How paid journalism must work online — and why Blendle can’t

I write. I work with writers. Many of my friends are journalists. The future of being able to charge for quality material online is really important to me.

However, to make progress in this area, I think the industry needs to stop pinning its hopes on the same dead ends that come up again and again. To me, one of these is microtransactions for material.

Leading this field, Blendle has recently been on a PR push around its U.S. launch. Twenty U.S. publications will share with an audience of 10,000 test users articles for between $0.09 and $0.49 (9-49 cents).

Basically, none of this matters. It’s a wasteful diversion. Because to make real impact on this challenge, you need three key things — and Blendle has none of them.

Consumer value must come first

Blendle tries to tackle the problem head on — and 100 percent as a service to help people find and support writing. While this keeps publishers up at night, it is evidently a concern that the vast majority of consumers don’t think about and don’t show any interest in fixing.

By contrast, five years ago, I wrote about a different approach that would lead adoption with a service that readers already show an appetite and demand for. In that suggestion, Amazon could open its Kindle platform into a “read it later” feature across the web.

Writers could add the feature with a line of code or simple plug-in, and Amazon could then aggregate all that material in an “app store” of sorts — or directly on Kindle devices. Some of this has come true with features released since, such as Apple News.

Then, with one flick of the switch, it could let the writer charge money through this network of buttons. Or not. Or under a freemium model.

And this brings me to the second major requirement for success here.

Registered card details win

How many services currently have your credit card details? Almost certainly Amazon, then very likely Apple/Google. Beyond that, you’re less in platforms and more into subscriptions like Netflix (which you cant access at all without paying).

The sooner someone steps up to bat with a real solution, the better.

Getting people to add payment details is hard enough — let alone when the main benefit doesn’t go to them. Apple Pay may represent one route out of this problem for companies like Blendle, but it hits their margin and only puts them on an even keel with everyone else.

If it’s possible, it’s possible for all, simply eliminating this battlefront instead of entrenching one player in victory.

The advantage of existing relationships

Blendle has made impressive progress attracting top publications to the platform. But content owners, from music to movies, have become increasingly cautious about to whom they tie their future.

Negotiating with Blendle, publishers may have more power than in negotiations with people like Apple and Amazon. But once the big boys come to the table, things are going to get interesting. Those tech giants have existing relationships and can bring audiences hundreds of times larger — an essential factor when returns will scale with reach and participation.

However gloomy this sounds, I don’t actually believe a solution is insurmountable. I’ve suggested two in the past already: the Kindle platform approach and another where someone like Twitter could pay to pierce paywalls and provide a different dimension of value.

Publishers will get there. But we need to think more credibly and start forgetting about the dead ends that have been tried (and failed) over and over again. Yes, I don’t think Blendle has the secret sauce to make this work — but nor does almost everyone else.

The sooner someone steps up to bat with a real solution, the better.