Kachingle and the Limits of Tip-Jar Journalism

A two-year-old start-up has the best of intentions, but faces many obstacles and continues to struggle for acceptance

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As the New York Times prepares to throw up its new subscription-based paywall in coming weeks, the news giant is also shaking off recent criticism from one its biggest critics--a journalism start-up called Kachingle, a David to the Times' Goliath and a rabid evangelist for free online news. Hot controversy surrounds the question of paywalls. Should news organizations keep content behind gates or should news remain free to flow through blogs, tweets and far beyond the original source? Will either course save journalism?

As much as I want money to flow toward journalism, several problems cripple Kachingle and may create insurmountable obstacles.

Kachingle's position is clear: Tell it to the tip jar, newsreaders. Kachingle users can donate with a quick click to any news site or blog that features Kachingle's medallion widget. Forget Facebook recommendations and tweeting links, money is what matters: "social cents for digital stuff," as the California-based start-up advertises. It wants you, Internet-roaming news aficionados, to tip. Or, you know, to "kachingle," as they call it. Like a verb.

The two-year-old company even launched a "Stop The Paywall" campaign directed at the New York Times, and, as CJR reported, offered a browser extension to allow users to donate to the Times against their will--a move which caused the newspaper to sue Kachingle last year. "Restoring those old business models in the form of paywalls," wrote founder Cynthia Typaldos on Kachingle's blog, "is a regression, a destruction of this fabulous opportunity, a step into the dark ages of non-information where people and the world will suffer." The two parties settled in late January, and Kachingle continues its campaign to affiliate with new publications. Its clients have so far earned small sums accumulated from months of kachingling--very rarely more than $200 total and usually under $50.

The initial and obvious point: Why not try Kachingle's model? I agree. Kachingle absolutely is worth trying, and some newspapers such as my own college town's The Columbia Missourian have added a kachingling option to their websites. Good. I wrote for the Missourian years ago and would love any revenue to come its way (and in full disclosure: a friend of mine has, after I conceived this article, begun consulting for Kachingle part-time). The newspaper's managing editor writes that he has "small goals" for Kachingle: maybe adding the option will give his newspaper enough cash for an extra camera, for more public records requests. Hopefully enough people will donate to make those truly smart goals possible. Readers should always be able to donate money hassle-free. The idea is innocent, harmless.

Despite a heart with the best of intentions, Kachingle continues to struggle for acceptance two years after its release. As much as I want more money to flow toward journalism, several subtle problems cripple Kachingle and may create insurmountable obstacles to its success. The biggest challenges for Kachingle's tip-jar journalism:

The Premise. Where's the Incentive? The number-one problem, from my perspective, involves human behavior. Sure, the Kachingle monthly donation is small: $5, with 15% shaved off the top for Kachingle and Paypal. What will motivate people to sign up in the first place? While Kachingle does allow users to observe one another's donations, that alone will not supply much pressure to donate initially ... not unless truly everyone joins. No one likes to sign up for anything, least of all when it involves losing money. Especially in a bad economy.

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John Hendel is a writer based in Washington, DC, and a former producer at The Atlantic.

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