Staying on top of news headlines often involves jumping from article to article and from publication to publication. One minute you’re checking The New York Times, and the next you’re visiting The Wall Street Journal. Then soon enough you’ve hit a paywall—unable to read more articles. As news outlets increasingly gate content, you feel the walls closing in on quality reporting.
Paywalls are one of the ways news outlets are reacting to the digital shift. Today, more readers get their news online than in print—which has impacted circulation revenues. In response, publications are pushing for subscriptions by gating content. Beyond traditional subscriptions, an emerging approach is the pay-per-article model.
In my previous blog post, I introduced readers to the news platform Blendle. This media startup seeks to be a single platform for top newspapers and magazines—while enabling users to pay a small fee for only the stories they like. Analyzing market demand, my previous post highlighted that 26 percent of people would embrace paying for news per article. Seeing there is market viability, we next dive into Blendle’s functionality—analyzing for strengths and weaknesses.
Images via Blendle.
This is a longer read, so here’s the TL;DR version:
- A strength of Blendle is it features top U.S. publishers like Businessweek, Economist, Fast Company, Inc., NYT and WSJ
- Another strength is its focus on in-depth feature articles
- Blendle needs to add breaking and trending news
- Featuring regional publications presents a significant opportunity
- Article pricing could be too costly for the average reader
- Refund policy provides assurance against spending on low-quality articles
- A potential consequence of the pay-per-article model is that it makes readers more cautious
- Voxus finds potential for enterprise and agency applications
A research-backed Blendle review
To better understand how news readers would use Blendle, Voxus developed a survey exploring the behaviors and preferences around paid subscriptions. Receiving 107 responses, we based this review on insights gleaned from the survey.
Features major news publications
Blendle’s greatest strength is it features top U.S. publishers—including Bloomberg Businessweek, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. magazine, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
This is crucial, as respondents currently subscribed to a news outlet overwhelmingly preferred The New York Times at 42 percent, The Washington Post at 27 percent, and The Seattle Times at 19 percent. Respondents without a subscription that would consider purchasing one showed the same preferences. They favored The New York Times at 26 percent, The Washington Post at 33 percent, and The Seattle Times at 30 percent.
An important note here is that The Seattle Times and other regional outlets appear to be missing from Blendle’s lineup. More on this observation below.
Focuses on feature articles
Another strength of Blendle is it is primarily made up of feature pieces, which are articles that explore news stories in depth. This is opposed to news articles (straightforward reporting of events) and editorial pieces (based on a writer’s opinion). This is important, as in-depth reporting is a key quality readers look for. If paying for news per article, top article qualities respondents would require are:
- A trusted news outlet at 79 percent
- In-depth analysis at 66 percent
- Valuable reporting at 58 percent
- Breaking news at 40 percent
Conversely, top qualities to make readers avoid for an article are:
- Clickbait at 93 percent
- Sensational at 65 percent
- Listicle or slideshow at 52 percent
- Opinion piece at 36 percent
With a strong preference for trusted outlets, these responses show again that inclusion of top publishers is a strength. Also, Blendle’s content curation helps limit potential clickbait, which respondents soundly rejected.
Needed: breaking and trending news
Blendle needs to add breaking and trending news to its feeds—as “breaking news” was the sixth most highly rated required quality for paying for an article. While having valuable feature articles, Blendle readers would still need to visit other sources for information about developing events.
Also, given Blendle’s feature articles typically cost $0.19, breaking and trending news should likely be priced at $0.05 or less. We conclude this because breaking news ranked lower but was still a notably required quality.
Missing: regional publications
Reflecting on the “News Outlet Subscription Preferences” chart above, respondents with a news subscription selected “other” publications by a tune of 54 percent. These “other” outlets largely comprised of regional publications—such as the New York Daily News and the San Francisco Chronicle. At 26 percent, respondents without a subscription selected “other” and also largely showed interest in regional outlets.
Featuring regional news outlets would present Blendle with a significant opportunity. The platform should consider adding publications like The Seattle Times, the Houston Chronicle, the Miami Herald and others.
Now for the big question: is Blendle cost-effective? In using Blendle, we found that individual articles cost in an apparent range from $0.09 to $1.15—with most priced at $0.19. How does that translate to actual subscription costs?
According to a Medium post, Blendle’s Co-Founder Alexander Klöpping estimates consumers will read about 8-10 articles per day. Assuming a user reads eight articles a day at the cost of $0.19 per article, this would cost about $47.12 per month—or $555 per year. Given an article can be priced up to $1.15, this cost can skyrocket.
This far overshoots many publications’ subscription costs and how much consumers are willing to spend. For example, a basic New York Times subscription costs $195 per year. And most respondents with a subscription spend $10 month per month (23 percent), while those without would similarly spend $10 (44 percent).
In a pure numbers game, individual subscriptions beat Blendle. However, it could still be effective for those with multiple subscriptions. One survey respondent who carries nine subscriptions commented:
“It’s a novel approach. I think publications and their journalists deserve to be paid for the work they do, and sometimes advertising revenue alone isn’t enough. A ‘pay as you go’ model might be really useful because I don’t necessarily want to pay a full monthly or yearly subscription just to read a couple of articles a week.”
On the other hand, Blendle could benefit by lowering prices. Article costs align with what many respondents would pay at most for a single news story. But this may not be sustainable. Results show 35 percent would spend $0.50 for a high-quality piece, while 28 percent would only spend $0.10.
A common worry of respondents was that articles might not be worth the cost. Voicing this concern, one respondent commented: “My main concern regarding a pay per article model is that many headlines are misleading, luring the reader to click into the story. Once in the story, the article sometimes doesn’t reflect the headline.”
Considering this, Blendle does have a simple refund policy. It addresses a variety of scenarios that would discourage instances of misleading headlines, clickbait and low-quality reporting.
A potential consequence of the pay-per-article model is that it makes readers more judicious about the news they consume. Being conscious of spending, users would more likely scrutinize the credibility of an outlet and article.
One respondent wrote: “I feel like it would discourage me from reading as many news articles, though it would encourage me to better check how much I trust a news source.” Another suggested: “I probably would not use [this payment model] unless I recognized the author and the article contained useful, in-depth information and analysis.”
This heightened caution to news consumption could add more value to the journalism practice. As readers seek out signals of quality reporting, advertising-focused outlets would likely be further motivated to produce valuable content over clickbait.
Enterprise and agency applications
While the consumer value proposition is clear, there are potential enterprise and agency applications. Assuming Blendle grows and gains backend access to a wide swath of publications, it could become valuable for news coverage and sentiment tracking.
I can’t count the times I’ve seen internal emails asking, “Does anyone have a subscription to [insert publication]? They covered my client and I can’t read the article.”
As more publishers gate content, it may become cost prohibitive and logistically difficult to access all media mentions about a company. PR agencies routinely research reporters and record coverage, and they will increasingly need a service that can access numerous publications and aid in generating coverage reports. Enterprise and agency pricing could be an opportunity for Blendle.
One survey respondent noted this application, commenting: “Only if I couldn’t find what I needed or wanted in a regular subscription service. For work, where I do a lot of historical research, archive access would totally be worth it. (I pay using existing services already.)”
Overall, Blendle appears good for both the consumer and journalism. Readers get access to high-quality reporting and media outlets are compensated. However, there are barriers to adoption as Voxus found 56 percent of consumers prefer a traditional subscription. Other challenges include lacking breaking news and regional publications, while per-article prices may be too costly.
Blendle is in beta in the U.S., so it may adjust as it grows. Until then, there are competitors to try like Tibit and Media Coin. Tibit allows publishers to place a button on their website, enabling visitors to spend tokens—called “tibs”—on content. With Media Coin, publishers embed a code to a web page to collect immediate payments for access.
Whether pay-per-article or traditional subscriptions wins out, it is crucial to keep quality journalism alive. In the face of declining circulations and shrinking newsrooms, publications will have to continue embracing the digital shift and exploring novel distribution methods. And to maintain revenues, consumers will need seamless access to impactful news stories.
Survey methodology: To gather market insights, Voxus issued a survey looking into the behaviors and preferences around how individuals pay for news subscriptions. It also examined the pay-per-article approach—assessing the level of interest in this model. To reach its conclusions, Voxus surveyed 107 respondents through a convenience sample between Feb. 28 and March 8, 2017. The survey was distributed via Voxus employees and among their interpersonal connections, as well as across various social media channels—including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Reddit.