Today, I sent this to the first beta users that signed-up to Blendle, my journalism startup backed by The New York Times and Axel Springer.
To our beta users,
Today, Blendle starts its beta in the United States. And I’m really glad you’re part of it. Together with the biggest media companies in the country and 9,999 other beta users, we’re looking to reinvent how you can discover and support the best journalism in the country.
Journalism needs a Spotify, a Netflix, an iTunes — whatever you want to call it
Music has Spotify. Video has Netflix. But journalism still didn’t have its own dedicated platform. As a former technology journalist myself, I thought that the lack of such a platform for journalism was pretty strange. Spotify not only helps me access all music, it also makes it easy to discover the best songs, and makes paying for it feel like second nature.
That made me think, naturally, why it was that my beloved journalism still made me visit tons of different websites to read what I liked. Where the best stuff is often behind paywalls. Where I was having to rely on Facebook or Twitter to find the best articles through an abundance of noise about what my old neighbor was reading from The Lad Bible. Where adverts kept popping up to ruin that great piece about the migrant crisis in Europe. And where I was expected to figure out by myself what’s real journalism and what’s clickbait. It wasn’t nice, and, at a personal level, it made me pretty upset as a young guy hoping to make a career writing (what I thought was) good substantive journalism.
Journalism needs a Spotify, a Netflix, an iTunes — whatever you want to call it. One website that houses the best newspapers and magazines in the country, that allows people to browse through everything and only pay for the stories they like, where you can see what your friends recommended. And where it’s really easy to just get the 8 or 10 best stories published every day, and discover those really great pieces.
Nobody built it, so we did it ourselves
A couple of years ago we set out to build something that did just that, from our offices in The Netherlands. But there was one small problem we needed to deal with: getting the highest profile media brands in the world, from The New York Times to The Economist to Time Magazine all on board to license all of their content to us.
I once read about how Daniel Ek, when he started Spotify, just went knocking on all record label’s doors in Sweden. Made sure he spoke to everyone at the labels. And that when he got told ‘no’ he’d just try again and again.
So that’s pretty much what we did with publishers in the United States. Cold emailed magazine executives. Blatantly asked newspaper CEO’s to dinner via Linkedin. Tried to meet with every person in publishing I could think of. And then, every month, I just took a plane from Amsterdam to New York City to go on knock on all those doors. For about two years. Flying economy on the red-eye flight on Sunday evening, back on Friday evening: my girlfriend didn’t like me much.
So, you can probably sense that I’m a little bit excited today to be able to say that it’s beginning to pay off.
Together with almighty institutions like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Time Inc., The Financial Times, New York Magazine, Newsweek, Bloomberg Businessweek, New York Review of Books and many others, today we’re starting a groundbreaking experiment. Our aim? You guessed it: to help you find the best journalism from the very best publications in the country. And make it easier than ever to support it.
We did it before
I guess what gave me and the team here the confidence to try in the United States was that we did it before — getting all publishers in a country on board. We did it twice actually. The first country was a bit smaller than the US though: The Netherlands, our home. A country hidden on Germany’s left, to the right of the UK and slightly above France. 16 million people in total.
I admit that when we started Blendle in The Netherlands, about five years ago (geees!), we had no idea if it was going to work there. Blendle was just an idea on a back of an envelope, and in the beginning Dutch publishers didn’t want to hear about it. But, when we built a prototype and showed it to them, a small magazine said yes. Then another. Then the publisher of one of the biggest quality dailies, Rien van Beemen, said yes. And then came another. And another. After a while we had to pinch our arms, because we seemed to have everybody willing to give us a try. We could launch with all the publishers on board.
When we launched on a sunny day in the Spring of 2014, in a restaurant on the north shore of Amsterdam, we were heartened by the amount of people that showed up for our launch. There were camera crews from all major Dutch news channels. We were on every news program that night. Every radio show. Every newspaper the next day. The Economist was there. The Financial Times wrote about us. It was surreal, but only the start of the hard work.
Around the same time, our heroes at Axel Springer (one of the most successful publishers in Europe) and The New York Times showed some interest in investing in our tiny company and expand our plans to other counties. Naturally, we didn’t think twice.
That propelled us to launching this experiment in Germany a couple of months ago, with all major publishers on board in Germany. In both countries, we have over 650,000 registered users who read millions of articles every month. Half of our users are under 35, people who would usually never pay for a piece of journalism. And with their feedback we developed the platform to where it is today.
Really early every morning, our editors read all newspapers and magazines. They select the stories they like most and highlight them to you.
Just as Spotify’s Discover Weekly gets better over time because it gets to know you, so does Blendle. Every time you read an article it tell us something about what topics you like to read about, what your favorite magazines and newspapers are, which journalists you like to read. If you connect your Twitter and Facebook-accounts, we’ll let you know what your friends have shared (without all the noise of Facebook and Twitter itself).
We have some awesome users you can follow that curate the best stories in their field of interest. To name a few, Fusion senior editor Felix Salmon curates his view on the best business stories. BBC journalist Kim Ghattas covers politics. MediaShift’s Mark Glaser selects the best media stories. And Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for The New York Times, Michi Kakutani, shares the best in culture journalism.
Every day, you’ll get a digest of the best of the best in your mailbox. It’s a pretty particular mix. Important to mention: although Blendle is all about journalism, you won’t find a lot of “news” in Blendle. We’ve seen that our users don’t like to spend money on the news. It’s everywhere. What our users do like to read is investigative reporting, revelatory background articles, newsworthy analysis and hard-hitting interviews. In other words, users mostly want to read about the “why” instead of the “what”.
Our editors and algorithms help you find the best stuff. But you can also use Blendle on the web to see the full editorial selections across all brands. And you can browse our newsstand to see full editions of newspapers and magazines in their full print glory.
You’ll only need to pay a bunch of pennies for the stories you actually like. And every time you read something you don’t think was worthy of your money, you can instantly get your money back. Articles that get refunded a lot disappear from Blendle. And that means that on Blendle, clickbait can’t exist and only quality journalism starts trending.
Blendle is evolving constantly based on our user’s feedback. That’s why our community is incredibly important to us. That means you are our testing audience, and Blendle is your journalism laboratory.
Journalism should be less reliant on ads
The journalism industry is facing some big problems right now. Many publishers are in a professional struggle for attention. And because of that, many newspapers and magazines publish their best stories for free. Free stories get publishers a lot of traffic, and that traffic can be monetized through advertising. But more and more publishers realize they can’t or don’t want to build their businesses on that model. Income from advertising is declining, the competition of Facebook and Google is very strong, 41% of the younger people are already using ad-blocking plugins, more and more kids are browsing in incognito mode (leaving no cookies at all), and native advertising makes readers and journalists alike very uncomfortable.
In the word’s of The Economist’s Tom Standage:
“The Economist has taken the view that advertising is nice, and we’ll certainly take money where we can get it, but we’re pretty much expecting it to go away. I have nothing against advertising as a source of revenue as part of the mix, but I’m kind of amazed that people are trying to do that.”
Obviously, I think it would be a good thing to make journalism less reliant on ads. It would slow down the rat race for page views that often just results in clickbait. It would take out the shadowy ad tech companies that often spread malware. And publishers don’t have to be in the awkward position where they have to put native ads right next to their objective journalism.
At the same time, the distribution of journalism is changing rapidly right now. Tech companies like Facebook, Google and Apple are on a mission to control it. But make no mistake, they are not on a mission to save journalism. The platforms the tech giants come up with, from Facebook Instant Articles to Apple News: all of them are based around ads. They are making the industry even more dependent on ads, not less.
It’s why we need platforms like Blendle.
Will it work?
Will we get people to pay for journalism? There have been many people saying it won’t work. Back at home in Holland everybody said it couldn’t be done. And in the US, I can tell you that Mathew Ingram at Forbes is a true non-believer. And so is scholar Clay Shirky. And so was Frederic Filloux of industry blog Monday Note. After The New York Times and Axel springer invested in us he wrote: “Why The New York Times and Axel Springer are wrong about Blendle”. Ouch.
But, 10 years ago nobody paid for music on the web. Nobody paid for video on the web. And in journalism, there has been no substantive platform innovation on a decent scale. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do, with the major publishers in the United States on board.
“If people will pay for games, for services like Evernote, for music and books, and even for WhatsApp, they will pay for news and other content.”
By the way, a year after he wrote his original post, Frederic Filloux wrote this:
“Blendle is up to something big. The Dutch micropayment platform for articles is taking off in spectacular fashion”.
And Clay Shirky said this:
Also, Ev Williams announced that Medium will soon allow users to support the work of journalists on their platform.
The way we support journalism is changing. It’s great that it’s finally happening.
So, one platform, that let’s you read the best journalism in the country. Helps you discover the best articles every day in a beautiful user interface. Where you only have to pay for what you love. Without paywalls. Without ads. Without clickbait. And with some of the biggest publishers in the country on board.
I’m really glad you’re an early part of this mission to help people discover and support the best journalism in the country. Thanks very much.
And if you’re not part of the beta yet, you can sign up here. We’re inviting 10,000 people first. Oh, and you can help us out a lot by recommending our story here on Medium.
And now, a gif of a penguin delivering a newspaper: