Newsprint smudges and the nonprofit model

I was stopped on my walk home today by a gentleman who thought I looked like a person who reads newspapers. We had a friendly conversation:
Him: Do you get the Washington Post at home?
Me: No, I read it online.
Him: We have a new program where you can get a free home subscription to the Express [free tabloid sibling of the Post]….
Me: Sorry, not interested.
Him: If people don’t subscribe, there won’t be an online paper anymore.
Me: But there isn’t an online subscription.

I don’t want the physical version of the paper because I hate newsprint smudges and I like reading articles online (normal procedure: open lots of tabs, read through them in turn). And asking people to pay for online content doesn’t have a great track record (Slate subscriptions, TimesSelect, etc.), although some organizations have managed it (the Wall Street Journal, Salon Premium, the Financial Times, etc.). But there ought to be something else the Post could ask me besides “help us kill more trees to get our circulation numbers up.”

I have a lot of brand loyalty to the Post. I’ve been reading it pretty much daily since seventh grade, first my parents’ paper subscription and then online when I went to college. I’m used to the way its writers think – I know who writes the most entertaining Style stories (Monica Hesse), who consistently likes the opposite movies from me (Ann Hornaday), whose analysis I trust on the health care debate (Ezra Klein).

So why don’t I have a convenient way to support the Post that doesn’t involve acres of newsprint? I think they’re still stuck in a commercial model, and wish they’d adopt a bit of thinking from the nonprofit world – even if becoming a nonprofit isn’t the way they choose to go. I already see the benefits of their work, I’m a supporter, so let me participate in the mission. I can imagine seeing a message one day at the top of the homepage saying “Following our international stories? Support our foreign bureaus.” A couple of months after that, I’d see “Whether you love the Kennedy Center or the 9:30 Club, support our local arts coverage.” I’d give them $20 or $30 every so often, happily. That has to be better for them than the costs of delivering a free Express every weekday. It’s probably even better than my paying $1.50 a week for six months for weekdays plus Sunday home delivery of the Post.

The idea isn’t perfect. First, with advertising costs dependent on subscription numbers and online ads not nearly as lucrative as paper ones, my eyeballs aren’t as valuable as my blackened fingers. Second, it takes a good bit of effort to run an effective nonprofit fundraising program, and a for-profit fundraising program would require the same message crafting and analysis. Third, especially in a town where so many people are transient, my brand loyalty may be quite the exception.

But some of the blogs I read have Donate buttons in the sidebar, and if the blogger says “hey, I need help with my car repair / my hospital bill / getting to a conference” I’ll probably throw something into the kitty. At the moment the Post can’t figure out how to ask.

About Jennifer Berk

I'm an analytics and data leader with a marketing and product mindset. I like online newspapers, science fiction and fantasy, and ugly fish.
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