March 23, 2016

Blendle, the much-hyped Dutch-based “digital newsstand” that allows readers to pay by the article, launches in the United States today.

It will initially accept up to 10,000 beta users for the service, offered on browsers and a forthcoming app. Blendle launches with 20 publishing partners, most of which offer high-end reporting and analysis behind relatively hard paywalls.

The list includes The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time Inc., The Economist, Financial Times and The Washington Post. In addition, The New York Times Company and German publisher Axel Springer are investors in the launch.

Once registered, users get an account with $2.50 in credit for their prepaid “wallet.” Individual articles, initially priced between 10 and 50 cents, are charged against that account, which can be replenished at any time.

As I wrote in December when Blendle announced its plans, the idea of micro-payments for journalism has been kicking around for years but never materialized commercially.

But Blendle has three key features earlier attempts have lacked, according to co-founder and CEO Alexander Klöpping:

  • A simple-to-use and secure payment system.
  • A recommendation engine that determines your interests and suggests articles you might want to read. (Users can also scan the pages of the publications).
  • A refund policy. If the article was not about what readers expected, or they didn’t like it, they can get an instant credit — no questions asked.

I posed a few questions to Klöpping about the prospects of Blendle U.S. on the eve of its launch:

Does the service appeal to publishers who make most of their content available for free?

The participating publishers have all kind of models: metered paywalls, hard paywalls, no paywalls. Publishers that also put content on the Web without a paywall most often charge very little for their content (less than 10 cents) in return for a human-curated, ad-free experience. It’s like the business class for journalism.

How about regional publishers with paywalls? How soon might you add some of those?

We’re going to use our beta to figure out what kind of content our users are most interested in. That could be regional publishers, but also niche publications. That’s what we’re going to figure out over the next couple of months: What kind of content will people happily pay for?

If the beta offering of 10,000 is fully subscribed and more, will you let others in right away? Or do you want to fine-tune with the beta cohort for some period of time?

We’ll invite 10,000 people this week. Part of that will consist of people that already applied, but we’ll also let in people that register (Wednesday) on a first-come first-serve basis.

How soon are you prepared to add other publications?

Very soon.

Since we talked, ad blocking has risen as a concern, and there seems to be a lot of tinkering with basic paywall and paid subscription offerings. Both would seem positives for the launch. Do you agree? Is there anything else changing in the industry that’s a plus or minus?

For sure. More and more publishers are looking to generate reader revenue instead of just being dependent on ads. Even Medium has been talking about it. Just like people currently pay for Spotify or Netflix or Evernote or apps, I think more people will start to pay for journalism. Our expectation is that a platform like Blendle can help accelerate this trend.

On the other hand, even startups with solid logic and pedigree are no sure thing, and Blendle faces significant challenges. Its first successes in the Netherlands had the participation of nearly all publishers; it’s initial expansion was to Germany, where the number of news choices is also limited by language and paywalls.

Coverage in the United States cannot possibly be that comprehensive. And there remains the uncertainty of how many American readers, with so much content available for free, will warm to the concept.

Getting the service known widely and quickly will also take some doing — though promotion by the publishing partners could help with that.

The appeal to the who’s-who of publishers is not surprising. If Blendle catches on, the partners’ share of the payments (70 percent) could be a welcome supplemental source of income from readers.

And even if the uptake is more modest, Blendle will introduce the branded content to a new audience that tilts to younger readers that might be converted to paid subscribers.

One of my favorite media analysts, Frederic Filloux of Monday Note, was initially a skeptic of Blendle but eventually concluded the startup has a fighting chance to become “something big” though a combination of good design and good timing.

Even in this era of rapid experimentation, there aren’t so many of those.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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