The broad thesis under which I like the pwyw model is that there is a huge positive externality that goes to the payers. They look noble, the same way the endowers of chairs at universities look noble.
Now, I’m not saying that all the payers in a pwyw scheme will be rich and pay vast sums. That’s the facet of the analogy I don’t want to import. The relevant facet is that people are aspirational. We want to help the world, and we want our friends and colleagues and peers to know about it when we do. If that’s narcissism, so be it. We’re all narcissists then. There’s a reason we say “thank you.” It’s that we think we’re obliged to recognize the person who did the good thing. And there’s a reason we’re irked when we’re not thanked. It’s that we think others are obliged to recognize us when we do the good thing.
The point is that organizations charitable and otherwise have tried to tap that externality — in one way or another — for ages and ages and ages. Take the girl scouts. Delicious as they may be, people don’t buy thin mints because they deem them (the thin mints!) to be the right quality at the right price. People buy thin mints because they want to support the kids. The girl scouts organization frames the act of sales as a leadership activity for the girls. You go door to door, and you introduce yourself to strangers, and you pitch your product and your mission with poise. And cookies aren’t an arbitrary choice. Everyone knows what a cookie is. Cookies are a very easy thing for thousands and tens of thousands of super diverse children to sell all over everywhere and then some.
Which is precisely why it pisses me off when the parent sells his kid’s cookies in the office. It fucks up the whole jam. It devalues the cookies and saps the strength of the positive externality. But that’s the exact reason this example resonates resonates resonates. Would people buy more cookies if the girls themselves did all the selling, assuming that the girls were just as good at sales as their parents are? Yes, absolutely. That assumption is doing a ton of work for me, obvs. In fact, offices are basically the perfect place to sell charitable cookies for a bazillion reasons, and it’s hard for the kid to get to the parent’s office and walk cubicle to cubicle or send an all-staff email with a bubbly tone. And but so yet imagine the kid doing that, putting herself in view of her dad’s colleagues and saying, “hey, i’m a girl scout, and i’m selling yummy cookies for my troop, so what kind would you like?” Irresistible.
And not just irresistible-because-cute, although that’s the undeniable packaging. It’s ultimately irresistible because supporting a kid who’s being ambitious and working toward a goal is a good thing to do. And when one colleague shares his thin mints with another colleague, he’s saying, in part, “hey, i’m a good person who supports kids when they work toward goals.” And that’s awesome. That’s fucking close to magic. “Thank you,” says the other colleague.
And but so yet obviously the colleague who shares his cookies doesn’t actually say anything like, “hey look at how morally awesome i am!” That would be weird for reasons that are as obvious as they are complicated. That’s the whole point of the cookies! Sublimation! The cookies do the talking. They themselves are the communications vector for screaming, “i am a good person! please don’t cc my boss the next time i fuck up that weekly report you asked for!” And, really, can you imagine a better, sweeter, more delicious way to show the world how awesome you are than freely passing out charity-minded finger food that has tons of sugar to bleary-eyed and bored-stiff adults who are sick to bored to death of emails and meetings and other florescent drudgeries?!
So, at long last, it comes to this: news organizations don’t need pure hand-outs. They need their own cookies. The cookies unlock the huge positive externality. Give people something to talk about and share — something more than “hey, i just made a goddamn mensch of myself by funding the news.” Let them say something like “oh, did you hear that crazy tidbit about X? i just found that out from Jane Journalist, that one awesome expert reporter whose club i’m in.”
So, to repeat, the broad thesis under which I like the pwyw model is that there is a huge positive externality that goes to the payers. But there are all kinds of weird cultural and ethical norms around activating that externality. A great end result and donor list doesn’t cut it. Cookies work for the girl scouts because they sublimate the virtue of giving and because they’re super shareable. And, for the news, intriguing facts or interesting tidbits or smart opinions will work against because they sublimate the virtue of giving and because they’re super shareable.
People will pay to be cool or morally good. You just can’t be super obvious about it with outright pure money gifts.