The state of journalism in the digital age has been a topic of intense debate for some time, with rapidly diminishing circulation of print media an ongoing problem within the industry, and one that has threatened to tear down one of the world’s longest-standing professions. Saturation of content, clickbait, listicles, multimedia; the landscape is changing, and some of the world’s most powerful media conglomerates have been slow to adapt to the change.
No definitive solution to the loss of print revenue has been found, and paywalls have been tentatively rolled out by many papers, with some retracting them and others finding a way to make them work; the varying degrees of success of paywalls has seen them implemented far more slowly than many expected. Some, like the Guardian, are prompting their readers to donate to keep their businesses running, while others such as The Times have implemented soft paywalls that have been made successful after an initially mixed reaction.
And, as reported by the Guardian, The Times recently revealed a pre-tax profit of almost £11 million for the year ending June 2015, a second year of profit after 13 years of losses; pre-tax losses had hit as high as almost £1 million and the omens were grim for one of the UK’s longest-running newspapers. Increased subscription revenues, though, have been supplemented by effective cost-cutting and the paper have successfully turned around their financial situation. Others will likely follow suit, with 2016 set to be the year that paywalls become the norm, rather than the reserve of outlets with a ferociously loyal readership.
Subscriptions and paywalls can be off-putting to say the least, and this is where Blendle - a Dutch micropayment platform - aims to provide the solution. Billed as the ‘iTunes of news’, Blendle offers subscription free access to media content otherwise blocked by a paywall, on a pay-per-piece basis at attractively low rates. Users can jump into a piece from the likes of the New York Times and payment is only deducted if the hang time is long enough to denote interest, at which point between 19 and 39 cents will be taken from the user’s account.
Blendle’s users can also request a refund if the content isn’t to their liking, with no questions asked, a feature that will doubtless be exploited but relies on those interested in quality journalism acting honestly. It’s a clever marketing move, and one that Blendle hopes will encourage readers to consider their favourite publications more carefully and develop loyalty accordingly. The plan here is to remove the difficulty of managing various subscriptions to news outlets, and the pay-per-view basis will give users a sense of direct value to their small outlay not always apparent with a subscription.
The service has been active in the Netherlands and Germany for over a year now, building a paying user base of over 650,000 people, but it faces its biggest test to date this year having launched in the US this month. And the launch may not be as smoothly picked up as the company’s European offering. Americans pay for music, they pay for TV and they pay for movies. But, with news so saturated and so much free content available - paywalls are far more common in Europe - it may take some effort to convince the US market to part with cash.
As restrictive and irritating as paywalls can be, they may just rescue an ailing industry. A widespread implementation of pay-to-read journalism is the only way to ensure its success - for a free alternative will almost always win out. It is exciting, though, to see young companies like Blendle grappling with the issue in an innovative and potentially revelatory way. The iTunes of news is currently finding its feet in the US, and lets hope it can take steps to reversing a worrying trend in world media.