Blendle, an article micropayment app has launched in the US this week, seeking to reinvent how readers “can discover and support the best journalism in the country”.
Could this be the long-awaited “iTunes of journalism” that finally turns the broken publishing model around? Blendle and its partners certainly hope so, and they place great emphasis on making it second nature to pay for content.
Its US launch follows success in the Netherlands in 2014 and later into Germany. More importantly, Blendle believe they have cracked the millennial market.
“Half of our users are under 35, people who would usually never pay for a piece of journalism” founder Alexander
“10 years ago nobody paid for music on the web. Nobody paid for video on the web. And in journalism, there has been no substantive platform innovation on a decent scale”.
It’s certainly putting more power into the hands of readers, but how much is too much?
The pricing logic initially looks baffling. Articles appear to range in price from $0.19 for some New York Times pieces to $0.54 for The Economist¹, and publishers make the decision on what to charge. This raises some interesting questions about how valuable individual publishers perceive their content to be, and it’s still unclear whether that will vary by article or by publisher.
But this is how journalism has always been. High and low quality content used to sit side by side, in bundles called ‘newspapers’ (I of course, am too young to remember such a time). The price you paid for your news marked you out as a certain type of person, and loyalty to a paper brand has been a defining feature of generations since the dawn of the printing press.
However, there’s one important change that Blendle have made to that model. For the first time, I can instantly get my money back if I don’t like the article.
On the one hand, this is the perfect safeguard against the wave of rubbish filling the internet every day. If the article is poor quality, too short or in general not what I expected, I can get a refund in a tap or two.
But what if I didn’t like what the article said? What if I disagreed, or it made me angry? Could this be the start of people only paying for articles that align with their worldview?
The idea is not as far-fetched as you may imagine. We all read and share articles that provoke a negative reaction, and it would be easy to demand a refund of payment as a protest against the publisher or specific author.
Jean Mertz at Blendle was quick to reassure me when I expressed my doubts on Twitter. “First and foremost, we trust our readers,” he said, and “secondly, we have some checks and balances in place against abuse.”
The article return model definitely has benefits, if the theory works. Articles that get refunded a lot disappear from Blendle, and that means “clickbait can’t exist and only quality journalism starts trending”.
Blendle have also said that the return rate is miniscule in their other market areas, and with 20% of their 650,000 European users having paid in some way, this could be the catalyst for the much-needed shake up in digital publishing.
The ‘iTunes’ of journalism
This could be the game-changer. It’s had a successful European roll-out, and its US release has all the necessary big names on board.
The problem is quite simple, as Peter Kafka points out on re/code. “People don’t go to reading apps to read stuff,” he argues. “Just ask all the failed readings apps (none of which charged a penny)”.
We can see this already in Apple News and Facebook’s Notify, both of which have quietly slipped under the radar. Why will Blendle be any different?
If its US launch is successful, the Blendle team will have a whole host of other issues to deal with like accessibility for publishers who aren’t the New York Times. Then there’s the question of visibility for smaller publishers – a problem that similar offerings have only entrenched.
“Unless Blendle, or a Blendle-like payment system…gets built into browsers or apps, most people will never have any idea it exists” says Kafka.
It would be fantastic if Blendle works. At the very least, perhaps it will kick-start reader’s willingness to pay for content and pave the way for real value to be attached to articles. But I can’t help feeling that this is too little too late for a broken industry.
Blendle, I hope you prove me wrong.
¹ Craig Salia via Twitter (@saila)