Erecting Paywalls and Tearing Down Barriers in Online Media: Will the Slovak Solution become the Global Solution?

Amy Wicks, Editor of 52 Weeks in Slovakia, had the article below posted on a website for specialists in the field of marketing communications in the autumn. As it talks about a new idea and Slovakia as the proving grounds, I was sure the readers of this site would be interested.  The company is now moving into Slovenia as well.  Since Amy wrote the original article, the company has been mentioned in the Wall Street Journal in this article “Slovak Digital Paywall Company Expands to Slovenia” and has been written about in the ominous sounding “Piano Media wants national paywalls all over Europe.” Amy will be online this week responding to questions and comments left below the article.  – Allan

Piano

January 17, 2012

By Amy Wicks

Slovakia is a small country in the heart of Europe. Tourism materials brand it as the “Little Big Country.” Though the country boasts some of the biggest castles found in Europe, a well-preserved folk culture rich in traditions, and spectacular, craggy mountains, it is a country seldom in the global spotlight.

A logo used to promote tourism in SlovakiaSince the Velvet Revolution, which ended Communist rule in Czechoslovakia in 1989, and the Velvet Divorce, which divided the Slovak and Czech Republics in 1993, life in Slovakia has proceeded mostly unexamined by the rest of the world. However, this past spring Slovakia was once again in the global spotlight as a new Internet media platform was implemented.

Internet and mobile technologies are improving at an ever-increasing pace. As they improve, they are making information and creative content available in forms never previously imagined. You can now get answers to all those curious questions that spring up in the midst of conversation, stream your favorite YouTube videos as you ride the bus to work, or even read the latest updates in the Boston Globe online as you sit and fish in the middle of your favorite lake.

One side effect of this advancing technology is the threat it poses to traditional media like newspapers and magazines. In the face of these advances, top publishers are struggling to find ways to offer consumers the content they want in the electronic forms they demand while continuing to turn a profit. Notably, the New York Times recently launched its second attempt to institute a paywall, which requires heavy users to pay for access to more than 20 articles per month. The bottom line is that marketers around the world must convince consumers to pay for electronic content as they used to pay for physical content.

Into this fray steps little Slovakia. On May 2, 2011, Piano Media launched an online subscription-based media content payment system across Slovakia that includes most of the country’s top news publishers.

What makes the Slovak paywall different from those used by many American media outlets is the wide net that Piano Media casts with its system. The Piano platform includes 34 services from 9 different publishers. According to Tomaš Bella, the founder of the project, “Slovakia is an ideal country to test this world-first service, since there are relatively few media outlets in the market and thus a large proportion of them [could] be persuaded to participate.” All the content from these outlets is available for one low, single fee of €2.90 (around $4) a month or €29 (around $40) for a full year of the service.

The content that is behind the paywall varies by publisher, but much of the content on each of the sites is still available for free. The SME daily newspaper, the most read broadsheet newspaper in the country, has put the opinion section, the full archives, its interactive features, and the ability to post more than 3 comments each day behind the wall. Šport, a publication devoted to local and international sports, promises subscribers exclusive articles from their staff while Týždeň, a weekly news magazine akin to Newsweek, and TV JOJ, a local TV network, are both promising ad-free versions of their websites. Týždeň also offers readers early access to articles from its print edition as well as the opportunity to post comments online.

Piano Media has been tremendously successful in its first months of operation. In the first month alone, Piano earned €40,000 (over $50,000), which the company claims is “the most revenue ever earned through a publication subscription on the Slovak internet.” The company’s goal is to enable users to pay for the content they access online and reduce barriers that would discourage customers from paying. The initial success suggests that they have done this well. By allowing subscribers to add the charges to their usual Internet bill, they have ensured that using Piano’s service won’t cause extra hassle for users. Even more important in reducing this hassle is the fact that all of the publishers have effectively joined hands and taken the plunge together. Readers don’t have to spend time subscribing individually to each site—they can do it once and they’re done! One fear of erecting paywalls is that it will result in declining readership. However, for now the Piano system seems to be doing just the opposite—the publishers included in the platform have all reported an increase in the number of new visitors to their sites (likely due to the packaging of so many sites together).

The creators of the Piano system, Tomas Bella (left) and Marcel Vass (right)

Publishers and news outlets around the world have watched eagerly as Piano launched this project in Slovakia. Its success or failure in the long run will provide important insights into how the industry should proceed. Once the project has clearly established itself as a success within Slovakia, there are two clear directions for future development.

The first is product development. While Piano includes many popular Slovak publications, there are some notable omissions. In particular, Nový Čas, a daily tabloid paper, which surveys have shown is the most read newspaper in the country, is not included in the paywall. Other possible content to add would be more TV networks. TV JOJ is currently the only station included, though there are many TV networks based in Slovakia, such as the station Markiza, which boasts some of the most popular TV programming. Adding these outlets could be a major source of revenue as they both have very wide viewer and reader bases that they would bring with them. Piano is reported to be in negotiation with 10 different publishers who would like to join the platform, but it is unknown exactly who might be added or when.

Courtesy of pamlau via Flickr Creative CommonsThe other obvious growth option for Piano Media is market development. With Piano’s immediate success, the founder of the project says that publishers from other countries have also shown a keen interest in the system and how it could work for them. While this system seems to be working well in Slovakia, Piano should be very cautious and selective if it embarks into new markets. The Slovak market is unique because it is rather small (Slovakia has a population of just under 5.5 million citizens) and many of the publishers are physically based out of just a few cities, so it was probably (relatively) easy to get so many of them to jump in together. And although there are certainly factions within Slovak society who do not get along, compared to many neighboring countries it is a rather homogenous market in terms of ethnic background, language, and culture, which makes establishing countrywide projects easier. So while success in the Slovak market does not guarantee

Piano’s success in more challenging markets with a wider field of publishers and readers, it is an important, notable step forward in understanding new ways to pay for creative content on the Internet. Piano continues to move forward and expand its revenue and readership. For now, it is a success and the rest of the world is watching eagerly as the “Little Big Country” ventures down a new path for the world to follow with its unified media platform.

Now this is an issue that pertains to any website – How can quality information be generated and paid for?  There are hundreds of proposals for good solutions out there, a paywall being but one example.  What are solutions that you’ve foundinteresting as you’ve browsed around the internet? Are you among those that believe that professional writing will be lost forever, destroyed by the internet, or will this change bring potential that writers couldn’t in the past have even imagined?

Amy M. Wicks came to Slovakia in 2006 to work as an English teacher at a local high school.  She was pleasantly surprised by how much fun life in Slovakia turned out to be and stayed for 5 years.  She is currently pursuing a degree in marketing & communications outside of Slovakia, but her love of Slovak culture persists.  She is the Editor of 52 Weeks in Slovakia and also works on projects like  www.TranslationWallOfShame.com.  In her free time, she loves adventures.

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Comments

  • Extremely interesting, thanks for posting. The local news markets in the States have been hurting, I know that here in Connecticut there’s a start-up trying to do something similar. I’m bookmarking… :)

  • Hello Martin!
    I am sorry that my reply to your comment is coming so late…I hope you’ll forgive me. :-) Thank you for the compliments. The process of moving from print media to digital interests me a lot–I’m always keen to see what they come up with next. I’d love to hear more about the start up in Connecticut. Do you know their name?

    Amy

  • […] Interview with a member of the Piano team – an experimental internet paywall developed in Slovakia and written about early on in the pages of 52 Weeks in Slovakia. […]

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