I was on a hike with a friend and former colleague in 2012 when I first seriously considered the idea the Advocate is now undertaking. As we talked, it didn’t take us long to get to our frustrations that so many journalistic organizations were on shaky financial footing — even though they provided such a vital service to the public at large.
What he suggested next was so simple, it seemed mind-boggling that the entire industry wasn’t doing it already, and that I hadn’t given any thought to it myself — ask for donations. I didn’t have an answer to his question: Why don’t all newspapers have a donate button on the top of their websites?
Now, the Advocate does.
For more than 45 years, the Valley Advocate has provided investigative news, deep local arts coverage, and a home for topics largely ignored or avoided by mainstream news outlets. But up to now, there hasn’t been the opportunity for people who read and love the Advocate to financially support its existence.
I should say right off that this in no way affects our relationship with our advertisers, to whom the Advocate staff is grateful for their continued support. We remain committed to working with them, as businesses are a part of this community, too.
What the Advocate and this community is now taking part in has for some reason been cast as a relatively radical idea. While NPR has long thrived on a donation model, print journalists largely have failed to adopt it. The New York Times established its paywall in 2011, and by 2012 was already tightening it, allowing fewer stories per month to those who were not subscribers. For the vast majority, subscribers and paywalls are the model they continue to use today.
But not everyone has followed this path. A small number of newspapers, most notably the Guardian in the U.K., have turned to online donations to fund their journalism. The Guardian has no paywall, but in each story online, a yellow banner appears telling readers that the news appears free to all, and asks for their financial support with a link to contribute — a donate button.
In today’s world, the subscriber/paywall model is not the favored method of support for younger generations. Websites like Kickstarter, which invite people to voluntarily financially support creative projects, have risen to prominence. The 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, which eschewed traditional large-donor support for many small donations, is now the model most Democratic nominees are trying to emulate in 2020.
And why does this appeal to the digital generations? Because it is a wonderful idea — people-powered products and causes entering the world and being sustained through a community that believes in them.
In the case of journalism, with social media making the spread of false news stories easier than ever, and social media companies appearing not to seriously care, I have come to believe that opening ourselves up to support from those who believe in us and can pay is vital to our future, and will likely be the model that sustains journalism in the future.
In the years since my friend shared the idea with me, I’ve asked various publishers I’ve worked with whether they would consider such an idea. I was told such a model would not work in the market we were in, and that was that.
Imagine my surprise considering bringing the idea up with our new publisher, Michael Moses, to learn that he was already planning to implement it.
We are excited to start this program, particularly because it appears to be working for others. The Guardian now captures a significant portion of their revenue from donations. Late in 2018, the company announced that more than 1 million readers contribute to their newspaper financially. Talk of making changes to implement a paywall is nonexistent, according to the paper’s editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner.
The Advocate is free to all — we have no subscription fees and no paywall. We distribute our print edition at no cost. Our news and arts coverage is truly available to all. We believe people have a right to know what is going on in their communities regardless of their ability to pay.
As a bonus to those who contribute, we’ve created a partnership with a company to give our contributors gifts for chipping in — mugs, T-shirts, and other swag with the Valley Advocate logo on them.
Thank you to all of our readers who have read our pages, both print and web, over the years. We’re proud to invite you to support our continued work, and to provide a model for other papers to emulate and give good journalism the support it deserves.
Donate online at www.valleyadvocate.com/donate or send your contribution to The Valley Advocate, Box 299, Northampton, MA 01061.
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.