Pick Up A Paper. Drop A Penny.

Sometime back, Panera Bread introduced a novel experimental business model at its St. Louis, Missouri outlet. Instead of putting price tags on its products, it lets customers decide what they’d like to pay.

One World, Everybody Eats, a Salt Lake City-based community kitchen adopted that model several years ago. And since it’s been trundling along that road for some seven years now, the approach must be serving them well.

Megan Garber of the Niemen Journalism Lab wonders if journalism too, could take the “pay as you like” route.

When it comes to the problem of monetization of [news content], we sometimes fall into the trap of equating “pay model” with “pay wall.” We assume that news is a straight commodity, and that the cash register model, is therefore, the only viable option for monetizing it.

There are others:

[The] kitchen has built into its physical layout [what its creator calls] a “point of accountability”—a point at which, moving through the consumption-to-satisfaction continuum, consumers know that this is the moment they’re expected to compensate the kitchen for what they’ve (literally) consumed. In One World’s case, the accountability point is a simple donation box, one that is situated—explicitly, purposely, unavoidably—in public.

And that makes a big—and perhaps all the—difference.

True. We’re more inclined to drop cash into a little donation box because we’re in a public space, with us looking over peoples’ shoulders and we, in turn, being watched over ours, by others.

But in the private environment of online news reading, would our civic sense prod us to pay? What’s there to prevent one from picking up (read: reading) appetizing editorial content from a sumptuous news buffet, and simply trotting off with the tray?

Garber suggests devising a system that’d prompt consumers to pause at a “digital tip jar” and drop a few coins and bills, not out of coercion, but of their own volition.

Even if we citizens need a little push to behave in private with as much civic sensibility as we would in public, there’s nothing to say that news outlets can’t provide—or, at least, experiment with providing—that push.

The first step in that direction could be a change of terminology, for what one shelled out—from calling it a “fee” (a bad word that connotes an economic transaction) to calling it a “donation” (a good word that suggests social good.)

Plus, in the news business, paywalls—that force people to pay if they want to buy the goods—act as a disincentive towards payment.

“It’d be nice if you paid” could actually be more incentivizing for consumers than the more blunt, and more transactional, “You have to pay.” Paywalls are one thing; pay doors, if you will—“Come on in! Have a bite! Pay what you think is fair!”—are another. Permeability suggests trust; expectations of good behavior have a way of encouraging good behavior.

But on the flip side, when “payment isn’t a demand; it’s a request,” writes Garber, “that decelerates the dynamic of the transaction.”

So, how can we accelerate the process? When payment ceases to be obligatory and becomes voluntary, one way to get people to pay is to “recognize” them “for being good citizens.”

What if [news publications] had a badge-like way of praising, publicly, the people who had financially supported its services? What if, instead of erecting a paywall, it built its platform on an architecture of altruism?



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