iTunes for Journalism? Dutch Experiment With Universal Paywall
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March 14, 2014


Hello world, welcome to your new kiosk.

These are the words that greet users who visit the homepage of Dutch journalism startup Blendle. Well, actually, the site reads, “Hallo wereld, welkom bij je nieuwe kiosk” before translation, but it turns out “kiosk” is understood in multiple languages as a place to buy lots of different goods or obtain valuable information.

That’s what Blendle co-founders Alexander Klöpping and Marten Blankesteijn are trying to create in the Netherlands, where they’ve convinced all of the country’s major publishers to place their articles behind one paywall housed in one app — and dubbed it “iTunes for journalism.”

“Every time I walk past a newsstand, I see five, six, seven magazines that have a story on the front page that I would love to buy, but I just don’t want to buy the whole bundle anymore,” Klöpping said. “There’s two defined problems: I want to buy single articles — not be forced to make a decision to buy the whole magazine — and it’s very hard in Holland anyway to buy journalism online.”

This new model of distributing news has emerged as U.S. news publishers continue to struggle to monetize their products. The reason it was able to launch is due, in part, to extraordinarily persistent co-founders who compelled cooperation from the country’s news publishers. And its ability to succeed might be rooted in the simple fact the media culture in The Netherlands — and in much of Europe — is entirely different from that of the United States.

Dutch newspapers, for example, haven’t put hyperlinked versions of their stories online yet. Anyone who shares a news article today there must do it using a PDF replica of a print edition or a screenshot.

Other countries have experimented with this type of national paywall, including Slovakia, Slovenia and Poland. All these countries work through Piano Media, a Slovakia-based organization that markets itself as “Europe’s leading digital monetization company.” Newsweek just chose to implement a metered paywall using Piano Media’s services.


Related story: “Beyond Paywalls: New Way to Charge for News “


Some experts, such as Victor Pickard, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies paywalls, have raised questions about this method of distributing news, saying it could violate anti-trust laws by creating a monopoly over information — though he said he’s unfamiliar with equivalent rules in Holland. In addition, it could be a faulty business model, as the transient nature of news means an article holds less value than, say, a song you’ll listen to over and over again.

“I feel like it just doesn’t seem as feasible,” Pickard said. “We’ll see whether people will be willing to pay for this or generate enough revenue to support the journalism a democratic society requires.”

When Blendle launches in April, users will pay for each story they read, with prices determined by the publishers depending on the length and depth of the article. Blendle gives an example on its website of a short story that costs 0.20 euros (28 cents) and a long piece priced at 0.80 euros ($1.11).

The app will also function somewhat like a social network, in that readers can share stories within the platform and see what their friends or well-known curators have shared.

In addition, they can link to stories on external networks such as Facebook and Twitter — though their followers will still have to pay to read those articles.

Klöpping, who has worked for several Dutch news organizations, said Dutch readers have already proven their ability to pay for news.

About 2 million of the 16 million people living in The Netherlands pay about 300 euros per year ($417.72) for a newspaper subscription, he said. Though the Dutch also read plenty of English news — which tends to be free online — they seem to value quality national journalism enough to pay for it.

In forming Blendle over the past two years, Klöpping has spent much of this time convincing major publishers — about 15 to 20 — to come onboard while his 12-member team worked on building the app, which currently runs only through browsers.

“I’ve spent more time convincing publishers than visiting my mom, which is pretty sad actually,” Klöpping said. “One of the big publishers — called Press Group but in Dutch — when I finally got to the CEO, he said, ‘I don’t know if you have a stamp card for me because you’ve spoken to all the people in this company and this is the final stamp you have left.’”

The Blendle team was able to create an early prototype thanks to government funding that supports innovation in the media, according to Klöpping. (Klöpping and several angel investors also contributed.) Being able to present an actual product to publishers was key to their registration in Blendle, he said.

“You really have to see it to believe it,” he said.

Yet some critics said the individual aspect of Blendle — allowing users to choose which articles they read — might diminish the brand of the newspaper.

“If you like The New York Times, part of what you may like about it is to see which stories they chose to do or which angles they chose to take, maybe on something you’ve already read about,” said Rick Edmonds, The Poynter Institute’s media business analyst. “I’m not sure it’s going to be the solution for everybody, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be the solution for everybody to be successful.”

Another challenge for Blendle may be attracting young users; Klöpping said the average Dutch buyer of news is 48 years old.

Yet one of its outspoken supporters is 19-year-old named Kevin Nijborg who bid 95 euros ($132.28) on marktplaats.nl, a website Klöpping dubbed the “Dutch version of Craigslist,” to win access to the beta version of Blendle.

“I am willing to pay for news and articles that I like, but I can’t buy a newspaper because I would like to read one article,” Nijborg said. “That’s a waste of money in my opinion. That’s why Blendle is so unique.”

Nijborg said Blendle has already changed the way he consumes news; instead of reading free newspapers on the train, he sets up alerts on Blendle that send him articles based on keywords he’s interested in.

He hopes Blendle will develop an app for Windows Phone, so he can get the same access on his phone.

Right now, though, Blendle is still focused on working out the kinks in the browser app, with several thousand people beta testing it. A ticker on the Blendle homepage counts the number of people who have registered for the live version: 15,791 as of Friday afternoon.

One of the draws for Dutch residents is the ability to get their money back if they don’t like an article. This feature is limited based on the number of articles each user pays for compared to the number of articles on which they seek refunds. If a reader seeks too many refunds, the option simply disappears from the account.

“What we saw in our data is that people just read more when they have the option to get their money back,” Klöpping said. “The angst that people have for clicking just disappears.”

There is one catch: Readers must tell Blendle why they’re asking for their money back. They’re given generic options such as “too long” and “too short,” but they also have space to write personal responses.

Using this data, Blende will provide analytics on each story, listing how many people requested a refund as well as the number of users who read, shared and liked each piece. Klöpping said Dutch journalists will probably have to adjust to these statistics, but he hopes it will trigger higher-quality journalism.

“Right now a lot of newspapers overlap content-wise,” he said. “Now [with Blendle] you really have to make sure you’re different from the other newspapers. Otherwise maybe the value of your paper doesn’t matter, but the value of the article just goes down if you don’t. If this results in having the newspapers make more unique content, then I’m really happy.”

Klöpping said he remains convinced that this new model will work, even if other attempts haven’t.

“Micropayments have gotten a pretty bad reputation,” Klöpping said. “All over the world the model has been tried, but I think just not in the right way, not with the right user interface and not with enough publishers, not with enough variety and functionality for the platform to filter the content that’s relevant for you.

“When all those parts come together, you really have something quite magical.”

And at least one newspaper veteran in the U.S. said he sees promise in the emerging Dutch paywall model.

“Too many attempts at charging for news content start with a bunch of newspaper executives, sweat mantling on their heavy brows, stewing in a conference room trying to figure out how to stem declining revenues,” Marcus Brauchli, the vice president of Graham Holdings and the former executive editor of The Washington Post, wrote in an email. “They’re trying to solve a problem they face. But the only way to do that is to solve a problem your readers or consumers face. If you’re doing that, you have some prospect of success.”


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