A 26-year-old entrepreneur makes a new attempt to sell news one story at a time

So here’s an idea: instead of surfing the web and encountering a series of pesky paywalls, how about buying a pass that instantly opens only the articles you want and allows for a nutritious reading diet from a variety of sources?

Longtime media watchers like myself could say that this has been attempted a number of times over the past two decades, with results ranging from total failure to very limited success.

However, this track record leaves 26-year-old entrepreneur Yehong Zhu undeterred.

Her fledgling startup, Zette, has both fresh features and a flair for what young adult consumers want, Zhu said, and that should make Zette’s approach a winner.

The product isn’t yet in beta (coming this fall), let alone a full launch. It is just beginning to compile 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 business.

Additionally, Zhu’s experience already includes starting a business (yes, at 19, à la Mark Zuckerberg, from her dorm room) and several laps as an advisor to venture capital investors both here and in China.

The Zette deal, as Zhu envisions the mature product, will be $9.99 per month for 30 items, although it will cost much less in beta. With a Google Chrome browser extension, the user encounters a paywall article, clicks a Zette button, and the story opens in its original format, including illustrations and ads.

As with Blendle and Scroll, you can store the item after purchase. You can also forward it to friends.

For the beta, Zhu is relying on users finding their way to what they want to read, rather than directing that with curation and recommendations, perhaps a future refinement. A mobile app will also be available later.

This underscores their vision of what is needed. Keep it functionally simple and fast, especially for a younger news audience; Frills could be a distraction. They decide to stay or continue in half a second and tend to be light readers.

If the product is simple, so is the technology behind it, Zhu said. Zette currently employs six people.

A plus for publishers will be access to this younger audience, along with traffic metrics showing which articles are most appealing to that demographic. However, they share sales with Zette, which of course will not be much at first.

Zhu has signed McClatchy and its 29 regional newspapers as publishing partners, as well as Forbes and Haaretz. She recognizes that Zette needs a lot more, and hopes to add high-profile, high-quality titles — both newspaper and magazine — in the coming months.

Zhu suggests that participating in Zette gives publishers a better chance of getting their material in front of potential subscribers. That makes sense to me. The industry’s growing fondness for hard paywalls – which now often include newspapers that outperform any “premium” content – is only generating frustration among website visitors. And how can readers be converted into subscribers without a taste of what they would buy?

Blendle, a Dutch import, stalled on US launch in 2016 due to lack of volume and retreated to Europe. Chartbeat co-founder Tony Haile spent years developing Scroll, which promised fast viewing and an ad-free format ahead of a 2020 launch. To say it was but growing too slowlyHaile sold Scroll to Twitter a little over a year later, where it was converted into a Twitter paid tier.

Apple News+ is a much bigger competitor, Zhu said. Longer story, but Apple News+ has complexities for both publishers and users (who pay $9.99 per month) and seems to have few fans.

All of this seems to make Zette daunting about achieving greatness.

A fast career doesn’t guarantee success, but Zhu certainly has one. At 19, she started her first business in her Harvard dorm. Harvard Square Consulting, like Zette, had a simple premise — to coach aspiring applicants and their parents on how to get into elite colleges. The buses are chosen by their peers and the price point is much lower than similar established services for a market of more modest families.

“I thought about quitting to develop it,” she told me, “but I didn’t want to spend all my time managing people…so I was looking for something that would be scalable with software.” … That seemed like the way to make money by getting my ideas out into the world.”

As a student, she did an internship at VC firm Northern Light Venture Capital and continued to invest, essentially as a scout advising companies on promising ventures. That she knows this terrain is evident in her first $6 million in investors, including Halogen Ventures, a firm that backs women’s startups, and Hyphen Capital, which is looking for Asian-American entrepreneurs. She’s targeting another round of $6 million over the next two quarters.

By the way, why Zette? Zhu said it was a play on the venerable French Gazette/Italian Gazzetta and the Italian phrase “gazeta de la novita,” or “half a penny’s worth of news.”

A little over a decade ago, Google executive Marissa Mayer served as co-chair of a Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. She was of the opinion at the time that the relevant unit of journalism in the future would be the article (or video), not just any publication.

That struck me as heresy. Surely the publisher’s standards and putting together a varied report still played a role in a user’s decision to even go there and pay later? However, Mayer was at least partially right — for years, most readers have come to a particular article through a social media recommendation or aggregator, not by scanning a homepage.

The jury has been over this for a very long time. Your own journalism mix-and-match festival – appealing in theory, practical in implementation? Zhu’s Zette should be another relevant experiment to clarify the question.

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