It sounds like such an appealing idea: an iTunes for news, where instead of songs you buy individual stories from different outlets, rather than paying to subscribe to an entire newspaper or website. New York Times media writer David Carr even suggested such a thing in 2009 (and was widely criticized for doing so), but no one has been able to make it work. A Dutch startup called Blendle, however, says it has built exactly that, and it is not only working but succeeding — and it just signed up its first English-language publisher: The Economist.
Alexander Klopping, 27, co-founded Blendle with his partner Marten Blankesteijn, also 27, last year. The idea was to get as many Dutch newspaper, magazine and other publishers to sign on to the platform and provide access to individual articles for a small sum — as little as 0.10 Euros, or roughly 14 cents U.S. Blendle provides a web and mobile app that allows readers to scan the content, search through it, save it and share it, and also filters the various stories based on popularity.
The company has signed up most of the country’s major publishers, and according to a post that Klopping wrote recently on Medium, the startup already has 60,000 registered users — after only being open to the public for a month. On top of that, the Blendle co-founder says the average user of the service is under the age of 35, a demographic group that isn’t supposed to be interested in paying for content.
Klopping says 20 percent of the company’s 60,000 registered users have already converted into paying subscribers, and have put “a six-figure sum” into the accounts of the company to pay for their articles. And on June 9, the company announced that it had signed up The Economist as a publishing partner, the first English-speaking publication to be featured. In his Medium post, Klopping makes it sound as though the startup has its sights set on the rest of the globe too:
Paying for quality journalism should be as easy as buying an app in the App Store. Paying for an article should only take one click. You should have all magazines and newspapers in one place, without needing to register at different websites to consume articles from different publishers. You should be able to instantly see what your friends have shared, get algorithmic suggestions, or read what’s popular overall.
There have been a number of attempts to build an English-language version of an “iTunes for news,” and one of the most elaborate was called Ongo, a joint venture between the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Gannett newspaper chain, each of which reportedly invested $4 million in the project. Despite the fanfare, however — and an impressive list of partners that included more than 100 publications — Ongo shut its doors less than 18 months later.
Why did Ongo fail? A number of theories have been advanced, including a complicated pricing scheme that was driven in part by the reluctance of partners like the New York Times to provide access to all of their content (they have their own apps now, of course) and in part by Apple’s stranglehold over the iPad ecosystem, which made it difficult — or uneconomic — for papers to charge micro-payments for their content. Or perhaps it was just too early.
For my part, I think Blendle and other paywall models — such as Piano Media’s all-in-one access approach — will have a difficult time replicating the success they have had in single-language markets like the Netherlands. To some extent, the language barrier supports the paywall model because it restricts competition, but if the content is in English it instantly becomes fungible.
The biggest competitive threat for services like Blendle isn’t that people don’t want to pay for content, it’s that there is an ocean of free news and information available already through apps like Flipboard or Zite, not to mention through a web browser. That inevitably brings up complaints that the newspaper industry is the architect of its own demise due to the “original sin” of offering its content for free online, but the reality is that we can’t turn back the clock and make information scarce again, no matter how much newspapers would like to do so.