September 29th, 2015

A Few Remarks About Blendle

First: what is Blendle?

Here is the entrepreneur who started Blendle describing it and what it does and doesn't do and for who, over at Medium:

https://medium.com/on-blendle/blendle-a-radical-experiment-with-micropayments-in-journalism-365-days-later-f3b799022edc

Short form: Blendle is a unified paywall system deployed in the Netherlands. The entrepreneur rounded up most of the publishers in the country and got them to sign up to see articles through his system. Registration is free and you get a bit of "in game currency" to check it out. Then you have the option to buy more tokens to continue to consume the media. About 20% of those who sign up wind up paying real money. They are overwhelmingly _not_ print subscribers and never have been (so not cannibalizing print readership). The current number of subscribers is around 400K (and considering the size of the Netherlands, that's amazing). The next country will be Germany. NYT, WSJ and WaPo have all invested in the project. While Blendle is characterized most often as micropayments, it is probably more useful to think of it as a pay-per-view unified paywall system with refunds to help deal with anxiety about whether the experience of reading any one article will be "worth it".

Because Clay Shirky's anti-micropayments articles have focused so much on how much the user has to think while using the system, the refund has been widely panned by commenters. See Nate's take here, as well as his commenters:

http://the-digital-reader.com/2015/06/09/blendle-signs-german-media-to-its-pay-per-article-platform-will-be-the-next-to-show-that-micro-payments-still-dont-work/

There are several things to note, however, about Blendle. First, it is _exactly_ the kind of aggregation/subscription system which Shirky argued would repeatedly wipe out any micropayments system that was even remotely successful. Second, its founder has been very careful to corral enough (80% +) of competing products before launching. And the founder freely acknowledges that "news" -- the "what" -- isn't a saleable commodity, only the explanation/opinion pieces.

I'm not sure why so many people look at Blendle and see another failure a la Shirky's criticisms of micropayments. I figured when El Jefe bought WaPo, he was gonna figure out a way to monetize all the past copyrighted material (a la NYT's archive, and, for that matter, the Seattle Times' archive) and then he'd be in a good position to figure out the right way to monetize future product. The fact that WaPo has put some amount of something into Blendle is suggestive (altho Amazon supposedly has another WaPo produce coming out on a new format Fire, usable on other devices for a fee).

But in a world in which advertisers don't want to buy online ads because of all the bullshit traffic bots, and customers are increasingly attracted to adblockers, it's either going to be individual paywalls on every fucking commercial site out there, or services like Blendle: sign up once, read lots. And I gotta say, however much of a hassle it is to figure out whether you want to fork over 20 game tokens for a Chicago Trib op-ed or not, it's way, way more of a hassle to sign up for accounts at dozens of newspapers around the country.

Trust me. Even with LastPass, it is incredibly annoying, and LastPass just isn't as convenient on mobile devices as it is on my laptop. A good Blendle app that could replace my Boston Globe sub, my NYT sub, my FT account which lets me read a few articles a month for free, etc., and let me finish reading articles at the Nashua Telegraph without forking over for a monthly subscription? Man. Just sign me up now.

ETA: If you read through the comments thread on the TDR article above, you'll note that Klöpping pops in to point to a Shirky tweet about Blendle that is largely positive. I really enjoy reading Nate, but I have to say that this is about as wrong as I've ever seen him be. Will Blendle work? I have no idea. But something _like_ Blendle _has_ to happen, if I'm going to have any kind of decent news consumption experience over the next few years. And I'm reasonably certain that this is the kind of environment where the people willing to pay for a product have a whole helluva lot more say in how that product is provided than the people who insist on trying to get it for free. Also, Shirky argued that micropayments sucked because they were good for sellers and worse than useless for buyers. I'm saying I'm a huge consumer (for money!) of news, and Blendle looks like a solution to most of my problems. That's not what Shirky meant to criticize when he attacked micropayments schemes.