Problem solved. Crisis averted. Revenue has finally begun to flow to Internet news sites directly from the heretofore freeloading public. Those of us who feared this day would never come can drink a glass of warm milk and get some sleep.
The scale of the profits might astonish you. To the four-year-old Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, $54.95. To the veteran Center for Investigative Reporting, $20.86. To the Boulder Daily Camera, $22.45. And to the hottest site of them all, Carta.info(described to me as a German version of Politico), $117.16.
These early returns don’t establish Kachingle, launched publicly just a month ago, as the wave of the future. They do show that the Silicon Valley-based start-up can function the way Cynthia Typaldos hoped it would. Typaldos’s premise is that most people will pay for the things they value that don’t grow on trees, but only—this is the catch—if the method of payment is fair and easy. “Since we launched it in beta in November there hasn’t been a single site failure, which is really unbelievable,” she says. “The product is incredibly solid. You really have to get it right when you’re dealing with money.”
Kachingle is more than fair and easy. As I wrote 13 months ago after Typaldos explained her project to me, “Kachingle is the first idea I’ve seen that’s psychologically astute.” We lead our lives these days as if they were ad campaigns and we were the product, and Kachingle was designed to contribute to our self-promotion. Whenever we come upon a site that shows us off to good advantage, we get to tell the world that we were there.
Kachinglers (of which I’m now one) agree to pay a flat fee of $5 a month that will be distributed among the Kachingling Web sites we favor. To support one of these sites we click on its Kachingle medallion, and from then on, every time we go to that site it keeps score. At the end of the month our $5 will be divvied up in proportion to our visits to the Kachingle sites where we’ve signed on. Decided you no longer like the site? Turn it off. That’s it. No paywalls, no tedious registration at multiple sites, no buyer’s remorse over paying for access to a site that turns out not to have what you wanted. You sign up once, put your credit card number on file (via PayPal), and get to surfing.
Kachingling sites announce who Kachingles there, so when we’re deciding whether to support a site, we can check out who already does. Likewise we can publicly flaunt our own loyalties. The social media component of Kachingle hasn’t been built up yet, but tools for Twitter and Facebook are promised shortly, and crucial to Typaldos’s plan.
“You’re saying, ‘This is me,'” Typaldos explained to me last year. “Let’s say the Chicago Reader has a medallion, and the New York Times blogs have medallions. And NPR. These happen to be the sites you really love. You contribute because you want them to be around and you want them to be part of your persona.”
As I write this, Typaldos claims “several hundred” Kachinglers and 111 sites in seven countries. They include several in Germany, a cluster she attributes to someone from Carta.info writing about Kachingle in Der Spiegel early last year. There’s enough European activity to justify an office in Paris.
“We wasted a lot of time talking to the big papers,” Typaldos tells me. “They all called us, saying ‘We’re really interested,’ and in the end they did nothing. If I had to do it again I wouldn’t, though how do I resist the siren song of the New York Times? But they’re not innovating.”
Joe Eyre, her marketing director, is on the line with us. Here he speaks up, saying the vice presidents for interactive development at the big papers are open-minded, but “the guys in the executive suites are still old guys in gray suits used to producing news and just shoving it out. It’ll take a little time for the guys in the upper offices to move on and for fresher thinking to allow for a more open model.”
“In time I’ll have them—the ones that are left,” says Typaldos. “Because this is the model!”
Although she’s struck out with the dailies—the Daily Camera is the exception—”a bunch of investigative reporting sites were interested from the beginning. The model just resonates with them.” It stands to reason that sites like the Pulitzer Center, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and the Center for Public Integrity would be ready to try a new tool—innovators created them as alternatives to old-fashioned journalism models. Their problem, says Typaldos, is that “they’re not experienced in marketing themselves.”
And they must, she thinks—for their own sake and certainly for hers. If Kachingle’s numbers next April are to represent a significant leap from today’s, the sites present at the creation need to make something viral happen.
It does no one any good if the Daily Camera simply displays its medallion, calls no attention to it, and every month or so collects another $22.45. “If you’re the news site for Boulder,” Typaldos says, “the social signal you have to send is that people who matter are reading the site. Mayors, religious leaders—you have to go out to those people and say, ‘For us to survive, we have to show you’re signing up as a Kachingler.’ That sends the signal to everyone who comes to the site that this is what people in Boulder do—they Kachingle,”
Typaldos wants the Reader to Kachingle, of course, so she asks about our relationship with the mayor of Chicago. Leading our roster of prestigious Kachinglers with the name of Mayor Daley, she says, would send the public a powerful message.
She has less trouble than I do imagining that happening.
“I don’t know what you write about the mayor—I assume it’s reasonable,” Typaldos says.
Every word. And yet—
“And teachers. Civic types,” she charges on. “I know some of the sites have been uncomfortable with this. They’ve been saying ‘I don’t want to go and ask somebody to pay $5 a month. But they have to be willing to do this!”
You may be familiar with a site called Kickstarter, where people with aspirations they can’t afford solicit money from strangers who believe in what they want to do. When all goes well the aspirants wind up with not only the funds they need but a community behind their cause. For instance, cartoonist Ted Rall is now raising money on Kickstarter to go to Afghanistan and write a book. “He’s raising $25,000 and he’s already at $20,000,” Typaldos tells me. She calls it crowdfunding, “where individuals fund things that are important to them.”
Crowdfunding is the future of journalism, she believes, and it’s what Kachingle does. The Pulitzer Center presents itself online as “an innovative nonprofit leader in supporting the independent international journalism that U.S. media organizations are increasingly less able to undertake.” At latest count, the center was patronized by 40 Kachinglers who are down with that. Three of them are center director Jon Sawyer, the center itself, and Typaldos. But what of it? You can bet WBEZ staffers are also WBEZ donors.
“There have been a lot of models online that haven’t worked,” says Mark Stanley, the Pulitzer Center’s new-media strategist. “”Kachingle seems easy enough that it might work. It was, at least for me, one of the most original ideas I’ve heard as far as getting people to contribute to paid online content. It’s not only about making money. It’s about getting people to invest in your site and make a deeper connection with your site.
“We have a very vibrant social-media presence, and I think the idea of being able to display the site that you support through social media is a very powerful one. We’ve seen in the social-media world that people do want to be associated with certain organizations, certain causes and activities. If you ask most people, does journalism have value, for example the kind of journalism the Pulitzer Center does, they would say yes. There’s such an abundance of free content out there, though, that providing some sort of incentive to get people to support the journalism we’re producing as an organization is necessary.”
And that incentive is the chance to show off. Which isn’t quite how Stanley puts it.
“It’s not just that you can show other people that you’re donating to our organization,” he says, “but it’s a way of telling people, ‘Hopefully, you’ll do the same as well. I happen to think this organization is worth supporting. Hopefully, you’ll take a look at it.’ Social media has the power to spread this message to a lot of people in a short amount of time, Facebook and Twitter being the two primary platforms for that.
“At this stage we’re not looking for a big payoff. If we can get people to support our organization and to share with others their support—that’s what’s most important to us.”
Typaldos is counting on synergy to expand Kachingle, as new sites form clusters around old sites. She has high hopes for Chicago. Columbia College journalism professor Barbara Iverson has told her the city’s a hive of little local sites—like the north-side Lake Effect News or Austin Talks—that could collectively start promoting Kachingle and one another. Typaldos’s foot in the door here is Iverson’s own site, ChicagoTalks, supported at the moment by 14 Kachinglers.
“I had Kachingle in my radar probably about a year. I think it’s a really good basic idea,” Iverson told me last week. “They’re not really at a tipping point as far as I can see. What they’re asking me to do is do some sort of word of mouth about it. Which is OK. If we all got on Kachingle it would get more people using it.”
Last time she looked, Iverson had $12 in her Kachingle account, and it might be a while before she sees the money—until a site hits $50 there’s no payment. When it does, Typaldos takes 10 percent and PayPal another 10 percent.
But, added Iverson, “we haven’t done anything to explain or draw attention to Kachingle.” Perhaps listening to herself speak she decided it was time she did: On Monday, April 5, she posted a story at the top of her home page, “Support Your Local Hyperlocal Publication with Kachingle.”
Her appeal began, “ChicagoTalks.org is a not for profit enterprise, but we are looking to have a revenue stream that will allow us to pay our editors and contributors.”
Wanting to be able to do that shouldn’t be like wishing for the moon.