Why a Dutch publisher launched a mobile app with subscriptions for individual writers

As we argued in a recent post about how publishers can make the most of their star writers — including offering “pay walls” around specific authors — the way we consume news and other content is changing, in the sense that individual brands are as important (or possibly even more so) than publishing brands. Now a Dutch publisher is betting the future of his business on that model: De Nieuwe Pers, or The New Press, has just launched a mobile app for iOS (s aapl) that allows readers to subscribe to individual writers.

The New Press is funded by publisher and CEO Jan-Jaap Heij and a partner, and arose from the ashes of a previous free newspaper called De Pers or The Press. After about five years of operation, the paper was forced to shut down last year as a result of losses incurred during the financial crisis in Europe, Heij told me in an interview from The Netherlands — but instead of closing its doors entirely, the editor decided to create a new entity with many of the same staff and focus solely on mobile news and content.

Readers can subscribe to one writer or a package

Launched on Monday, the New Press app is powered by a company called imgZine, and allows users to pay about $2.50 per month or $23 per year for a subscription to the entire output of a specific author or journalist, or about $6 a month and $50 per year for a package of all the writers who are currently being syndicated through the platform — a total of 11, according to Heij, with a goal of having more than 50 by the end of the year. In the future, he said, The New Press may also offer packages of writers focused around specific topics such as sports or crime.

Jan-Jaap Heij by Frank Groeliken
Jan-Jaap Heij by Frank Groeliken

Although it is still early, Heij says there has been a substantial amount of interest in the app, and not just from users but from journalists and writers as well. As part of its deal with the authors that it distributes, The New Press shares 75 percent of the subscription revenue with them (after paying Apple its 30-percent cut), and if they get 500 or more subscribers to sign up, they get 85 percent. “We have had about 200 people approach us about being part of the service,” Heij says. “After the launch, my mailbox just exploded with requests from journalists.”

Why did The New Press decide to offer a subscription feature for its writers instead of going the traditional route of a blanket paywall or just a charge for the app? Heij says he believes that media is becoming much more about individual brands than institutional ones, and The New Press wanted to take advantage of that phenomenon:

“As we see it, people are now starting to follow journalists as brands and not the media they work for. A lot of journalists have way more followers on Twitter and Facebook than the brands the media company that publishes them, and I think it’s because people want to hear individual voices, not institutional voices. Media brands are losing power and personal brands are becoming more important.”

Heij said that while individual writers have always had strong personal brands, “it’s far more easy than it was even 5 years ago to publish yourself” and build your own following — to the point where some writers such as star blogger Andrew Sullivan have severed any ties to a traditional media outlet and set up their own publishing operation driven by subscriptions.

Maybe not the only answer, but one of many

newspaper boxes

The New Press publisher said that the current selection of writers is a mix of established or “star” names from different sectors of the journalism market, as well as newer writers who show promise and are willing to experiment. All sign freelance contracts with The New Press, and while they don’t require a certain number of articles per week or per month, Heij says that the expectation is that they will work hard for their channel or “one push of a button and they are gone.”

Some of the content related to its writers is free, the New Press publisher said — such as blog posts from other sites or their Twitter stream, for example — but the majority is behind the subscription wall. Some journalists have been using the service to publish their older material from other sites, he said, while others are writing daily or weekly pieces specifically for The New Press, and some are a mix of both approaches. The New Press also has staff writers who do a live-news blog that is free to users.

So is the personal subscription model the future of media? The New Press publisher says he isn’t prepared to go that far, but he thinks it will be a crucial part of the future of content:

“We see ourselves as a combination of a newspaper, a news app and a publishing platform. People have asked me whether this is the answer to the crisis in journalism and I have said I don’t think it’s *the* answer, but it is one possible answer.”

Heij, who made a substantial amount of money investing when he was younger, says that he and his partner have invested about 100,000 Euros in The New Press, and the venture also raised about 25,000 Euros through a crowdfunding effort to launch the app. “I’m quite certain we will lose money at the start, because everything you do in media tends to lose money at the start,” he said. “But I am optimistic that this could turn out to be a very significant business.”

This story was corrected at 5:06 pm to note that Heij made his money through investments, rather than by inheriting it as we originally stated.

Images courtesy of imgZine / Frank Groeliken and Shutterstock / artjazz and Flickr user George Kelly