The startup that calls itself the “iTunes of journalism” is coming to the US in 2016 to bring down the paywall — and possibly even give high-quality journalism a chance at surviving the digital age.
Dutch startup Blendle’s early success in Europe has already attracted 550,000 users, the majority millennials, to read and pay for individual articles from publications like The Economist, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.
“No one is looking to pay for journalism. What you need to come up with is a reason why people would,” said Blendle’s CEO and founder Alexander Klöpping. “I think it’s the same reason why people now pay for Spotify when they could get music for free from YouTube.”
The past two years, the startup has been working on a micro-payments solution, similar to how iTunes pioneered a new way to buy music.
To start, readers only have to register one credit card in the Blendle app, instead of signing up for subscriptions at each newspapers site. Then, readers can create a newsfeed of stories about topics they’re interested in, like sports or technology.
A large part of Blendle the idea of cutting through the noise of all the news stories that are out there and finding the ones a reader is most interested in, and therefore, more willing to pay to read.
Most surprisingly, if readers hate the article, they can also ask for a refund.
“There’s more and more content available for free, but at the same time there’s also more and more content getting restricted,” Klöpping said. “I think there’s a big group of people who are willing to spend money if it frees up their time in discovering it and it’s what they want.”
It’s working in Europe
The startup first launched in Klöpping’s home of The Netherlands where there is still a pretty strict distinction between print and the web. A former journalist himself, he saw more and more publications putting up paywalls.
“With journalism, there is already so much competition that you want to take the friction out of it. They shouldn’t need to register at every website,” Klöpping said. “It’s like in the music industry when every music publisher created their own iTunes. Nothing is bad about paywalls, but it’s not for nothing that so little people start paying once they hit the paywalls.”
The startup now has 550,000 users in The Netherlands and Germany and has signed on the top publishers both within the country and foreign publications. (Disclosure: Business Insider’s parent company, Axel Springer, is one of its investors and partners.)
Most surprisingly, more than 50 per cent of its user base are people under 35 — and they’re not just reading clickbait. Rather, the pieces that are often sold are longer pieces like analysis and opinion, Klöpping said.
Trending on Blendle on Wednesday in The Netherlands was an article on the new director of Shell, a political analysis of a parliament action, and a deep story about a child growing up with a Dutch mother and Moroccan father. That one costs 89 cents to read.
For each story, publishers get 70 per cent and Blendle gets 30 per cent. But, Blendle also knows how much the magazine or newspaper issue costs, so it will stop charging or recommend you get a subscription if you’re spending more than that amount.
Coming to the US
An early run of success in Europe doesn’t guarantee success in the US, and Klöpping knows it’s no guarantee. While paywalls are becoming increasingly common, they’re still not as frequent or as much of a hard stop. The New York Times’ paywall lets readers still get 10 free articles per month.
Other sites have workarounds or shareable links, making much of the site accessible regardless of the credit card barrier that may be attached to the front.
Coming to the US, Klöpping expects it to be quite different. It had to make changes based on how German customers read magazines (they love going to the index rather than flipping through) and he expects to learn more about how US consumers once the beta launches in early 2016.
Blende will enter a beta in early 2016, and has declined to name its launch partners. However, it does count US publishers like the Economist, the New York Times, and the Washington Post among its outlets in Europe.
“The honest answer is I don’t know,” Klöpping said. “I see what we’re going to do as an experiment about how we’re going to get people to pay for journalism.”
Disclosure: Axel Springer is Business Insider’s parent company.