So here’s an idea: instead of browsing the internet and bumping into an assortment of boring paywalls, how about buying a pass that will instantly open the articles you want and allow for a nourishing reading regimen from from a variety of sources?
Long-time media watchers like me could tell it’s been tried many times over the past two decades, and the results range from outright failure to very limited success.
This track record, however, leaves 26-year-old entrepreneur Yehong Zhu undeterred.
His startup, Zette, has both new features and an idea of what young adult consumers want, Zhu told me, and that should make Zette’s approach a winner.
The product is not yet in beta (coming this fall), let alone a full launch. He is just beginning to build a list of participating publishers and potential clients. But I’m always interested in new looks at this particular Rubik’s Cube for the news industry.
Additionally, Zhu’s experience already includes launching a business (yes, at 19, Mark Zuckerberg-style, from his dorm) and several rounds as an advisor to venture capitalists here and in China. .
The Zette deal, as Zhu envisions the mature product, will cost $9.99 per month for 30 items, although it will cost significantly less in the beta phase. With a Google Chrome browser extension, the user clicks on a paid article, clicks a Zette button, and the story opens in its original format, including illustrations and ads.
As with Blendle and Scroll, once you’ve purchased the item, it’s yours to keep. You can also forward it to friends.
For the beta, Zhu will rely on users finding their way to what they want to read rather than guiding that with curation and recommendations, possibly future refinement. A mobile application will also come later.
This underscores his view of what is needed. For younger news audiences in particular, keep it functional quick and easy; the bells and whistles could be a distraction. They decide to stay or move on in a split second and tend to be light readers.
If the product is simple, so is the technology behind it, Zhu told me. Zette currently has six employees.
For publishers, a plus will be access to this younger audience, along with traffic metrics showing which articles have the most appeal to the demographic. They will, however, share the revenue with Zette, which of course won’t be much at first.
Zhu signed McClatchy and its 29 regional newspapers as a publishing partner, as well as Forbes and Haaretz. She realizes that Zette needs a lot more and hopes to add high-quality, high-profile titles – both newspapers and magazines – in the coming months.
Zhu suggests that participating in Zette will give publishers a better chance of getting their material before potential subscribers. It makes sense to me. The growing industry preference for hard paywalls – which now often include newspapers that put all “premium” content behind them – only creates frustration for website visitors. And how do you turn readers into subscribers without having a glimpse of what they would buy?
Blendle, a Dutch import, faltered when it was introduced in the United States in 2016 due to lack of volume and retreated in Europe. Chartbeat Co-Founder Tony Haile spent years developing Scrollwhich promised fast viewing and an ad-free format, ahead of a 2020 launch. To say it was grow but too slowlyHaile sold Scroll to Twitter just over a year later, where it was integrated into a paid tier of Twitter.
Apple News+ is a much bigger competitor, Zhu said. A longer story, but Apple News+ has complexities for publishers and users (who pay $9.99 per month), and seems to have few fans.
All of this seems to make achieving scale for Zette daunting.
A fast-track career doesn’t guarantee success, but Zhu certainly has one. She founded her first company at 19 in her Harvard dorm. Harvard Square Consulting, like Zette, had a simple premise – it would coach aspiring applicants and their parents on how to get into elite colleges. The coaches would be chosen from his classmates, and the price would be much lower than similar established services, for a market of families of more modest means.
“I thought about giving up to develop it,” she told me, “but I didn’t want to spend all my time managing people… so I looked for something that would be scalable with software. … It seemed to be the way to make money by spreading my ideas to the world.
As an undergraduate, she interned at venture capital firm Northern Light Venture Capital and continued to invest, primarily as a scout advising companies on promising ventures. Let her know that the ground is evident in her first $6 million from investors, including Halogen Ventures, a firm that backs startups by women, and Hyphen Capital, which seeks Asian American entrepreneurs. She’s looking for another round of $6 million over the next two quarters.
Why Zette, by the way? Zhu said it was a play on the venerable French gazette/Italian gazzetta and the Italian phrase “gazeta de la novita” or “half a pennyworth of news”.
Just over a decade ago, Google executive Marissa Mayer co-chaired a Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. She opined that in future the relevant unit of journalism would be the article (or video), not just any publication.
It struck me as heresy. Surely publisher standards and assembling a varied report still mattered to a user’s decision to go in the first place and pay later? However, Mayer was at least partially right – for years most readers have come to a given article through a social network or aggregator referral, not by browsing a homepage.
The jury is out on this one for a very long time. Your own mix-and-match journalism feast – appealing in theory but practical in execution? Zhu’s Zette should be another relevant experiment to help settle the matter.