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Tech Workshop

Making micropayments work for journalism

Blendle is applying the iTunes model to journalism. But can it make micropayments work?

17 Mar 2017

As print circulations fall and ad blockers become ubiquitous, the question of paywalls is something most, if not all, newspaper publishers are pondering.

One startup is offering a happy medium: a platform that lets users pay to read single articles that would usually sit behind a paywall. Publications on Blendle’s platform include Bloomberg Businessweek and the Washington Post, with articles costing between 7p and 39p.

It’s a good deal compared to a Wall Street Journal subscription (£348 a year), and, as Blendle’s head of editorial Jessica Best points out, it stops readers having to sift through ‘the avalanche of crap that’s online’.

Blendle is hoping to tap into this clickbait fatigue, even offering refunds on articles that haven’t quite made the grade; feedback that can then be analysed by the publications.

Go big or go home

The company first launched in the Netherlands in 2014, with Germany following soon after, focusing mainly on Dutch and German language titles.

Rather than expanding further into Europe, the company has decided to take on one of the most difficult media markets in the world. The platform is now available in ‘beta’ mode in the US, the logic being, ‘if we can make it work here, this can be a real and viable option for publishers’, says Best.

She is confident the company can win users with its ‘quality not clicks’ approach to journalism. To push this point, Best and her team send curated email digests to users with their top story picks.

The problem with micropayments

The Financial Times and Wall Street Journal (both available on Blendle) have successfully implemented paywalls, but papers with less specialist content have struggled to replicate this.

US readers in particular appear more unwilling to pay for online news than their European counterparts, with paywalls generating an estimated 1% of newspaper revenue in the US.

Currently, publishers set the price of their articles on Blendle, with the platform taking a 30% cut. It says micropayments provide a cost-effective way to access a broad range of sources, opening up a new market for publishers. It claims more than one million people have signed up to the platform.

The feedback from users, though, is that they’re not so keen on making multiple small payments. In the Netherlands, the platform is already making a move away from micropayments, trialing a £8-a-month subscription that gives users access to 20 articles at this set price.

Whether users will be happy to ration their reading – particularly when they are used to the ‘unlimited’ nature of similar subscription services Spotify and Netflix – remains to be seen.

The Wall Street Journal’s recent announcement that it will launch its own micropayments model, leaving its future with Blendle unclear, is another headache.

An app that can turn fortunes around for publishers while providing value to readers is an exciting prospect. If Blendle can overcome the inherent challenges of the industry, it could be a gamechanger.