Dutch Pay-per-drink Model Could Spur Publishers Here to Do Same

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An art gallery owner told me on Saturday that his place, Hillyer Art Space, gets as many as 500 people visiting on the First Friday of every month—most of them under the age of 35. But he doesn't know how to monetize this. They ask for donations at the door—$8—but that doesn't really work.

He has been reluctant to make it mandatory because 1) that's not really what most galleries do; and 2) the hope is that people buy the art. "They'll spend $50, $75, $100 on a meal, concert or drinks," he said, "but they don't seem to consider spending that money on art."

He has two battles: to make young people passionate enough about art to spend money—we'll leave that for another forum; and to reconsider the entrance fee. How about $5 to enter and you get a postcard or bookmark from one of the artists? Swipe. Next. Welcome to a version of pay-per-drink.

This is all to announce the coming to America of Blendle. The Dutch pay-per-article start-up will launch a beta version here in early 2016. The initiative is the company's second expansion in less than 12 months, after starting the service in Germany in September.

"More than 120 German publishers and 60 Dutch news outlets, including newspapers and magazines, have signed up to the platform, and over half of the 550,000 registered users are under the age of 35," read an article on the journalism.co.uk site last week.

Blendle is geared to newspapers, but the fact that it's succeeding by selling individual articles should be relevant to niche publishers as well. In addition, in both Germany and Holland, users "don't mind paying relatively high amounts of money per article," said co-founder Alexander Klöpping, "and that's something that surprises me."

Publishers set their own prices on Blendle; we're talking in the range of 35 cents to $1 per article, depending on the length. "The articles that sell better are analysis pieces and interviews, rather than a random hot take on something that Donald Trump has said," said Klöpping.

"We are not Facebook or Apple, it's not a 'take it or leave it' thing. Our goal is to make young people start paying for journalism, and that's something we need to do [with other publishers]."

The concept isn't new. Five years ago, Knight Kiplinger, president of Kiplinger, told a SIPA Annual Conference breakfast crowd that, "Young people do pay per drink. If they pay $1 for a song [or $5 for coffee], they will pay for one article. The challenge for us is to sell small pieces of information that's comparable to this.

"Publishers missed establishing simple sites selling small information, and I mean a small amount—a dollar," said Kiplinger. "One-click purchasing opportunity [where] they have my credit card on file, it's secure...Publishers need something like that. An $85 subscription is fine, $2 for 2 paragraphs is great. Electronic delivery [costs] next to zero."

Here's how a writer described Blendle earlier this year: "[It] all occurs seamlessly in a way that prioritizes the user: your credit card information is stored on the site for easy payment, and an unorthodox refund option allows users to get their money back if they're not satisfied with the piece."

So Mr. Kiplinger's ideas are finally being played out. It will be interesting to see if Blendle goes beyond newspapers—or if another start-up treads in that space, or some publishers go there alone. "There are so many things that can go wrong, because there hasn't been another platform where publishers work together and sell their content unbundled, so this is really an experiment," said Klöpping.

"But the goal is getting young people to pay for journalism in an age where ad blockers are everywhere and it's really important that good journalism is well funded, so we'll learn as we go along."

$1. Swipe. Next.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…