This startup thinks people will pay for celeb news

For some diehard fans, no detail about the stars they follow is too small. And that’s why a new startup called Flink is betting that it can not only amass a following for news about celebrities like Jay-Z and Taylor Swift but charge for it as well.

Dan Steneker, Flink’s CEO, said the site was born out of the idea that paid opportunities for writers were on the decline but that there was a demand for the intimate details of stars’ lives. The site is purely reader-funded. For $1, you get access to an article and any updates made to it for a year. The platform is set up to incentivize people to contribute to and share the stories: Fifty-five percent of the revenue is shared among the writers, fans and even the celebrities themselves (more on that later).

“The idea is that the whole writer community becomes part of the construction of the content,” Steneker said.

Flink is not for everyone. People wanting celebrity news are already well served; the entertainment news category, as comScore defines it, had 154 million domestic unique visitors in May on desktop and mobile. And research report after report has shown that people value digital news but are rarely willing to pay for it. An exception is People magazine, which claims to have converted a “significant number of subscribers” into more expensive subscription levels that come with more content, products and experiences than the standard offer.

A Boston Consulting Group study found that 15 percent of people in the U.S. were paying for online news already, with 45 percent willing to pay for it. But when asked what they were most likely to pay for, entertainment/show business was on the low end, with only 42 percent of U.S. respondents expressing a willingness to cough up, compared with local/community news, which has a higher unique factor, at 72 percent. And Pew research shows that people who pay to access news on their tablets are more likely to be male, higher income and conservative — not necessarily the target demo for celebrity news.

“As you move into niche areas, the one question is, what’s the demographic in terms of their willingness to pay?” said Amy Mitchell, journalism research director at the Pew Research Center. “Part of the challenge is, you have a generation or more of people who grew up with the free Internet. There needs to be a convincing that this is an area worth paying for.”

There is a population of diehard fans, though, enabled by the proliferation of media channels. Since the days of the Beatles, “it’s easier to connect with the celebrities and bands you are passionate about,” said Ted Murphy, founder and CEO of Izea, a social sponsorship company. “We’re engaging these people through sponsored tweets all the time. You have people who will share anything that comes from a celebrity. They’re hanging on every word; they’re hanging on every tweet.”

Steneker goes so far as to suggest Flink could replace stars’ own websites and even traditional media outlets. “We see print media being really hit by this,” he said. “Jack White with 10 million people on social media can reach his audience a heck of a lot easier than Rolling Stone can.”

That may be. But creating content that’s exclusive, distinctive and compelling enough — something that’s hard enough for established sites to do on an ongoing basis — is easier said than done.

Those wanting unfiltered information from celebrities can already get it from WhoSay, a publishing platform for stars themselves. Flink is different in that the content can be created equally by journalists and by the celebrities, although as the model depends on the artists to endorse the stories, one can expect the posts to be favorable to them. Flink, which has $5 million in private capital, has enlisted 50 writers including Alan Cross (43,000 Twitter followers) and Karen Bliss, who has written for Rolling Stone and The Huffington Post, and is talking with celebrities to endorse the platform.

As for the artists, the question is whether it makes sense for them to focus on their hard-core fans or distribute their news more widely through media channels and their social networks.

“If I have baby or engagement photos, does it make more sense to distribute that to my millions of fans or a very small subset?” Murphy said. “And how do you stop that content from spreading from that group of people?”

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