Checking In on Kachingle

Why haven’t any big news sites signed up?

Early in 2009, the micropayment service Kachingle received a lot of attention when a piece in Editor and Publisher suggested that it could—gasp!—“save journalism.” By April 2009, Kachingle founder Cynthia Typaldos was getting interview requests from NPR’s On the Media, the Chicago Reader, BusinessWeek, and The Guardian. By May 2009, the Kachingle blog was reporting that “The largest media companies in the world started contacting us. Sites with tens of millions of unique users.”

Yet a year and a half after the Internet first started buzzing about it, Kachingle hasn’t really caught on. Seven months after launching to the public, the service is used by over 300 sites; but no major news organizations, and nobody boasting “tens of millions of users.” Aside from a recent positive review of it on PBS’s MediaShift and a citation in a small piece in The Wall Street Journal about business partnerships, Kachingle seems to have stepped out of the spotlight. When it’s shown up in the press in recent months, it has been most often mentioned in comparison with a new, similar scheme by a Swedish company, Flattr.

So often in the world of online media, especially the media covering media, everyone tends to pile on one new idea at a time, hyping it to high heavens. Then the next week, we’re all onto something else, and last week’s flavor drops from our collective memory. Kachingle is one of those that seems to have gotten left behind. We decided to check in and find out why.

Kachingle launched a closed beta version in late 2009, and then launched officially to the public the following February. Users sign up once and agree to pay five dollars a month, to be distributed to the websites they visit the most, based on how often they visit. Kachingle and PayPal together get 15 percent, and the sites get the rest. The distribution is totally transparent, which is nice, with each site’s earnings and contributors displayed on the Kachingle home page.

Barbara Iverson, founder of the nonprofit local news site Chicagotalks, has used Kachingle since this past January. So far, Chicagotalks has only received about $50 total from its fifteen “Kachinglers,” but Iverson still likes the idea so much that she recorded a promotional video for Kachingle’s home page. “I think this is an idea that’s going to come within the next five years,” Iverson said. “I just expected it a lot sooner.”

What Iverson loves about Kachingle in particular, as opposed to something like a PayPal tip jar, is that it’s completely mindless. Once you sign up for a Kachingle account, that’s the last time you ever have to visit the Kachingle page. You don’t have to sign in to PayPal each time you visit a page, and you don’t have to decide what amount or percentage of money you would like to donate.

Kachingle founder Typaldos is emphatic that this is the only way that a micropayment system will work. “The mental transaction cost has to be practically zero,” she said. (You do, of course, have to sign up once, hence the “practically.”)

The Common Language Project is a multimedia production house mainly funded by grants. A third of its funding comes from individual donations, Kachingle making up a very small portion of that third. According to the Kachingle site, CLP has received $66.70 so far from sixteen supporters. CLP co-founder Jessica Partnow said that she is excited about Kachingle as an idea, but conceded that it probably won’t catch on until a big-name media site signs up to bring it to the mainstream audience. “I think it needs widespread adoption to really make it work,” she said.

That’s the catch: the service is voluntary, and it only works if everyone’s on board. The big news sites can’t imagine that the relatively small number of early-adopter Kachinglers will make it financially worth it, but Kachingle can’t get more readers to sign up until they see their favorite sites are participating.

“People have to be patient,” said Typaldos. “It’s going to start slow, because you have these two sides, [the sites and the supporters], and you have to kind of ratchet them both up at the same time. Now, obviously, if we got a really big site, that would completely jump-start this. You know, like The Huffington Post or The New York Times or something.”

A lot of personal blogs are participating, as are a handful of news sites along the lines of The Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado and the Center for Investigative Reporting. CJR columnist Craig Silverman just signed up for his personal site, Regret the Error, after reading the MediaShift article. But none of the big guns have signed up so far.

Typaldos blames bureaucracy. “At some of these newspapers, I was just blown away by how knowledgeable the media people are, but you know, they’re not the ones running the show,” she said. “They all got really interested, and—you name any big media company, we were talking to them. But the media people weren’t running the show.”

This may be the biggest problem for Kachingle, as it is for many start-ups. The quirkiest, coolest ideas—even those embraced by industry opinionators at first—are still no match for the realities of organizational behavior. Unlike a personal blog or a site with a handful of people on staff, corporations don’t make decisions quickly; they can’t. Size is an asset to large media companies when it comes to having resources on hand and commanding influence in a community of readers; it also makes those same companies inflexible and resistant to change. Structurally speaking, the bigger a structure becomes, the harder it is to move.

Fitting a little Kachingle widget seamlessly onto a homepage isn’t actually as easy as it sounds, if the homepage you’re talking about is Figuring out how to get the money into the right account might be difficult, too, or at least enough of a hassle to not seem worth the trouble for the small amount of money they’d be getting at first. And—I’m just speculating here—maybe some sites wouldn’t necessarily appreciate the transparency of Kachingle’s process, where all contributions are publicly tracked? Whatever the reason, big media companies are just slow to move on everything. Even on a low-risk experiment like this one.

What’s more, between the time that Kachingle was first noticed and the time it actually launched, the “monetize online content” conversation seemed to have shifted from micropayments to paywalls. If most major news organizations are mired in plans to transition to paywalls, signing up with a micropayment site with a goofy name (sorry) might seem to them like scooping out water from a sinking ship with a paper cup.

Still, despite the lack of any big-name partners, and despite the recent lack of media attention, Typaldos remains convinced Kachingle is on the verge. “It’s the perfect time. It’s the perfect time!” said Typaldos. “It’s hard to get the dinosaurs at first. But we’re getting the innovators.”

Update: This post originally identified Flattr as a Dutch company; it is Swedish. The error has been corrected.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner