What will it take to make readers pay for online news content? Ongo, creator of a subscription-based news service launching today, thinks a handsome interface for viewing hand-picked articles will do the trick. The New York Times Company, The Washington Post Company and Gannett Company, all early investors, are hoping the startup is right.
Founded by former Skype president Alex Kazim, Ongo is launching its web and iPad apps today amid uncertain times for print media. Like popular news aggregator Flipboard, Ongo lets users flip through stories from multiple sources, but Kazim’s service relies on experienced news editors rather than your social network to assemble the front page.
The startup is betting that consumers will pay for its ad-free, curated content in the same way they pay for cable TV packages. For a starting rate of $6.99 per month, Ongo brings articles from five top publications, including The Washington Post, USA Today, The New York Times, the Financial Times and the Associated Press, together in one place.
Readers can personalize the service with add-on publications — the first is free, extras start at 99 cents each. Users can also pull in publicly available RSS feeds, track specific topics and “clip” articles for cross-platform viewing. During a demo, I was able to see how articles saved on my laptop could be read later on Ongo’s iPad app, a feature shared with bookmarking site Instapaper.
Even with a paid subscription users only get select stories from The New York Times and the Financial Times, although chief content officer Kevin Skaggs said Ongo is working with the publications to get more of their content. If The New York Times sets up a pay wall on its own site, which it is expected to do this year for frequent users, consumers may face a tough choice between overlapping news services. According to Abbe Serphos, executive director of corporate communications at The New York Times, subscriptions to Ongo and The New York Times will be “completely separate.”
It’s clear why publishers are interested in Ongo. It gets their content in front of a paying audience and lets them experiment with new pay models.
As for readers, Skaggs admitted that some may be hesitant to pay, but he said Ongo is specifically targeting news enthusiasts who visit at least six news-oriented sites per day. Ongo expects these readers to be well-educated with an interest in politics, world news, science and tech. And to convince them to sign up, Ongo is offering 30 days free to all subscribers.
Started about two years ago, Ongo is based in Cupertino, Calif. and has raised $12 million in funding to date.