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Nov. 16, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
Business Models
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Tipsy, a simple Chrome extension, bets on readers who want to pay a little for the content they consume

“I’m an optimist about human nature — I like to think that most people aren’t freeloaders, they just might not want to compensate sites by dealing with advertising.”

If you could set up recurring donations to your favorite and most-frequented news sites, of your own accord and in amount of your own choosing, would you do it?

David Karger hopes to tap people’s more charitable natures with Tipsy, a free browser extension that records how much time you spend on any given site and then divvies up a chunk of change — which you can predetermine and tweak at any time — based on proportional time spent. Participating publishers can then receive these donations from readers via PayPal or Dwolla, an online payment service with no transaction fees. The concept is similar to that of Flattr, where users can set a donation budget, “like” and “favorite” artists’ work, and then divvy up the donations.

Tipsy-logo

“I’m convinced that there’s a large population who’d like to pay for the news they consume, out of some moral or social obligation, but are deterred by the hassle and complexity of having to subscribe when they don’t know if they’ll be returning, by having to enter credit card information, by having to decide ‘was this story really good enough,'” Karger said. “We wanted to see if we could eliminate all of the overhead of making a donation in order to allow people’s natural inclination to give back to actually work.”

(“I’m an optimist about human nature,” he added.)

Readers with the Tipsy extension installed can set their own “contribution goals,” indicating either a rate per minute spent browsing a webpage or a rate per hour, day, week, or even month (I could even set a total donation of one cent per month, if that’s all I was comfortable giving). In the activity log, users can check on how much time they’ve spent on sites that have Tipsy enabled. The log can actually show a breakdown of time spent on every single site a user has visited, though of course only those sites with Tipsy enabled can receive money — and so far, ProPublica is the only publisher using the tool.

Here’s what my complete log looked like two days after I installed the extension:

tipsy-visit-log-screenshot

Users can also set up alerts to remind them to check in on their contributions pages or to notify them when they’ve reached a certain amount donated to a specific site. While Tipsy automatically calculates the proportional donations, users can manually delete a site from receiving payment or alter Tipsy’s recommended amount before finalizing their payments (at the moment there’s no way to, say, permanently block a site from receiving a donation portion). Tipsy only tracks a user’s browsing habits within the browser and doesn’t share that data with the publisher, though interested publishers can install a script that detects when a user with Tipsy enabled visits. Tipsy doesn’t take a cut of anything and isn’t intended to make money for anyone except the publisher.

Karger said he sees Tipsy as a healthier response, if not a very good complement, to the rise of ad blocking. He believes that, in the ad blocking arms race, the blockers will win out, because it’s not “possible to keep forcing content onto users.” He pointed to sites like Slashdot, where the purpose of paid subscriptions is to get rid of the ads (most recently, The Salt Lake Tribune is also trying out this ad-free membership model.)

“The population that uses ad blockers has declared that they do not want to support news sites by looking at the advertising, but we can provide an alternative mechanism that doesn’t mess up their experience and doesn’t slow down the page.”

He acknowledges that the tool’s name may be misleading, as tipping conveys money given for something “extra,” but in the case of Tipsy, it’s “you got something, you might owe something.”

Funding to create and test the beta version of Tipsy came through the Knight Foundation under a prototype grant (disclosure: Knight is also a funder of Nieman Lab). The extension doesn’t require much sustained maintenance, but at the moment Tipsy is available only for Chrome and doesn’t work on mobile. Karger is working on building out a version for Firefox, integrating with news readers like Feedly, and potentially adding other payment formats like Bitcoin. The tool is open source, and Karger hopes those interested will volunteer their time to upkeep or improving and even repurposing the tool.

Now that Tipsy is functional, getting readers and publishers to sign on is the next challenge: “Until there are users using this tool, there’s not much motivation for publishers to install it, and conversely, it’s hard to motivate a user to install this when no publishers are using it,” Karger explained. He did say that he was currently in talks with “a couple of other larger news organizations” about adding the Tipsy payment file to their sites. He’s also in the process of adding a WordPress plugin to simplify the adoption process even further.

Does a site like The New York Times really need my pennies?

“We just need to find any news organizations who’d be willing to put a three-line file on their site,” Karger said. “There’s no downside, there’s no cost, it’s so easy to install, even without the guarantee of income. If no users use it, it doesn’t cost anybody anything. If it works, wonderful.”

POSTED     Nov. 16, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
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