Browser extension and subscription platform Zette is streamlining the connections between publisher and reader, with an all-you-can-eat model designed to democratise news journalism
“In 59 B.C., the Romans would inscribe news onto a stone slab and send it through the public square so that those who were literate could read it to everybody else,” says Zette founder Yehong Zhu. “That was the first daily gazette. Perhaps that also gives you an indication of how long news has been around – as well as how many millennia naysayers have been saying it’s going to die, or that it’s a lost art form, or that it’s not going to make it.”
Zhu, a former journalist and Twitter Product Manager, is on a mission to reinvent journalism’s relationship with its readers via Zette – a digital platform and browser extension that lets users access paywalled stories from multiple publications via a single subscription. It’s an elegant solution for a complex problem; in recent years, as ad revenues have declined, news organisations and magazines have turned to a subscription model that means articles are locked behind a digital barrier. In comparison to the feeding frenzy of the early internet, when content was free by default, the publishing industry is becoming increasingly inaccessible.
It’s something Zhu, whose first job in journalism was working as a reporter at Forbes, has experienced firsthand. “It was in the Forbes newsroom where I realised that relying on an ad model alone was insufficient to fund every newsroom in the industry,” she explains. “Not only were the margins razor-thin on digital ads, but the financial incentives behind them put the focus on clicking headlines rather than reading articles. That’s exactly what leads to clickbait.
“Meanwhile, subscription paywalls were on the rise. I could make very clear sense of the financial incentives behind recurring revenue – which every newsroom loves. The relationship with the reader is also much stronger because a subscriber relationship is based on the quality of the content rather than clickbait, which also means higher margins and lifetime value for each customer. I could immediately see that paywalls would be the future of the industry.”
But while the benefits for publishers were clear, Zhu says she was also seeing major downsides to the model. “I had friends who were writing for The Economist, The Financial Times, and The New York Times – some of the best papers in the business,” she explains. “But I couldn’t read a single one of their articles, nor could I afford to read them, because each subscription costs hundreds of dollars, cumulatively thousands every year. I thought, ‘If I can’t read these publications, who can?’
“When reputable journalism becomes truly democratised for everyone, and not just the elites, it’s going to be a new paradigm shift for the world.”Yehong Zhu, founder of Zette
“We’ve set out to solve one of the major problems of paywalls—that it’s so hard to subscribe to everything, the average reader only has one newspaper subscription,” she continues. “So they pick their favourite publication or journalist and read only that, which removes intellectual diversity of thought and the ability to access different perspectives across a political or editorial spectrum.”
Zhu started thinking about alternative pay-per-article options that returned royalty money or revenue share back to publishers, following more of a Netflix or Spotify model. In 2020, after working at Twitter and seeing how information was being disseminated across the platform – and the problems that posed for paywalled journalism – Zhu took the plunge and set up Zette.
It coincided with the arrival of Covid, and although it was a time of fear and instability, Zhu says she took heart in the fact that everyone was glued to the news. Critical information about vaccines and lockdowns meant people were dependent on journalism, which in itself spawned controversy around Covid stories being locked behind paywalls.
“If there’s any example a founder needs to show the importance of what they’re working on, it was that during an international pandemic, lives were saved or lost depending on the information you could get through digital sources,” says Zhu. “When reputable journalism becomes truly democratised for everyone, and not just the elites, it’s going to be a new paradigm shift for the world.”
“There’s a need for trusted, interesting, diverse, personalised content in the market, which is something that existing players are not doing well at the moment. That’s where Zette comes in.”
So far, Zette has set up relationships with some of the biggest names in the publishing industry, counting over 100 titles as partners and serving more than 10k registered readers – although Zhu has ambitions to grow that to 1,000 publishers and 100k readers, eventually establishing Zette as “the front page of the internet”. As she points out, people’s current consumption of news and other journalism is scattered, often drawing on a mix of Google, RSS feeds, newsletters, social media, friends, newspaper homepages and so on. “One day, when we have all the best publishers on our platform, all you need to do to get your favourite news is to go to zette.com. We’ll have all the licences you need to read every publisher you can imagine.”
The company’s branding plays a significant role in this ambition, designed to establish it as a new voice that’s still rooted in the traditional publishing world. Zette’s identity embraces traditional newspaper visual language through its colours—a throwback to the CMYK cartridges used in printing presses—as well as its wordmark, which is a reconsidered version of classic headline fonts.
Even the company’s name is derived from the history of publishing, referencing the French word for newspaper, gazette, which is itself derived from the Italian phrase gazeta de la novità—referring to the half-penny coin used to pay for the day’s newspaper. “It was always pay-per-view, even from the beginning,” says Zhu, “we’re just bringing that into the 21st century.”
“Every generation reinvents media with its own spin, and I think each generation will continue to do that down the line as well.”
“There’s a need for trusted, interesting, diverse, personalised content in the market, which is something that existing players are not doing well at the moment. That’s where Zette comes in.
“Every generation reinvents media with its own spin, and I think each generation will continue to do that down the line as well,” she continues. “I’m one in a long line of news entrepreneurs that will keep pushing the industry forward, and I’m confident that no matter what happens in the future, news media will find a way to persevere in new and innovative forms. We’ve evolved a long way from the stone slab, and will continue to evolve a long way well into the future.”