Getting readers to pay online was never going to be easy. But a Slovakian start-up has succeeded by hosting a range of titles behind a common paywall. And they're expanding.
The idea is to give readers full access to several publications for one flat, monthly fee. It's a bit like the common, content bundle we know from cable television subscription models. And it seems to be the ticket for news junkies in Slovakia.
Eleven of the country's top national publications have agreed to relocate behind a common paywall run by Piano Media.
Piano Media, which launched the service in May 2011, says publishers tend to move between 10 and 20 percent of their content behind the wall.
"When you look at the content, it's very different from publisher to publisher," said Tomas Bello, the company's founder and CEO, in an interview with DW.
You can access content for 3.90 euros ($ 4.90) per month.
"We have one weekly newspaper that is more successful in selling videos online than selling the actual magazine," says Bello. "Then we have those that have closed their opinion sections, so if you want to read an opinion about what happened yesterday in parliament, you have to pay."
New media monopoly
The service has proved a success in Slovakia and Slovenia, and is expanding into Poland.
But it's also got some people concerned about the beginnings of a new, media monopoly.
With most news outlets in Slovakia behind the wall, online news readers could feel forced to pay.
"In Slovakia, readers don't really have any option other than to start paying for the content," says Brandislav Ondrasik, a media analyst at the Paneuropean University in Bratislava, "but the large majority of online users in this country are not subscribing to the service."
According to current trends in online reader behavior, it seems there is no single form of content that everyone is happy to pay for.
Exclusive interviews and snappy videos generate a lot of clicks, but general interests are too diverse - and catering to them all is hard.
Piano researches each publication before suggesting which content should go behind the paywall. And there is nothing to stop content from re-emerging for all to see for free.
The question is how long premium content should carry a price tag.
"We have tried to move away from the binary view that an article is either paid for or not," says Bella. "And the answer is that it should almost never be premium forever - because you can gain more from Google traffic than from the payment system."
The media analyst Brandislav Ondrasik says print publications in Slovakia have long struggled to make money from their online content.
Over the past five years, daily newspaper circulations in Slovakia have dropped by 30 percent. But between 2010 and 2011, traffic on the corresponding websites grew by more than 17 percent.
Many publications see backing an umbrella system like Piano as a logical step.
"There's a difference when pay a certain amount of money and get only, for example, only an editorial and or when you get access to 10 websites for [for one price]," says Ondrasik.
Changing online behavior
Paywall subscribers in Slovakia represent a mere fraction of the overall reading population, but Piano's success has raised a debate as online reading habits change.
"There is still quite a big group of people, who say [online content] should be for free," says Pavlina Galisova of the Bratislava-based consultancy TNS. "Piano customers are quite a small group of people interested in local news and opinion articles - usually, they are business people with a higher education."
Whether specialist or not, Piano Media considers its operations in Slovakia and Slovenia a success. In Poland, it has secured agreements with 40 publications which will provide content for the common paywall.
The move into Poland is likely to see a change in the way people use the Internet for news and other information there as well. It's a move that has been welcomed by some journalists.
"Information is a product that I produce," says Viktor Svietlik, head of the Press Freedom Monitoring Center of the Polish Journalists Association in Warsaw. "In my opinion, this change will stop my articles being used for free. In that sense it could be good news for Polish journalists."
Svietlik says it is important that online news readers acknowledge the value of information. He says features, investigative reports and opinion pieces should make up the bulk of the material behind the paywall.
But editors will be left a dilemma: how to strike the perfect balance between offering paying customers great premium content, while at the same providing just enough other content to hold on to all those readers who want it for free.