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Aug. 10, 2023, 2:55 p.m.
Business Models

The poster child for micropayments for news is getting out of the micropayments business

Blendle has been selling news by the article for nearly a decade, but “very limited” demand and the rise of digital subscriptions have done the idea in.

How’s everyone enjoying the new micropayments setup on Twitter, er, X? You know, the one that lets you pay for access to a single paywalled news article instead of buying a subscription.

What’s that? You haven’t seen it? I confess I’ve been looking all over for it. But it has to be somewhere, since Elon Musk said it would roll out in May, and it is now August, and we all know Elon Musk has never X’d a falsehood.

I’m sure he’ll figure it all out eventually, once he checks the calendar. But until he does, the iconic pay-per-article company will remain Blendle, the Dutch platform that’s been at it for nearly a decade.

Ring a bell? You might remember Politico saying it “could save journalism,” or The Guardian asking if it could “save the press from oblivion,” or The Wall Street Journal suggesting it could “save the print news industry.”

Or maybe you saw the Christian Science Monitor call it “‘iTunes for journalism,” or Newsweek label it the “Spotify of journalism,” or Forbes calling it “the new Netflix for journalism.” (App consistency, please.)

Blendle, which launched in its native Netherlands in 2014, seemed to be a growing and successful part of the Dutch news ecosystem. You could buy individual articles from major Dutch newspapers for low prices (usually well under a dollar) inside a well-designed mobile or tablet app. Its cofounder, Alexander Klöpping, was a charismatic frontman with a skill for generating attention — much like the founders of Blendle’s fellow hot Dutch news startup of the day, De Correspondent.

A wave of big-name news companies — The New York Times, Axel Springer, Nikkei — invested millions of dollars/euros/yen in it. And the big publishers seemed game; when it launched in the U.S. in 2016, users could buy articles from the Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The Economist, Time, and more.

So, how’d it all go? Jacob Granger at Journalism.co.uk:

Micropayments for news “have not proven to be a successful model” for Dutch media platform Blendle, as it pulls the service for German and US audiences next month.

Blendle pioneered the ‘pay-per-article’ service for Dutch users when it launched in 2013, with services for German and US audiences following afterward. However, it shut down the Dutch micropayment service in 2019, owing to failure to turn a profit, with services in Germany and the US continuing up until now…

Cafeyn [Blendle’s owner since 2020] CEO Ari Assuied confirmed to Journalism.co.uk that German and US micropayment user bases were “very limited compared to the size of the overall Cafeyn/Blendle base, hence our decision to close down the micropayment service.”

Phasing out micropayments was always part of the vision ever since Cafeyn’s acquisition, mostly because all-access bundles are what paying news consumers expect — not small, individual purchases. “Unlimited subscription models have been set in other content industries like music (Spotify) and video (Netflix). These have become standards for content consumers including in the press and magazine industry,” says Assuied.

(I’ll be honest: I’d thought that Blendle, Abe Vigoda-style, died in the U.S. years ago.)

The truth is that Blendle struggled to make micropayments appealing to either readers or publishers. By 2017, the number of Blendle users had already plateaued in the Netherlands. Of its 1 million-plus registered users at the time, only 150,000 had actually made any micropayments, instead using the free credits given to new users. And it takes a lot of micropayments to add up.

By 2019, it was clear enough that micropayments weren’t working that it abandoned them in the Netherlands. (“Quarters per article will not make a difference,” Klöpping said at the time.)

Its new strategy was a monthly subscription that gave you access to a set of stories each day from across publications. But that didn’t please publishers, who didn’t like another company playing subscription middleman, and many began to drop out. The owners of NRC Handelsblad, the Dutch newspaper of record, wrote that, “for all our sympathy, we genuinely fear that Blendle is not good for journalism in the medium term.” The annual revenue Blendle generated for NRC and the company’s other papers was equal to only about 400 self-sold subscriptions. (NRC Handelsblad had 241,000 subscribers at the time.) By early 2022, all the major Dutch newspapers had pulled out — despite Blendle even asking a Dutch court to force one of them to remain.

But the micropayments setup still straggled along in the U.S. and Germany. The app today looks like a graveyard of no-longer-interested publishers. You can still buy articles from today’s L.A. Times and FT (for $0.25 and $0.49 a pop, respectively). But the most recent Washington Post stories are from 2018; the Times and Journal are nowhere to be found and most other big publishers dropped out years ago.

There’s obviously nothing wrong with trying out micropayments for news articles! Blendle gave it an honest try, and it was worth trying. But the reality is that there is limited demand for them from either readers or publishers. Subscriptions won. When Blendle launched, The New York Times had about 760,000 digital subscribers. Today, it’s about to cross 10 million. Elon and anyone else who wants to climb that hill again will find out for themselves. Just as De Correspondent’s expansion into English quickly turned sour, Blendle now looks like a case of well-intentioned hype and a good story crashing upon contact with outside reality.

One of Blendle’s two cofounders, Marten Blankesteijn, left back in 2017. The other, Klöpping, quit a few months after the Cafeyn acquisition. (The price of that sale, if any, has not been disclosed.)

What has Klöpping been up to since? He’s keeping busy. As of a year ago, he was fronting a planned class-action lawsuit against Apple and Google for their app store policies over revenue share. (The suit was being funded by Fortress Investment Group, the $50 billion private equity fund. You know, the little guy.) He’s also been hosting his podcast on media and tech with none other than Ernst Jan-Pfauth, cofounder of De Correspondent and a driver of its failed expansion to the United States.1 A few months ago, they announced their latest project together: a publishing company. And Klöpping has another side business: selling $3,000 displays that put a black-and-white PDF version of a print newspaper’s Page 1 on your wall.

Klöpping has shifted a lot of his attention to AI, and not long ago, he used an AI tool that lets you “chat” with bots trained to imitate famous people — Gandhi, Lincoln, Churchill, whoever. Klöpping decided to talk to “Steve Jobs,” asking the late Apple founder: “Do you think micropayments for news would be a good idea for a startup?”

“Absolutely,” the bot replied.

  1. Er, “failed expansion to the English-speaking world.” []
Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email (joshua_benton@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Aug. 10, 2023, 2:55 p.m.
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