Last week, we wrote about media companies planning a “powerful network” to compete against Facebook. Little did we realize that this appears to be a Dutch-based micro-payment journalism Web site called Blendle, which is currently in beta with 10,000 testers in the U.S. The New York Times and German publisher Axel Springer have provided $3.8 million in financial backing. Of course, with Facebook taking in some $17 billion in ad revenue and Blendle foregoing ads, the contest may be a mite one-sided. And, on another level, we have to wonder if media companies are simply abandoning the ad-supported model because Google and Facebook so dominate programmatic buying. We can understand frustration over that, but thinking micropayments are the answer seems a stretch.
News of Blendle's existence is not new. MediaPost wrote about it as recently as July 7 and published a letter from its co-founder two years ago. What is a revelation, however, is that anybody would take this concept seriously as a potential competitor to much of anything, let alone Facebook.
Blendle bills itself as “the biggest platform of premium journalism in the country.” It’s not clear what country is meant by this, as Blendle is based in Holland. But the list of media partners on the Blendle Web site is crystal clear, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, Time, The Huffington Post, Advertising Age, The Washington Post, The Economist, Inc., even The New York Review of Books.
According to a summary by Alexander Klopping, the co-founder of Blendle, the new product will be to journalism what Netflix is to video. “Journalism needs a Spotify, a Netflix, an iTunes — whatever you want to call it,” Klopping wrote. “One Web site that houses the best newspapers and magazines in the country, that allows people to browse through everything and only pay for the stories they like, where you can see what your friends recommended. And where it’s really easy to just get the eight or 10 best stories published every day, and discover those really great pieces. Nobody built it, so we did it ourselves.”
Content Curated By Editors
A bunch of fairly high-profile editors “curate” the best stories from the partners. “We have some awesome users you can follow that curate the best stories in their field of interest. To name a few, Fusion senior editor Felix Salmon curates his view on the best business stories. BBC journalist Kim Ghattas covers politics. MediaShift’s Mark Glaser selects the best media stories. And Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for The New York Times, Michi Kakutani, shares the best in culture journalism.”
If you don’t like the story you pay for, Klopping promises, you will get your money back. And even if you agree to pay, micropayments like this are for a few cents at best. Not exactly a way to financial power. The sample stories on the Blendle site include a New York Times story on Marco Rubio losing momentum in the Republican primary, hardly a timely or unique piece. Try to imagine someone paying extra for this, and you get an idea of the difficulty of the concept here.
Yes, you will say, people pay for online subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. But what Blendle is supposed to be is not a newspaper with breaking news, but an amalgamation of “investigative reporting, revelatory background articles, newsworthy analysis and hard-hitting interviews.” All of this, of course, is available for free now on sites like Google News or Yahoo!, or from several sites underwritten by Pierre Omidyar of Ebay.
Moreover, if the idea here is that with Blendle, one would only have to read the highlights of stories from the New York Times or WSJ without subscribing to the whole thing, try this little experiment. If you have read your 10 free articles a month on nytimes.com, and want more, go to the story you want to read, copy the headline, and paste it into Google. The story will come up in its entirety; the paywall disappears. Don’t ask me why this works, but it almost always does. I am not a hacker; indeed, a child would know how to do this. And many of the partners listed here do not have paywalls, and make their material available in archives. Why pay for it?
There is a very funny picture of Alexander Klopping online, with his self-described “geeky backpack,” going into the New York Times’ building. One gets the feeling that Times security was alerted. So, if on Klopping’s slender shoulders, the future of journalism rests, let’s examine his project a little.
The U.S. Is Not The Netherlands
He says that the concept has been tested successfully in Germany and Holland, and that “all major publishers [are] on board in Germany. In both countries, we have over 650,000 registered users who read millions of articles every month. Half of our users are under 35, people who would usually never pay for a piece of journalism.” However, in a reply to a Blendle skeptic, Klopping admits, “You think that Blendle will not work as well in English speaking countries as it currently does in the Netherlands. We’ll see who is right, but even if you are correct: if Blendle works really well in the non-English speaking world, we’re very happy.”
To compare the U.S. to the Netherlands is pretty risky. More people live in the New York metropolitan area than in Holland. It’s densely populated, and with a population far less diverse than the U.S., 78.3% of the population is considered Dutch ethnically. We aren’t sure how many Dutch news sites have paywalls, but not many American ones do. Ask USA Today what happened when they tried that. Certainly most of the partners listed here make their material available readily online.
Another question we have gets to the heart of the dilemma media companies seem to be in right now. Why do august institutions like The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Bloomberg Businessweek need a platform provided by a young European who doesn’t seem hugely familiar with American media? (For the record, Klopping did not respond to two emails.) Why not just introduce micropayments on their own respective Web platforms? What’s the secret sauce here?
The fact that media companies think programmatic advertising is stacked against them does not surprise us. But their solution does. If I ran a major media company, I would immediately put my staff to work finding new ideas that would work online. And if my staff couldn’t come up with anything viable, I would hire new people. History shows us how reluctant media companies were to have avoided investments in just about every major online development, from Google and YouTube to Facebook, so why not reverse the pattern now, go out and use the equity you still have to fund new online concepts that work? There is still time. Barely.