Welcome to Blendle, the tech startup looking to save journalism

Alexander Klöpping is a man on a mission. After starting his first company at just 16 years of age, he’s become a serial entrepreneur, made his mark on print and online journalism, and is a regular face on Dutch TV. Now, however, he’s facing his biggest challenge so far: building a startup that can make journalism profitable again.

With his background in journalism, Klöpping has watched the decline of print firsthand – and that’s what spurred him into action. “The internet has made it harder for people to find great content. Social media and search prioritise clickbait over high-quality journalism, and what we’re offering is a solution to that.”

His answer is Blendle, another in a long list of startups looking to micropayments to make journalism profitable. It recently made headlines after announcing that following success in its native Holland, the US launch would be backed up by high-profile partnerships with the likes of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Time magazine.

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The model is simpler than that of its predecessors, and relies heavily on curation as its key selling point. As a user, Blendle presents you with a slick interface showing a stream of content that you can filter by topic – technology, politics, culture and so forth – or you can select the “trending” feed that brings up the most popular articles of the moment. As soon as you click on an article, you’re charged a fee of between nine and 39 cents, which you’re able to claim back if you’re dissatisfied. Blendle presents the articles within a streamlined, ad-free experience, with its signature horizontal scroll gently harking back to the feel of the printed page.

“Looking at the success of Spotify in the music industry and Netflix for film and TV, we thought ‘why not do the same for journalism?’”

Launched in the Netherlands in April 2014, Blendle garnered international attention after it received €3 million (£2.4 million) backing from The New York Times Company and German publisher Axel Springer SE. Klöpping and his co-founder Marten Blankesteijn were 27 when they launched the platform.

“We were both working as journalists when we realised there was a gap in the market,” said Klöpping. “We realised people were willing to pay for a single platform which allows access to content, as well as recommendations. Ten years ago this would have been unfathomable, but looking at the success of Spotify in the music industry and Netflix for film and TV, we thought ‘why not do the same for journalism?’”

As it stands, Blendle is more akin to iTunes than Spotify – users pay per article viewed, rather than a flat monthly subscription fee – but Klöpping dismisses this point. “We don’t start with a model, we start with a great product. We want to become part of people’s habits and we want them to come to Blendle to read their daily content. They know that we only have great, high-quality content and if they’re not happy with it, they can claim their payment back.”

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During our conversation, Klöpping reiterates that Blendle offers refunds on a regular basis – it seems to be a key part of the model and a good way of illustrating their commitment to “quality content”. Currently, Blendle is in an invitation-only beta in the US, with 20 publications on board. Could their policy on refunds backfire when their userbase skyrockets on public release? There’s a chance that the floodgates could open and people start demanding their money back because, for instance, they read an opinion piece they disagree with.

“People will likely click on more content and spend more if they know they can get a refund.”

It’s an unknown quantity, but Klopping seems unphased. “Currently we refund around 10% of the articles, but I don’t believe we’re losing money. Plus, people will likely click on more content and spend more if they know they can get a refund, so it evens out.”

Klöpping is keen to focus on Blendle’s major point of differentiation: its curation. Of the 650,000 users it’s accumulated in the Netherlands, it’s eye-opening to find that around half are under 35 – millennials are not generally considered a generation likely to pay for something they could get for free.

“People don’t have to pay for Spotify – they can get every song for free on YouTube – but they do,” said Klöpping. “It’s very rare to have everything you want to read in one app where you know it’s all going to be quality journalism. That’s something that people want. In a world where advertising revenue has been the main source of income for decades, it’s encouraging to see this work.”

Looking through the list of publishers Blendle has partnered with, it would seem that for a tech startup, it’s pretty dismissive of the digital players. The heavyweights in this space are conspicuously absent: BuzzFeed, Vice, The Daily Dot, Vox, Mashable and Gawker, to name but a few. Blendle’s own website states that they offer “only the best from all of print journalism”.

blendle_alexander_klopping_dark_hair_and_marten_blankesteijn_-_photgraph_by_mark_hornCompany co-founders Alexander Klöpping (right) and Marten Blankesteijn (left)

Klöpping didn’t deny a certain snobbiness regarding Blendle’s definition of “quality”. “We want to be a platform for great journalism, and not a home for GIFs and listicles. Readers can find that content through Facebook. We know what our users want to read, and that’s long-form journalism. More and more of this content will be going behind a paywall, and Blendle is one of the only tech companies that gets people to pay for quality. Advertising models don’t reward quality journalism, they reward clicks.”

It might seem counterintuitive to exclude the kind of content that traditionally drives the most clicks, but Blendle clearly appeals to a wide online audience. While Klöpping wouldn’t share specific numbers, he confirmed they’d had 10,000 sign-ups within the first week, and that they typically make money from one in every five users, so he is very optimistic about the expansion.

Will Blendle succeed where the likes of Flattr or CoinTent have failed? Will it be the first service to finally make micropayments work? That depends on many factors, not least its ability to attract users looking for quality, ad-free long-form reporting, and who are willing to pay for the privilege. Ultimately, if Blendle succeeds in stealing even a small percentage of digital revenue from display ads to give to top-class journalism, that has to be a step in the right direction.

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