Can the Candy Crush of news save the industry?

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One of the great existential questions of the 21st century has to be: "Will anyone actually pay for news online?" Last week a possible answer came out of the Netherlands. But first, some background.

In the past decade, newspapers and magazines have tried to get readers to pony up for the news they consume on their screens. They've toyed with subscriptions, paywalls, members-only content, listicles, samples and clickbait. So far, with a few exceptions, nothing has worked, or at least worked well enough to sustain the legacy costs of doing business. 

Most online readers consider that the abundance of free sources of news sates their need to know. They don't care that much of real online news originates with the organizations they decline to fund. 

And the rest of it: celebrity gossip, pet drivel, news bloopers, diet nonsense, pranks, movie trailers and late night comedy clips are as free and plentiful as magazine perfume inserts. 

Fifteen years ago the music industry faced a similar crisis. Record executives wrung their hands and moaned: "Will anyone pay for music online?" The answer, when the labels wrapped their tunes in DRM, created dreadful music sites and offered incomplete catalogues at high prices, was a resounding "No."

It was far easier to just go to Napster and stuff ourselves on the free musical buffet offered there. Then in 2003 the iTunes Music Store appeared and we suddenly had an easy way to pay a reasonable amount for good quality music. Music that had correct album art and metadata attached. We loved it.

Now a play-per-play platform, Blendle, is aiming to be the iTunes of news. Blendle is based in Utrecht and has already had success in Europe where it launched in 2014 with the backing of the Dutch government. It released a beta version in North America last week.

In Europe Blendle has agreements with more than 100 publishers, mostly German and Dutch magazines and newspapers. In North America, it only offers a handful of heavy hitters, like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Inc. and others. Here's how it works.

As the iTunes Store does with music, Blendle aggregates features from the publishers with which it partners. These are articles that would normally be behind a paywall or are part of a print publication. But rather than readers having to deal with a dozen or more separate paywalls, or shell out for a passel of magazine subscriptions, Blendle allows you to pay between 9 to 59 cents per article. You just need to have a running balance on Blendle and you can snack on any partner publication's offerings on a pay-per-piece basis. 

Blendle has the ease-of-use and low-risk angles honed to a sharp edge. If you click on an article by mistake and duck back out of it again, you don't get charged. If you read an article and decide it didn't live up to its headline or promise you can get an immediate refund. That feature alone is brilliant, as it discourages publications from using clickbait headlines. Plus it encourages readers to a take a chance on a piece. 

You can also bookmark articles, save them to the popular online storage locker, Pocket, or share a pointer to the piece on social media. And, of course, Blendle will send you a daily digest with suggested stories.

I started using the beta version last week and it's the Candy Crush of news platforms. It's easy to get addicted to paying for and reading great features. Luckily Blendle has got their audience covered on this too. If you read so many pieces from a single magazine that your outlay equals the price of the full magazine or newspaper, Blendle opens up all of the publication's content to you. And, the platform shares performance data with its partners so they know which pieces are performing well.

In Germany and the Netherlands Blendle has had 650,000 readers pay for pieces since it launched. It's too early to tell if the model will work here, but my experience with it suggests it will. But then I hate pet videos, sports and celebrate gossip, so I'm not exactly an online audience poster boy. 

As always, it took an outsider to the news business to show the old folks how to get things right, or at least, I hope that's true. I'd take the Candy Crush of news over legacy publishers who are still whistling past the paywall any day.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, here.

Photo: Marcus Yeagley/flickr

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for on technology and the Internet.

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