Two lists unlike all the others, or: what happens when you ask people to pay for journalism online

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Sadly enough, I spent one of my vacation days right after Christmas staring at a screen. But what was going on there was kind of amazing. I was looking at the stats that tell me which articles are the most popular on Blendle, the pay-per-story journalism platform I started to work for a few months ago when it launched in Germany. That day, two stories were competing for the top spot. Both of which would never have made it to the top of that other other list, the one with Facebook’s trending articles.

One of the stories was a beautifully researched, dramatic piece about the days leading up to and following a monumental speech by Vladimir Putin in Munich in 2007. The other story was an insightful interview with Harvard nutrition researcher Walter Willet who talked about our eating habits, and how we will eat in the future. Both stories cost real money. One 35 cent, the other 65 cent.

What Blendle looks like.

At Blendle, my team and I help our over 500.000 users to discover the best journalism every day. We look for the smartest writing of the day, and send it to our users in a short email. So they not only know what the talk of the town is, but actually have something smart to say about it. Many of these are stories they wouldn’t find in their Facebook feeds. Stuff that is hidden behind paywalls or in paper magazines. In the four months I’ve been doing this, I realized just how much the behavior of people changes when you don’t just want to get them to click a story, but if you have to convince them that it is worth paying real money for.

So here are two lists that show what happens when you ask people to pay for journalism online. And when you give them the option to get their money back for each story.

These were the 5 best selling stories of Blendle’s first four months in Germany

  1. Super informative interview. Harvard nutrition researcher Walter Willet talks about just how terribly we eat today, and what the future of food looks like. Published in Brigitte, one of Germany’s leading women’s magazines.
    “Kluge Leute trinken keine Cola”, Brigitte, € 0,65 »
  2. Correspondent Wilfried Buchta describes describes two possible futures for the Middle East, in “Middle East 2035”. Clear, and understandable and smart.
    “Nahost 2035”, Cicero, € 0,35 »
  3. Jan Böhmermann is the probably the coolest TV personality in Germany right now. In this interview he shares his entertaining and smart take on current affairs.
    “‘Wissen Ihre Kinder, was Sie tun? — ‘Ja, Quatsch!’”, Stern, € 0,65
  4. How Tinder became the most popular dating app, and how it changed dating forever. Published in a magazine called profil that many Germans don’t even know because it’s from Austria.
    “Tingle Bells”, profil, € 0,89
  5. Hysterical debate here. A heated discussion between columnist Harald Martenstein and pop star Peter Fox, both famous in Germany. They talk about life in Berlin, taxes and cars. Ridiculously fun and dead serious at the same time.
    “‘Das Auto ist meine Kapsel’ — ‘Harald, das ist absurd’”, Tagesspiegel, € 0,25

So that’s a pretty cool list. But here’s an even cooler one: the stories people not only chose to read, but chose to actually pay for — even if you give them the option not to. On Blendle, at the end of each story, you can ask for an instant refund. So if you really didn’t like a story, Blendle will give you back your money immediately.

The option for a refund at the end of every story

The rate at which people refund is, to me, the ultimate number. Much more important than clicks, sales, everything. Just imagine you could get some sort of refund for every time you click a headline in your Facebook or Twitter newsfeeds, just to see that there’s a cheap video behind it, some ad or a shitty story, clearly put together in the shortest possible time. Overall, just under ten percent of the stories read on Blendle get refunded. These are overwhelmingly clickbaity stories that promise too much in the headline, the “You Won’t Believe What Happened Next” stories. So this list will tell you what kind of journalism people really care deeply about, enough to spend real money on it.

The ultimate list: These are the most popular, least refunded stories of the first four months of Blendle Deutschland

  1. With the rise of IS “terror is pop” is one of the take aways of this piece. It’s a quote by researcher Javier Lesaca, who has analyzed all 1000+ propaganda videos of the Islamic State.
    “Islamischer Staat”: Die digitale Front, Tagesspiegel, € 0,25
    98% of people who read this story thought it was worth its money, refunds: 1,69%
  2. Fascinating profile of Vitalik Buterin, the 21-year old “Blockchain”-wunderkind who is disrupting global finance.
    “Der digitale Lenin”, Capital, € 0,89
    97% of people who read this story thought it was worth its money, refunds: 2,59%
  3. An in depth look at what organic food is today, and how large food corporations make the term “organic” basically meaningless.
    “Was ist noch bio?”, Welt am Sonntag, € 0,25
    97% of people who read this story thought it was worth its money, refunds: 3,17%
  4. A truly mind blowing story of a woman who tricked everyone in her life into believing she was dying of cancer, including this newspaper.
    “Der Tod steht als mächtiger Schutzwall vor der Lüge”, Tagesspiegel, € 0,25
    97% of people who read this story thought it was worth its money, refunds: 3,20%
  5. One of the top 5 stories on Blendle: an interview with Germany’s coolest TV personality, satirist Jan Böhmermann. 
    “Wissen Ihre Kinder, was ihr Vater macht? — “Ja, Quatsch”, Stern, € 0,65
    97% of people who read this story thought it was worth their money, refunds: 3,24%
  6. The emotional story of a burnt out worker, how his life broke apart because of the illness and how he managed to become healthy again.
    “Das erschöpfte Ich und seine Heilung”, Stern, € 0,65
    97% of people who read this story thought it was worth their money, refunds: 3,27%
  7. Well researched reconstruction of the days that led up to and the ones that followed Vladimir Putins monumental speech in Munich in 2007.
    “War ich zu hart, Edmund?”, Cicero, € 0,35
    97% of people who read this story thought it was worth their money, refunds: 3,33%
  8. Interview with chief politics correspondent of FAS on what happened after he criticized the extreme right in Germany. It wasn’t pretty.
    “Gier nach Gewalt”, Die Zeit, € 0,29
    97% of people who read this story thought it was worth their money, refunds: 3,36%
  9. A gripping opinion piece on what leads young, arabic men to sexually molest women in mass events like the new year’s eve celebration in the city of Cologne.
    “Misere und Machismo”, Der Spiegel, € 0,75
    96% of people who read this story thought it was worth their money, refunds: 3,85%
  10. Mindblowing profile on a 23-year-old woman who was brought up in Nazi camps, how she escaped and came to be an activist against Nazi tendencies in Germany.
    “Heidi und die Brandstifter”, Die Zeit, € 0,89
    95% of people who read this story thought it was worth their money, refunds: 4,5%

It can come off wrong when you celebrate sales in journalism. Many of these stories revolve around horrible things, terror, wars or sexual violence. But put yourself into the shoes of a journalist. What they think when they see that list of the best selling stories. They know that there were many stories written about these issues, but that this is the really well researched, well produced, well written stuff. It’s the stuff they’ve heard for years just “doesn’t work” online.

Not only in Germany, but everywhere, journalists get criticized on a daily basis. In the U.S., trust in media is lower than ever. And a lot of the criticism is totally fair. Journalists fuck up all the time. Some are just bad at their job. But some of the blame is on us. We need to set the incentives straight. And that’s exactly what happens on Blendle. Here, it’s not clicks that count. Here, you don’t only have to write a good headline, you have to write a great story. One that people find useful, even after they read it. Because you don’t have to get people to only click, but also to love. You have to fight for reader’s trust with every single story. That’s a win-win.

As a journalist I know that this is the coolest stuff to write. Because it’s impactful. As a reader I know that finding these kinds of pieces feels fucking amazing. Because you suddenly understand something that you’ve never understood before. Or you learn something that is useful, and helps you make better decisions in your life. And as a person working at Blendle, I can tell you that it’s awesome to see that this really good stuff is the stuff that is trending on our platform.

So about that vacation day: the interview with the nutritionist won. It sold about fifty or so times more than the story about Russian president Putin. It was a close race, and I really didn’t care too much, because both were winners. And both were really valuable stories that will probably give you at least one take away that you won’t ever forget. Now, I don’t remember what the top story was on Facebook that day. But right now it’s this:

So this is what Facebook’s designers and developers and business people think is the most important thing for me to see right now. I’ve seen it, it’s a fun video. Let’s just make sure no one confuses this with journalism.

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