For more than a decade, newspapers and magazines have been struggling to make up for plummeting revenues from print advertising. Web ads aren’t nearly as lucrative, and most readers aren’t inclined to shell out for access to content behind a digital paywall. Increasingly, readers are getting their news on Facebook and Twitter, or surfing the web with ad blockers that eliminate all marketing. From August 2014 to 2015, ad blocking cost publishers nearly $22 billion, according to a survey by Adobe and PageFair, a company that measures use of ad blocking by visitors to publisher websites. In the US, ad blocking rose by over 48 percent in the same time period.
Blendle, a Dutch news aggregator, thinks it has the solution for publishers. Founded almost two years ago, the platform enables readers to use a single account to purchase individual stories from different media companies, without a subscription, an a la carte approach to consuming content on the web. The platform has over 650,000 users in Germany and The Netherlands, more than half of whom are under 35. Today it’s launching to 10,000 customers in the US with big name media partners like The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, and Bloomberg Businessweek.
The current model is broken
"The current model for monetizing journalism is broken", says Alexander Klöpping, co-founder of Blendle. "Young people are resistant to subscribing to newspapers and magazines, ad revenue is declining and ad blockers are putting extreme pressure on publishers. In Europe, we’ve proven that there’s a real need for one account to discover the best journalism." Users can browse a smorgasbord of news selected by Blendle's algorithms and editors or view full scale replicas of any participating publications.
Last year, The New York Times Co., along with German media giant Axel Springer, invested $3.7 million in the company. Blendle’s ad-free model allows readers to get an uninterrupted experience of articles they choose. Users pay between 9 and 49 cents per article, determined by the publisher, who keeps 70 percent of the revenue. Thirty percent goes to Blendle. When people first sign up, they get $2.50 of credit to buy articles and test the platform. If a user does not like an article — they find it too short, too uninformative, they click on it by accident — then they are eligible for an instant refund.
A money back guarantee to protect readers from clickbait
"Blendle has married reader-centric product with a business model that is in the publisher’s interest. It is encouraging to see how European readers have shown willingness to pay for high-quality content on the platform, and we hope to see that American readers also find value in the seamless and well-curated content that Blendle is providing," said Lynda Hammes, publisher at Foreign Affairs, another publication debuting on Blendle in the US.
What may sound like a win for readers remains a source of skepticism for some publishers. Since the model is so new, they are not aware of how to establish price points for their articles or determine when to refund money. "It’s one thing to give readers’ their money back if there are technical issues or something is wrong with the formatting, but it’s another if they don’t like the content," Han-Menno Depeweg, digital publisher of NRC Media, which publishes NRC Handelsblad, one of the Netherland’s largest daily newspapers, told NiemanLab.
People often won't pay for stories they aren't sure they will agree with
On average about 10 percent of users asked for a refund as of a April 2015. But gossip magazines, listicles, and other clickbait material see very high refund percentages, up to 50 percent. "It's the original reporting, great background stories, deep analysis, big profiles, and interviews that make the top of the list," Klöpping wrote in an email. Of course, it’s not clear if asking people to pay per article will help cultivate more informed citizens. A study by two University of Tennessee professors showed that micropayments in journalism actually hinder discovery, as people are unlikely to pay to read articles that they believe will contradict their opinions.
The approach still has plenty of doubters. Spotify works for songs and Netflix for movies, but that may not translate directly to print media. "News is not like an iTunes song; it’s perishable. Today’s front page is tomorrow’s fish wrap, and we don’t need to replay it," wrote Marshall W. Van Alstyne, an associate professor in the Information Systems department at Boston University.