A 26-year-old entrepreneur takes a fresh shot at selling news one story at a time

So here’s an idea: Instead of cruising the Internet and bumping into an assortment of annoying paywalls, how about buying a pass that will instantly open just those articles you want and enable a nourishing reading diet from a variety of sources?

Longtime media watchers like me might say that’s already been tried a bunch of times in the last two decades, and results have ranged from outright failure to very limited success.

That track record, however, leaves 26-year-old entrepreneur Yehong Zhu undeterred.

Her early stage startup, Zette, has both fresh features and a sense of what young adult consumers want, Zhu told me, and that should make Zette’s approach a winner.

The product is not yet to beta (coming this fall), let alone a full launch. It is just beginning to assemble a roster of participating publishers and potential customers. But I am always interested in new looks at this particular Rubik’s Cube for the news business.

Plus, Zhu’s experience already includes one business launch (yes, at 19, a la Mark Zuckerberg, from her dorm room) and several turns 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 a month for 30 articles, though it will cost much less in the beta phase. With a Google Chrome browser extension, the user hits a paywalled article, clicks a Zette button, and the story opens in its original format including illustrations and ads.

As with Blendle and Scroll, once you have bought the article, it is yours to keep on file. You can also forward it to friends.

For beta, Zhu will count on users to find their way to what they want to read rather than guiding that with curation and recommendations, perhaps a future refinement. A mobile app too will come later.

That underscores her vision of what’s needed. For a younger news audience especially, keep it functionally simple and fast; bells and whistles could be a distraction. They decide to stay or move on in half a second and tend to be light readers.

If the product is simple, so is the tech behind it, Zhu told me. Zette currently has a staff of six.

For publishers, a plus will be access to that younger audience, together with traffic measures showing which articles have the greatest appeal to the demographic. They will share revenue with Zette, though, which of course, will not be much at first.

Zhu has signed up McClatchy and its 29 regional papers as a publishing partner, as well as Forbes and Haaretz. She realizes Zette needs many more and has hopes of adding high profile, high quality titles — both newspapers and magazines — in coming months.

Zhu suggests that participating in Zette will give publishers a better shot at getting their material before potential subscribers. This makes sense to me. The industry’s growing preference for hard paywalls – now often including papers that put all “premium” content behind them – creates little but frustration for website visitors. And how can readers be turned into subscribers without some sampling of what they would be buying?

Blendle, a Dutch import, faltered when introduced in the US in 2016 for a lack of volume and retreated back to Europe. Chartbeat co-founder Tony Haile spent years developing Scroll, which promised quick display and a format of no ads, before a 2020 launch. Saying it was growing but too slowlyHaile sold Scroll to Twitter a little over a year later, where it has been folded into a paid tier of Twitter.

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 a month), and seems to have few fans.

All that would seem to make achieving scale for Zette daunting.

A fast track career does not ensure success, but Zhu certainly has one. She founded her first company at 19 in her Harvard dorm room. 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 picked from her fellow students, and the price point much lower than similar established services, for a market of families of more modest means.

“I thought about dropping out 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. … That seemed like the path to make money by putting my ideas out in the world.”

As an undergraduate she interned at VC firm Northern Light Venture Capital and has continued in investing, essentially as a scout advising firms on promising companies. That she knows that terrain is evident in her first $6 million in investors, including Halogen Ventures, a firm that backs startups by women, and Hyphen Capital, which is looking for Asian-American entrepreneurs. She is seeking another round of $6 million in the next two quarters.

Why Zette, by the way? Zhu said it is a play on the venerable French gazette/Italian gazzetta and the Italian phrase “gazeta de la novita” or “a half-pennyworth of news.”

A little over a decade ago, Google executive Marissa Mayer co-chaired a Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. She offered the opinion then that, going forward, the relevant unit of journalism would be the article (or video), not any publication.

That struck me as heresy. Surely the standards of the publisher and the assemblage of a varied report still mattered to a user’s decision on whether to go there in the first place and later pay? However, Mayer had it at least partly right – for years now, most readers have been coming to a given article via a social media or aggregator referral, not by scanning a home page.

The jury has been out a very long time on this one. Your own mix-and-match journalism feast – appealing in theory but practical in execution? Zhu’s Zette should be one more relevant experiment to help settle the question.

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