealing to readers of a certain mind, and online journalism offers so many new ways for readers to deepen that relationship. By making an explicit link between donations and the quality of the journalism on offer, the Miami Herald strengthens those bonds further.
I bet it will be unique and powerful community stories which generate the most clicks through to the donations page. That ought to give editors the courage – and money – to pursue those stories and to stop duplicating news that appeared everywhere else on the internet yesterday. Forget Rupert Murdoch. I think the Miami Herald just changed the game.