Why Blendle’s U.S. launch may not herald a golden age of online journalism
Wed 23 Mar 2016
A new platform launches today in the U.S. which lets users make micropayments of as little as $0.19 for individual news articles from some of Europe’s largest and most prestigious publications – and also lets the reader claim a refund for an unsatisfactory article.
Blendle, which has been called ‘iTunes for news’, launched in Europe in 2014, gaining over 650,000 users in the Netherlands (where the service is based) and Germany. Users are able to cherry-pick the most interesting news pieces in a customised article-stream, often from publications which had offered their content exclusively behind a paywall.
Blendle already had the European arms of several successful American publications on board, including The Economist, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, and today’s Stateside launch adds output from Newsweek, Foreign Affairs, The New York Review Of Books and Barron’s, amongst many others.
Blendle’s founder Alexander Klöpping heralded the U.S. launch, which rolls out initially to 10,000 users, on Medium today, commenting ‘Music has Spotify. Video has Netflix. But journalism still didn’t have it’s own dedicated platform. As a former technology journalist myself, I thought that the lack of such a platform for journalism was pretty strange. Spotify not only helps me access all music, it also makes it easy to discover the best songs, and makes paying for it feel like second nature.’
Blendle takes 30% of the money taken per article. The European prices for news pieces ranges between €0.09 for brief snippets and €1.99 for features. U.S. pricing ranges from 19 to 39 cents for newspaper articles, and 9 and 49 cents for magazine pieces.
According to Business Insider the service is aware of the cost of a traditional subscription for any particular publication, and will either recommend a subscription or stop charging if a user exceeds that amount from any one source. However it is not clear whether this cap is linked to a more expensive print subscription or a cheaper digital one; neither is it clear whether it represents a ceiling after which the reader can access that source’s content freely (which would be hard to calculate on an equivalent monthly basis), or whether the reader will continue to be charged after the warning.
Some aggregate problems
The model being proposed by Blendle is the latest to address the ‘signal-to-noise’ problem of a web saturated with consumer journalism. The pared-down interface and customisable feeds resemble the Apple News model superficially, but obviate the traditional need to intersperse ad content between ‘free’ content, with all the usual risk of blurring those lines – a problem that Apple has not been able to avoid.
Many articles and comments about Blendle today posit it as an experiment so promising that it could lead to a new ‘golden age of online journalism’. Others observe that the AWS-style click-per-item model might be friendlier in the form of a Spotify-like flat subscription model – though it is easy to imagine how difficult it might be to calculate percentages for the most successful contributing publications in such a case.
It seems to me that the Blendle model has a few significant challenges to face in its aim to re-create a traditional 1970s-style consumer-bought newspaper where the revenue streams split away to various publishers based on merit.
Lightning strikes rarely
Firstly, some of the hottest source material comes from sources which will never have a ‘hit’ again. In the field of tech news, such truly primary sources will often get posted to Ycombinator’s Hacker News as a kind of journalistic ‘source code’. Very often the entries in question are erudite and well-written in themselves, needing little or no further elucidation from journalistic middle-entities. This kind of democratic diffusion of information has been the perceived net benefit of ‘blogs’ or ‘citizen journalism’, which has not only threatened and eroded traditional print (and now online) journalism models but also kept them supplied with fresh copy.
Yet subscribing to such a primary source is pointless. A security researcher who finds one news-worthy flaw in some large and important system is very unlikely to find another one of the same magnitude; the next time such a discovery occurs, it will be from someone else digging in some other part of the haystack. Since this principle applies to most fields in news, it signifies that the rawest and least-diluted news will likely remain in the ad hoc field of blogging. Which leaves Blendle as a potential purveyor of the kind of high-funded, high-effort journalism which the current publishing scene has so little scope for.
Cream or scum at the top?
Or perhaps not: the widespread take-up of a Blendle-style service may indeed help the Washington Post to finance those in-depth features so many of the rest of us lack the resources for, but it also pushes a model where every single article must earn its supper on its own merits or form part of a non-hit stream of news which has developed a reliable audience for its niche topics or pursuits.
In real terms, this presents the possibility of exacerbating the last ten years’ trend towards clickbait – a syndrome to which Blendle is currently being widely touted as the antidote. If ‘hit’ articles cannot become effective loss-leaders for ambient content which is less broad in appeal, or for ads, then the Blendle model might not only need to compensate for a loss of depth, but also a less of revenue – and this pressure is not likely to increase the integrity of the journalistic output.
Blendle currently interrogates users who ask for their money back on an article, but no details have been given as to what threshold there might be on article rejection. The current model seems to allow users to gain access to unlimited ‘premium’ content for free, so long as the user is willing to take a few seconds to tick a reason for not paying for the piece.
It could be that an Uber-style rating system would need to be adopted for articles in order to identify users abusing the right-of-refusal. In any case mainstream publishers taking an increasing interest in paywalls in the last two years seem unlikely to be willing to gamble long-term on consumer integrity in this regard.