Blendle Looks to Expand Its Extremely Metered Paywall
Alexander Klöpping doesn’t scan as a natural ally for newspapers. The former TV news presenter is 27 and, when dressed in Silicon Valley-style casual, looks even younger. Last year, at a dinner with reporters and editors from De Volkskrant, a daily in his native Holland, he stood up and said, “I never paid one cent for journalism in my life.” The remark was recalled by Philippe Remarque, the paper’s editor in chief, who added, “We started booing him, just for fun. And then he said, ‘Lately, I am paying for Spotify, so you see, if you make the service good enough, then people will pay.’”
Klöpping used to write for De Volkskrant. Now he’s selling it, piece by piece. With co-founder Marten Blankesteijn, also a former journalist, Klöpping and his two-year-old startup, Blendle, have demonstrated unprecedented success persuading people to buy news by the article. Based in Utrecht, Blendle is basically an iTunes for Dutch newspapers, an app and a website where readers can buy articles for €0.10 to €0.30 (13¢ to 38¢) a pop. In a country of 16 million, the service has signed up 129,000 users since its April 28 launch.
Blendle sells articles from most of the major Dutch papers, as well as from some Belgian publishers, and magazines that include the Economist. Readers can scan the major front pages and a handful of recommendations for individual articles from staffers and their friends. The recommendations are presented in a format that looks a little like Twitter. New users start with a credit of €2.50, and so far one in five has spent more than that. Buyers have a short window during which they can cancel an article purchase and get a refund. If they don’t, Blendle takes a 30 percent cut.
Klöpping says Blankesteijn conceived Blendle after realizing that hardly any of his friends were reading the articles he wrote. Few Dutch newspapers make many of their stories available for free online, so there’s no way for consumers to read a few articles a month, as the New York Times’ paywall allows. (Some Dutch papers offer free articles online that aren’t as well-written as their print editions.) Publishers resisted Blendle’s model at first, afraid of cannibalizing their newsstand or subscription sales, but Klöpping convinced them that the service wouldn’t sap their current readership. Two-thirds of Blendle users are under age 35. “This reaches a new audience, younger than our core audience,” says De Volkskrant’s Remarque.
Klöpping and Blankesteijn’s work as journalists helped with the pitch. Klöpping “says he respects quality journalism, and you do believe him,” says Remarque, adding that De Volkskrant expects to make about $76,000 this year through Blendle—not exactly a newsroom budget, but not bad for found money. The service offers papers a relatively high degree of control, letting them set article prices and show the stories in their own fonts.
On Oct. 27, Blendle announced an investment that Klöpping says will help it expand abroad. The New York Times Co. and Axel Springer Digital Ventures, a division of the German media company that publishes Europe’s largest-circulation newspaper, Bild, paid a combined $3.8 million for a little less than a quarter of the 26-employee company. Klöpping says he’s debating where to set up shop next, but it’ll be in Europe. He says there’s also a potential sideline in selling English-language articles in countries where “most people don’t feel comfortable reading whole English newspapers, but if someone recommends an article, they want to read it.”
The obvious hurdle is getting enough papers to sign up. Klöpping says he’s in talks with U.S. publishers (he declined to name any), which tend to have few foreign subscribers and sell ads at junk rates in countries where they don’t have a sales force. In those cases, a Blendle deal is pretty much all upside, says Christian Van Thillo, chief executive officer of De Persgroep, which owns newspapers in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark and has deals with Blendle to sell some of its articles. “This might not be great money, but it’s incremental money,” Van Thillo says. “So the margins are great.”