What are Americans reading on Blendle, and what are they willing to pay for it?

When I joined Blendle as U.S. editor back in February, I’d spent seven years in newsrooms feeling the squeeze of ever-tighter budgets, seeing colleagues laid off in repeated rounds of cost-cutting, and sweating it out in pursuit of terrifying traffic targets. I’d always worked at news organizations where digital content — both worthy and, well, less worthy — was given away for free. So Blendle was something completely new for me: a micropayments platform that lets you discover the world’s best journalism without a subscription by paying small amounts for each story.

Would it change what people read? Would they really be willing to pay for a story, and if so, how much? And with Blendle’s one-click refund feature, wouldn’t they just read stuff and then refund everything?

We opened our U.S. beta to 10,000 people on March 23, giving readers a platform where they could find the best writing from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, TIME Inc, The Financial Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Bloomberg Businessweek and others, without paywalls or ads. Three months on, these are a few things I’ve learned through our experiment so far.

The thing that’s surprised me most is that two out of our three best-selling stories have been, on the face of it, “self-help” stories: a TIME cover feature on “How To Stay Married” and a Wall Street Journal piece on “Why Making Friends is Harder for Grown-Ups”. Lamentations about shrinking social circles as we age aren’t new, and there is a ton of self-help pieces on the free web offering advice on how to make new friends. Ditto the reams of instruction on how to keep your marriage alive/“this one change could save your relationship” features. So why were people willing to pay for these particular pieces?

This would be my guess: Firstly, they’re from The Wall Street Journal and TIME, signalling quality, and are the subject of hard paywalls. Unless you have a TIME and/or Journal subscription, there’s no other way to access these pieces online. But most importantly, once you get inside, these are so much more than puff self-help features. They both use scientific studies, psychiatry professors, and therapists to explain the problem and offer truly expert advice. They are quality reads, based in study and science, on common problems many of us share. And so we reward them.

The rest of our best-selling top 10, so far, looks like this:

  1. Fiercely Frail Millennials, National Review, $0.25. Senior feature writer David French’s blistering opinion feature on why upper-middle-class parenting styles are to blame for the “frail” psychology of millennials.
  2. How To Stay Married, Time, $0.35. Time cover feature looking at why staying married is “more challenging than ever… But new data says it’s worth it.”
  3. Why Making Friends is Harder for Grown-Ups, The Wall Street Journal, $0.49 The Journal’s relationship columnist looks at the academic research that explains why we lose friends as we get older, and expert advice on how to make new ones.
  4. Fear Trumps Hope, The Economist, $0.59. The Economist visited Trump Tower and came back with a stark warning about the presumptive nominee: he’s “terrible news for Republicans, America and the world”.
  5. Porn and the Threat to Virility, TIME, $0.35. The negative effects of watching porn have been much discussed. This investigation into “porn-induced erectile dysfunction” includes interviews with men affected, psychologists and a search for scientific evidence.
  6. My Year in Start-up Hell, Fortune, $0.35. This extract from Dan Lyons’ much-hyped book Disrupted, on his experience of working at start-up Hubspot, was published in Fortune before the book was available in paperback.
  7. How to Win Friends and Influence People, The Economist, $0.59. In-depth analysis of how Facebook turned itself into one of the world’s most influential tech giants, and what it will do next.
  8. Democracies End When They Are Too Democratic, New York Magazine, $0.19. Andrew Sullivan’s essay on how America has become “a breeding ground for tyranny”, discussing Plato, Trump, and everything in between.
  9. What If He Wins, Newsweek, $0.19. Beginning on January 17 2017 with a newly-sworn-in President Trump, Newsweek Political Editor Matthew Cooper analyzes what a Trump presidency would look like.
  10. We Don’t Know Why It Came To This, The Washington Post, $0.19. A part of The Post’s series “Unnatural Causes: Sick and dying in small-town America”, staff reporter Eli Saslow examines why white, mid-life American women are dying at a rate not seen since the AIDS epidemic.

In a note to beta users to mark our launch, our founder Alexander Klöpping wrote that Blendle’s 650,000 European users “mostly want to read about the “why” instead of the “what”. And The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza also wrote a couple of months back about the journalistic equation of “what?”, “so what?” and “now what?”. In an age where you can find the “what” everywhere (and for free), he said the “‘now what’ began to rise”. That’s exactly what the list above reflects — the “so what” and “now what” rule on Blendle.

None of the top 10 are “what” stories, hot takes, or exploding watermelons (not that there’s anything wrong with insanely popular exploding watermelons, as part of a wider diet). Every story is analysis, investigation, opinion, or unique feature writing. People are stumping up cash for quality pieces that make them smarter, think deeper, or help them in a real way.

So if people are willing to pay for the stories they read online, how much are they willing to pay? Stories on Blendle range in price, depending on publisher and length, from $0.09 to $0.59, and the average price of an article bought using Blendle during our first few months was $0.33. But you *could* simply refund everything you buy. Well, our average refund rate right now is 7% — a bit lower than the average refund rate on Blendle in The Netherlands and Germany, which is just under 10%.

So currently, more than 90% of people buying stories on Blendle think those stories are worth their money. We do tend to see higher refund rates for stories at the higher-end of the price scale — people need to be convinced that a story is worth more than the average amount. But far from offering a loophole, the refund feature is creating a competition of quality, with people choosing to support the journalism they love.

It’s a great start, but we also know Blendle’s not perfect yet — far from it. You’re telling us you want more sources, and so do we. Since our launch, we’ve added National Review, Fortune, and Advertising Age, and there will be more in the coming weeks and months. Every day our beta users are letting us know improvements they’d like to see, and we’re listening.

But what we can say after the first three months of our small experiment (we opened up to just 10,000 people to begin with, and have been letting a handful more in each week) is that our first beta users are putting their hands in their virtual pockets one story at a time to support original, probing, insightful journalism.

The New York Times’ Global’s Editorial Director Lydia Polgreen recently talked about how the introduction of The Times’ paywall had “reset the conversation with readers about the value of journalism we produce”. But she asked the same question I’ve discussed here: “Why should a news consumer lean forward to consume, and pay for, your journalism when so much is available for less money, or worse, for free?” Her simple answer:

“Supplying these news consumers with a steady diet of informative, compelling, useful and moving pieces of journalism they cannot find anywhere else is the key to our success.”

We second that.

Now here’s that exploding watermelon.

You can join Blendle’s beta here, follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. And download our new apps for iOS and for Android too!

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