A new subscription service called Scroll is offering ad-free access to hundreds of websites — not by blocking the ads, but by working with an expanding group of publishers to take the ads down in exchange for a slice of the subscription fee.
Scroll launches today with support for a number of major websites and networks, including The Atlantic, BuzzFeed News, G/O Media (which includes websites like Gizmodo and Kotaku), and Vox Media, which — important disclosure here — includes The Verge.
Once you sign up for Scroll, those websites should all be free of advertisements when you load them. For the most part, you don’t need to use a special app or install an extension. Scroll works by placing a cookie in your browser that lets the websites know not to serve ads, so it should just work across all of the websites you visit once you’re logged in. It works on both desktop and mobile. (There will be an extra step within mobile apps like Facebook that use their own browser, and some browsers like Safari require an extra extension to fully work.)
Because ads aren’t being shown, websites should load faster, and you should receive far fewer ad trackers. Some analytics tools are still allowed, and websites will be able to keep using affiliate links and paywalling some of their stories. Custom native ads are allowed in select situations, but generally, you should be looking at an ad-free site. “If you’re doing shitty chumbox links on native, that’s all gone,” Tony Haile, Scroll’s CEO, told The Verge.
Scroll costs $5 per month, though early subscribers can get their first six months at half price. Scroll keeps $1.50 of its $5 fee, and publishers divide up the other $3.50, primarily based on how each user divides their time. So if you only ever visit BuzzFeed News, then BuzzFeed News would get your entire $3.50. If you visit a variety of websites, it’ll be divided up site by site based on how much you’ve been visiting them.
The goal is to deliver more money to publishers than they’d normally get from ad revenue for each individual user. Haile says that’s already happening and that Scroll’s payout rates are high enough that even higher-end publications would “kill for” them. “If you have one user coming to your site, that one user is now giving you more money than they would have before,” Haile said.
In order to properly pay publishers, Scroll keeps track of everything you read across the websites it supports. It’s up front with users about keeping that history, presenting it to them and showing them a breakdown at the end of each month of where their money is going. Haile says Scroll will never sell that information. Publishers will be able to see anonymized, aggregated data so that they can audit the payouts, but they can’t see what individual people are reading.
A number of startups have tried to solve the problem of paying for content online, and none have made it very far. Several companies have tried to create a “tip jar” system, where you distribute money to websites that support the feature, but they’ve generally been voluntary, without payment minimums or any kind of widespread support.
Scroll has partnered with these publishers, which seems like a far stronger start, so long as the payouts are actually what publishers hoped for. Apple has taken the same approach with Apple News, though it’s mostly working with magazines, and readers have to use the Apple News app to access them. Early reporting suggested that initial payouts to publishers were low.
The difficult part will be getting readers to sign up. People are used to reading the web for free, and — even if they don’t like it — everyone expects ads across the web. Some people turn to ad blocking, but most just let it go.
Haile thinks the better experience will ultimately win out. “It was kind of the same question Spotify had: ‘why would anyone pay for this when you had Limewire and Napster,’” he said. “It worked out pretty well for them.”