Meet The Gen Z Media Maven Bringing Down Barriers To Access Credible News

With the proliferation of misinformation online, election deniers becoming a staple of the Republican party, billionaires buying up social media platforms, and journalism under attack, it’s understandable to feel overwhelmed about where to find credible sources to help us make sense of the rapidly changing world around us. Where do we go to be informed, when so many of the good publications often require a hefty subscription fee to read their articles?

Enter Zette – a new startup looking to help bring down barriers to access credible news, founded by 26 year old Gen Z digital prodigy Yehong Zhu.

If you are cautiously asking “what is Zette?” (as we should be asking about all sources of information), Zette is a venture-backed media tech startup that launched in Fall 2022, giving readers access to paywalled publications, all while sharing revenue with newsrooms. The Zette product, a browser extension, provides access to 30 paywalled articles per month for $9.99. 

Zette was created as a way to bring down the barriers to access credible, fact-checked news from premium publishers, at an affordable price point. Data shows that an increasing number of Gen Z and Millennials use social media as their primary source for news, which is often not fact checked and can become the cause of spreading misinformation. Zette aims to provide an affordable solution for these target groups to access real news, especially local, to encourage Gen Z and Millennials to be more informed and involved in their communities. Especially when it comes to making educational choices when voting, which is highly relevant since the day this article is being published, America is going to the polls for the 2022 mid term elections.

With Zette, you can have access to publications such as Forbes, McClatchy, Boone Newspapers, New Scientist, and Haaretz, ensuring that readers will have behind-the-paywall access to the Sacramento Bee, Miami Herald, Washington Daily News and 80+ other premium publications.

How does Zette work? Users download the Zette browser extension and subscribe to Zette to receive article credits that refill every month. Each credit can unlock one paywalled article. Readers browse the news normally until a paywall pops up; a Zette notification will appear, allowing the reader to unlock the paywall with one click across all Zette partner sites. Check out a demo here.

Unlike other publications and traditional newsrooms who have been left scratching their corporate heads wondering how to reach younger generations, Zette has so far managed to capture the attention of Gen-Z and millennial readers.

We were instantly impressed by what Yehong Zhu created with this startup, and recently had the chance to speak with the Harvard-educated, first generation Chinese-American former Forbes journalist to learn more about her motivation to create Zette and engage Gen Z with access to quality news.

Zette CEO and Founder Yehong Zhu

Can you tell us about your upbringing in Georgia, and how you got into the tech field?

Growing up in the American South, Silicon Valley seemed like a world away. I was entrepreneurial from an early age, but I had no exposure to software engineering, and I saw nobody in the tech industry who looked like me. So it wasn’t necessarily an industry that I saw my future in from the beginning.

But I fell in love with tech through the accessibility of consumer software. I was a 90’s kid who grew up looking forward to using the computer labs at school. Later I became an early adopter on Myspace, Facebook, Quora and Twitter—all platforms where you could share and consume stories with the rest of the world. When you’re a lonely kid growing up in the suburbs of Georgia, access to the rest of the world was incredibly significant. 

Like many young entrepreneurs, I was also inspired by Steve Jobs. I read his biography when I was 16. What struck me was how he said that the entire world is created by people who are no smarter than you. You can create things, you can change it too. I didn’t know it at the time, but those were the first seeds that were planted in my path to becoming a tech entrepreneur.

As a first-generation Chinese-American, what were some of the cultural barriers you saw throughout your family’s life that impacted your decision to pursue the career path you have?

My parents immigrated from China in the 90’s. My father’s an engineer, my mother’s a journalist. She actually inspired me to pursue journalism, because I really respected her craft.

Although they’re both highly educated, I watched my parents struggle with language barriers that I was fortunate to transcend. I quickly recognized that English fluency and critical reading skills were a ticket to a better life. Language unlocks so much—if you know the written word, you’ve got the world at your fingertips. Watching my parents adapt to a brand new culture, they were always asking questions about how things worked. That was the first time I felt that information of all kinds should be accessible to everyone.

As I progressed in my journey as a journalist throughout college, I noticed that it became harder and harder to access real news over time. Media outlets put paywalls in place to keep the lights on, but most people can’t afford to drop that kind of money on multiple news subscriptions every year. I found myself wishing for a solution to my own problem. Today my mission is to democratize access to information so that everyone can access the news—not just the elite. We level the playing field so that as long as you’re curious, you can read what you want.

How did the idea for Zette initially come about, and where did the name come from?

Working in the newsroom at Forbes was the first time I saw the problems of journalism as a business model. At the time, it was clear to me that a lot of companies were going to transition from print subscriptions to digital paywalls. But if everyone put up a paywall, it would put consumers in a bind, because it’d be difficult to pay for multiple news subscriptions.

To me it made a lot of sense to create a model where readers could pay directly, but just for what they wanted to read. The seeds for a “pay-as-you-go” model were planted when I was at Forbes, and started germinating after I worked in product at Twitter. When I started building software for millions of consumers worldwide, I learned the importance of accessibility, ease of use, and a delightful product experience. All of those learnings inspired me to found Zette.

The name “Zette” has an interesting origin. It comes from “gazette,” the French word for newspaper. “Gazette” itself originally stems from the Italian phrase “gazeta de la novita,” or “a half-penny for the day’s news.” That’s exactly what Zette is solving today—micropayments for premium news.

We live in an age where most millennials and Gen Z folks are consuming news digitally, and Zette is targeting these demographics. Why do you think traditional newsrooms have been so slow to adapt to the growing digital market?

Back in the golden age of newspapers, Warren Buffett used to say that if he could own any business, it’d be a newspaper in a one-paper town. Pre-internet, if you wanted to read the news, you had to open a newspaper.

Then the tech industry came along, disentangled distribution from print to digital and turned news largely into a commodity. In the beginning, a lot of newsrooms treated the internet as a novelty, and doubled down on their print efforts. Print was their bastion of success, and no industry wants to kill their darlings. So the media industry set a precedent of only charging for physical products, and giving away their digital content for free. This turned out to be a fatal mistake.

In fairness, it took time for the mass market to understand that you could actually pay for digital products. There was a paradigm shift in the market’s understanding of digital subscription models—starting with movies, then music, now news. Now these things are very commonplace, but it was a generational shift into how we think about consumption.

So that’s one side of the equation. The other side is that technology has modernized and benefited a sweeping group of industries, just not necessarily media. Take the Googles and Facebooks of the world: all these platforms benefited in some way or another from online news, but didn’t pass the economic value of that benefit back to the media industry. A lot of traditional newsrooms have been pretty badly burned while the tech behemoths who decimated their business models are enjoying unicorn status.

That’s why we think that now is the perfect time for a different approach. Now that paywalls have saturated the market, we can direct pent-up consumer demand towards a software-enabled solution, turn our revenue share model into substantial revenue for each of the publications that we’re working with, and incentivize media outlets to adapt to the ever-expanding digital market by working directly with us.

One of the important missions of Zette is to combat misinformation, and as we look ahead to major elections this year and beyond, this is going to be vitally important. Why should more people be paying attention to media misinformation?

Perception is so often reality. The average person who comes across an article that’s written online is liable to interpret what they read as fact, regardless of the news source.

So when misinformation gets shared, this becomes really dangerous. A lot of what we consume on the internet influences the daily decisions of our lives—like voting information, COVID vaccines, current travel restrictions, or even the state of the economy. It’s important for people to have factually accurate information in order to make the best decisions for their lives.

To make higher caliber decisions, you need access to the highest calibers of journalism. That’s exactly what Zette strives to give our users.

Can you tell us about some of the publications you are working with so far?

Zette recently closed major licensing deals with Forbes, McClatchy, Boone Newspapers, New Scientist, and Haaretz, ensuring that readers will have behind-the-paywall access to the Sacramento Bee, Miami Herald, Washington Daily News and 80+ other premium publications.

Our team plans to add hundreds of additional top-tier publications to our partners list in the coming year, including popular business, financial, technology, culture, and lifestyle publications.

Oftentimes paywalls can be off-putting for those who don’t want to have to sign-up for multiple publications. How does Zette make this process simpler?

You can download the Zette browser extension and subscribe to Zette for $9.99 / month to receive 30 article credits that refill every month. Each credit can unlock one paywalled article. 

Just browse the news normally until a paywall pops up—a Zette notification will appear automatically, allowing you to unlock the paywall with one click. We’re working to implement our product across as many partner sites as possible to provide users with maximum access.

While paywalls can be frustrating for some, why it is important that good journalists are paid for the important work they do?

In short, people should get paid for doing their jobs. Media creates a lot of value for society; it’s important to pass on that value economically to the hard-working journalists and editors who make it possible for us to read the news every day. 

My job as an entrepreneur is simply to make that exchange of value easier for consumers to understand and appreciate. At the end of the day, the demand for news already exists—consumers wouldn’t be hitting paywalls otherwise. By making it seamless to pay per article, we’re helping to keep the lights on in newsrooms so that journalists can continue reporting on what matters.

How does your company fact-check the articles that readers seek to access through Zette?

We don’t fact check articles ourselves. We work with paywalled publications that have a high standard of journalistic integrity who employ their own fact-checkers. 

It’s imperative for us to ensure that we’re providing access to outlets with internal checks and balances. To this end, Zette has an internal list of criteria for publishers that we do and do not accept onto our platform. Journalistic integrity, circulation volume, high Comscore rankings, and brand cachet are some of the basic criteria we look for, among others.

We don’t partner with politically extreme publications, nor do we partner with publications that deliberately spread misinformation or have a history of factually inaccurate reporting.

Can you share why access to fact-checked and credible news articles has a direct impact on voting choices and candidates’ campaigns?

Misinformation has been on the rise over the years, while a lot of highly credible and editorially rigorous journalism remains inaccessible to the majority of the population, locked behind digital paywalls because of the financial incentives that exist in the media industry.

As is so often the case, what’s shared gets read, and when fake news gets shared, this distorts public perception regarding our elected representatives—or even information about how to vote. 

In order to make the best voting decisions, people need access to the facts. We need to start building a democracy that is led less by political pundits or whoever’s the loudest in the room, and instead democratize access to well-researched, fact-checked reporting that lets people come to their own conclusions.

What is your vision for Zette in 5 and 10 years?

My ultimate vision is for Zette to become the front page of the internet. Imagine a media platform where you get to discover and access high-quality news in real time, share articles with your friends, your followers and the world, and fund great journalism along the way.

If we can partner with every premium newspaper and magazine behind a paywall, ensure that journalists get paid for their work at scale, and do our part in creating an exponentially more informed society, I think that’s a mission that I would be proud to achieve.

Join the Zette waitlist by clicking HERE and signing up!

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