Is Blendle, the iTunes for Journalism, the Next Big Media Model?

Editor’s note: This article was adapted from a version recently published on our Contently sister site The Freelancer. A few questions regarding brands and advertising have been added to the interview.

It would be putting it lightly to say that the last couple of decades have been a tumultuous time for journalism. Dutch news site Blendle wants to bring some order to the chaos.

When the Internet all but demolished traditional publishing models, most people wondered if we were experiencing the death of journalism (at least as we knew it). The old revenue model that combined advertising with subscriptions and newsstand sales crumbled faster than anyone could have imagined, and new media companies such as BuzzFeed and Vox quickly took over with alternative ways to monetize.

Traditional companies were left scrambling, and despite minor adjustments among big-name publishers like The New York Times and The New Yorker, many are still gasping for air when it comes to competing with the likes of BuzzFeed.

In a recent interview with Re/code, BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti spoke about the publishing giant’s recent pivot to a social media first mentality. BuzzFeed wants to optimize its articles and videos for platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube first, rather than its own website.

Taken to a logical extreme, this move represents an incredible transference of power to social media companies, which ultimately control newsworthy algorithms—not to mention a cut of advertising profits.

For traditional media companies looking for an alternative, Blendle may have an answer. The website essentially acts as the iTunes of journalism“: It’s a reinvention of the newsstand, built for the Internet, where readers pay by the article instead of per issue or through a monthly subscription.

This all occurs seamlessly in a way that prioritizes the user: your credit card information is stored on the site for easy payment, and an unorthodox refund option allows a user to get their money back if they’re not satisfied with the piece.

Traditional publishers seem to be excited by Blendle’s potential to provide a desperately needed new revenue stream. The New York Times (a Blendle investor), The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post have already signed up, and more American publishers are likely on the way.

To find out more about the company we talked with Marten Blankesteijn, who founded Blendle with fellow former journalist Alexander Klöpping. He elaborated on Blendle’s potential impact on the publishing industry, how brands and advertisers fit in, and what kind of articles are performing best on the “digital newsstand.” (Spoiler alert: You’re reading one right now.)

Do you see Blendle as transforming the journalism and media industry or as a complement to the current model?

I see it as complementary. People who like subscriptions are being served. People who don’t like subscriptions, or don’t like one brand enough to want a subscription, are not being served at all. And when those people don’t subscribe, a lot of publishers assume that they don’t want to pay. I do want to pay for a couple of great FT articles every month, but I don’t want to sign up. That’s why I’m not paying them at the moment.

In the Netherlands there are apparently many people like me, and they’ve now suddenly started paying because we make it incredibly easy. There are people who are not fans of one brand, but they do think great articles are worth a lot of money. Those are the people we try to cater to.

How do you see native advertising fitting into Blendle? How does advertising in general fit into your plans for Blendle?

There will be no advertising published by us. You can browse through newspapers and magazines, and if there’s advertising in there you’ll see it, but that’s not something we make money from. The same applies to native advertising. We’re only a tech company that’s a middle-man between publishers and users.

If publishers want to include native advertising in their feeds, that would be possible. But I would question as a user whether I’d want to pay for native advertising. But maybe if it’s done very well.

So do you see Blendle as a way of escaping advertising for people who are frustrated by traditional models?

I think native advertising can work perfectly well for a company like BuzzFeed, but for traditional newspapers and magazines, that model so far has not worked. The only one who is still pushing towards publishing everything for free is the Guardian, and they’re losing like $30 million a year. So free models or advertising models do not bring in enough money to pay for the salaries of the journalists there—except for the companies who were just founded a couple of years ago. That’s why I think the Blendle model is going to be a great addition for those companies, as an addition to their subscriber money.

We know that there is stuff available for free, but we have found that people do want to pay when it is easy to do so and if the content is great. The same applies, for example, to the music business. Why are people paying for Spotify if any song is available for free on YouTube? Tens of millions of people and maybe even hundreds of millions of people are paying for Spotify, which doesn’t make sense when you look at it from a financial perspective, but the easiness and the discovery is very good. We try to be as good in discovery and as good in the easiness to pay as Spotify is on the music side. And for that, I think people are willing to pay.

You touched on BuzzFeed and digital-only, digital-first publications. Do you see them fitting into Blendle, or is it only focused on more traditional publishers?

All of those BuzzFeed-like, digital-first companies could also be on Blendle. Basically, we can cater to everyone who has a kind of paywall. But if you’re accessing everything for free, it doesn’t make sense to charge money for it. But if BuzzFeed introduced a “BuzzFeed Premium” with only premium articles that you needed to subscribe for, then we’d be thrilled to have them on board.

Would you ever consider having a brand publication on Blendle? Say GE produced a really good article that people were legitimately were interested in: Would you run that on Blendle?

It’s hard to say. We’ve never had a situation like that. It really depends on the quality of the pieces. People have to trust it, because we’re just a store—if we put stuff in our store that nobody trusts, and nobody is going to buy it, then there’s no use in trying to sell it. The only thing we look it is “do people want to pay for this?” If the answer is “no” then we are not interested, and if the answer is “yes” then we are very interested.

So is that a judgment call, or do you guys try to use data to do that?

So far it has been very easy, because it’s just been major publications asking whether they can join or not. We didn’t have to think very long when The New York Times joined us and when The Wall Street Journal joined us. We’re not in a grey area, so I’ve never been in that position—but when we are we have to set certain guidelines. Fortunately that is something we haven’t been forced to work on.

With the refund system, how exactly does that work? Say if someone read an article and they want a refund for a less than reasonable reason, like disagreeing with the author, is there sort of system in place to stop that?

The only system that is in place is a fair-use policy, which indicates that you shouldn’t refund everything. But we cannot judge reasons, we can only see that people want their money back or not. We do ask for a reason, but that’s mainly for us to get some insight into what people think. We have pre-selected reasons like the article was too long, or the article was priced too high, but that’s mainly for us and for the publishers to get a sense of why people didn’t like it so maybe you can adapt the content to our system.

But you can get your money back for any reason, and the most important reason for that is because we believe that you can only judge whether an article is worth your money or not when you’ve actually read the article. So if you make the big payment decision before the article, you never know what you’re going to get. It could be clickbait, it could be a really good article, or it could be the best article you’ve ever read. We try to postpone the decision till after the article. We’re totally fine with people refunding a lot of articles as long as they also buy more. That’s basically what we’re trying to encourage.

How would you respond to people who say big media companies need to produce articles that may not be of the highest quality for clicks and for views?

This is my personal opinion, but I strongly disagree with that—at least if you want people to pay for it. If your model is get a lot of clicks and sell a lot of ads, that certainly makes sense, but there are many of those websites already. I think what the traditional companies can add is to be the best in every subject. It doesn’t matter if you’re 24 hours after the first news, or you don’t have a lot of clicks, because as long as you’re the very best, people will want to pay for it.

When I’m reading an Economist article, I just know it’s going to be really good. And I would appreciate The Economist staying in that area instead of being less good. They would be making, relatively speaking, lesser articles but with a better headline. Then they’re competing with BuzzFeed, and they’re not going to win that. It’s better that they stay The Economist or The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal and make sure they’re extremely good at what they do.

Actually, if I were a newspaper, I would make fewer articles but with much higher quality to make sure everything you create is much better than what you can find at other websites.

So in that way do you guys see yourselves as improving the quality of journalism? Is that one of your goals as a company?

I used to be a journalist, and this is what I really hope for. All the publishers were extremely pessimistic about our chances. They thought that nobody would want to sign up. They thought that nobody would want to pay a couple of cents for an article. They’re very surprised now, and actually very happy, that it turns out that a lot of young people do want to pay for journalism—as long as, first of all, the content is good, of course, and second, that the payment and the discovery are very easy. I hope that encourages publishers [to make quality content]. For example, with the refund option, we see that with gossip magazines the refund percentage is much higher than with quality newspapers.

In that way, our system encourages people to write better articles instead of clickbait. The Internet only functions as a clickbait generator, because, as you said, as soon as you’re doing clickbait, you get more clicks. People are not getting happier, but you do get more clicks. Ours is basically the only system where you get punished for clickbait because people refuse to pay for it. In that way, we encourage quality journalism. It’s not that tomorrow the world is going to be completely different thanks to us, but if we can do a couple of small things to encourage quality journalism instead of clickbait, we’ll be very happy.

So clickbait is getting high refund percentages, but what is doing well?

What’s doing really well is interviews, because the free web is mainly the three paragraph news stories—so the bigger interviews are doing really well. The background pieces, not “what” happened but “why did it happen,” are doing really well. Same goes for analysis and columns, [as in] opinions of very well-known people on actual topics.

This also means that news stories are not selling at all. The story about what happened yesterday, or the story about us signing The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post is now everywhere on the web, and if the very same story is in the newspaper tomorrow, then nobody is going to buy it. But if someone has a big interview with me or my co-founder, then people would probably want to read it because there aren’t that many big interviews with us.

Are there any other American publications that you guys are talking with or planning to work with?

A lot, but we have a policy not to mention that before we have the signature because you’ll never know what happens when you confidently announce that a deal will [happen] and suddenly someone reads that and thinks, F**k you, and the deal is gone.

We want to have all the major publications on board, and this is a great first step because it’s three of the most major newspapers in America. But there are many more newspapers, and also some premium magazines, that we would love to feature on Blendle as well. That’s what we’re working on now.

Image by Sebastiaan Ter Burg

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