Slovak Media Follow Murdoch by Pushing Online Paywall Plan

Piano Media Owner Tomas Bella
Tomas Bella, owner of Piano Media. Source: Piano Media via Bloomberg

Slovak newspapers, magazines and TV stations have united behind a single Internet paywall, following companies such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in trying to get users to pay for online content.

Readers are required to pay a monthly fee of 2.90 euros ($4.2) for full access to nine media websites, including newspapers Pravda, SME and Sport, in a country where the average monthly wage is 769 euros.

“We are betting the user will find this all-you-can-eat approach attractive,” Piano Media owner Tomas Bella said in an interview in Bratislava. “People in general don’t have a problem to pay, but they don’t want to make many payments to individual Web sites.”

The paywall run by Piano Media is the latest attempt by an industry struggling to get readers to pay for content. As more people turn to the Internet for information, newspapers are increasingly charging for online access to make up for lost revenue from print ads. They are also betting that a small number of committed, paying online readers can attract advertisers.

Variety of Models

Newspapers are turning to a variety of models to enforce payments, including a metered format at the Financial Times and the New York Times, which allows a user to read a number of articles for free each month before they must pay. Rupert Murdoch’s Times of London titles require a subscription before any story can be accessed.

Slovakia’s unified paywall may work in a country of 5.4 million people, especially if rival news organizations cooperate, said George Brock, head of journalism at City University London.

“On a scale that large it could also be that easier to find ways around it” and avoid paying, Brock said in a phone interview. “Overall I’m in favor of any form of experimenting, but the devil is in the detail.”

The most loyal customers are the most likely to pay, Bella said. Not all content on the participating media sites is therefore locked. At SME, which receives about 1.5 million visits per month, general news is free and locked items represent less than 5 percent of the newspaper’s online content, according to SME data.

Still, customers must pay for reading SME’s commentaries or having the right to post comments in online discussions. The JOJ television channel allows free access to its website while an advertisement-free version is locked behind Piano Media’s paywall.

‘Earn Some Money’

“We will earn some money through the project which is better than nothing,” said Matus Kostolny, SME’s editor-on-chief, where Bella previously worked as deputy head of the online section before starting his own company. “Only our unique content is locked and the rest is free, which enables us to keep traffic on the website.”

The New York Times Co. introduced a metered payment system in late March which requires customers to pay after reading a certain number of articles. More than 100,000 people have signed up for new digital subscriptions so far, the newspaper has said.

Last year, Rupert Murdoch’s U.K. titles the Times and Sunday Times and News of the World were among the first general-interest English-language newspapers to start charging for Web access to boost revenue and curb free sharing of their news on Internet search engines and news consolidation sites such as Google Inc.

Visits Decline

Visits to the website of the Times fell to a third of the pre-paywall total shortly after the concept was introduced in early July, data compiled by Experian Hitwise showed. Still, contact details and information on readers that remained behind could prove more valuable for marketers seeking to target users.

News Corp.’s international unit said in March monthly digital subscribers at the U.K. Times and Sunday Times rose 60 percent in the four months through February, driven by Times iPad application users.

Piano Media wants to have 1.5 percent of country’s 2.5 million Internet users within one year and reach a share of between 5 percent and 15 percent by 2015.

The company keeps 30 percent of user charges, while the rest will be distributed to participating media based on time users spent with their content.

Piano Media, which believes their model will work best with smaller populations, aims to expand in similar small- and medium-sized markets such as in the neighboring Czech Republic or in Scandinavia.

“It is rather easy to meet all publishers in a small country such as Slovakia,” the 32-year-old Bella said. “But we have talked to publishers in other countries and they like the idea.”

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