When nine of Slovakia's leading news organizations went behind a collective paywall in May, the world's eyes turned on this small eastern European country and waited impatiently for the public's response.
Now we know. Unique visitors to most of the publications' sites have actually increased since the paywall went up, and Piano Media, the company behind the venture, claims to have met its subscription target within two days of launching the system.
In just over six weeks, Piano Media took $58,000 from customers prepared to pay $1.40 a week, $4 a month or $40 for the year to access selected content from the publishers involved. This is in a country where incomes are low and only 2.5 million of people are online.
User payments are split between publishers according to how much time a subscriber spends on an individual site, with Piano Media taking a 30% cut.
"Most of our publishers would like to see the price higher, but to start with, we are trying to encourage impulse buying. We will introduce more-expensive packages at a later date, but what's important for now is that people are learning to pay for the content," Tomas Bella, CEO of Piano Media, said. "The highest value to us is in breaking consumer habits."
Even paying by credit card is not as common in Slovakia as it is in Western Europe. "We've had hundreds of people asking if they can pay by cash," Mr. Bella said. He is planning to launch SMS payments this summer.
Mr. Bella claimed that more than half of the media that joined Piano has increased its readership since the project's launch. Participating sites include Slovakia's leading broadsheet, SME, its oldest daily paper, Pravda, and its biggest business weekly, Tyzden. Participating media promoted Piano to their readers through online and print campaigns ahead of the launch.
Tyzden, which has a print circulation of 27,000, is attracting more subscriptions through Piano Media than it did as a solo operation. The magazine's editor, Stefan Hrib, said in a statement, "We got six times the number of online subscribers compared to April, and the number of site visits remained stable."
Mr. Bella was editor in chief of SME.sk, Slovakia's biggest news portal, until he quit last year to start Piano Media. "I persuaded my former bosses to join first," he said, "which made it easier to persuade the others. But it still took me a year."
Valer Kot, digital publishing director for SME, said via email, "The number of subscribers is a pleasant surprise for us. We experimented with paid subscription seven years ago, and with Piano we have 14 times the number of subscribers we did then. Overall visitor numbers in May were 5% up on April. We are confident about Piano but we will have to keep innovating behind the paywall or there will be no growth."
Mr. Bella said he believes that convenience is the key to getting people to pay for online content. "Imagine if you sat in front of the TV, paying for each show you watch or having to decide a month in advance exactly what programs you'd watch. You would watch a lot less TV," he said. "It's been a gamble, but we believe that people do see the value in online content -- it's just that the current system is so inconvenient."
Piano's success has brought interest from publishers in other countries. "We've had a lot of requests from publishers around the world who want to know how Piano could work in their countries," Mr. Bella said. "We are already negotiating with publishers in five European countries and plan to launch Piano in a second country after Slovakia by the end of the year."
Mr. Bella did not name the countries, but said that Scandinavia was an obvious choice, because many of its languages are not spoken outside the individual countries. "I'm not ruling out Germany and Spain, but we will start with smaller countries," he said.
One happy consequence of the paywall system is the absence of trolls from newspaper forums. "There's always a small percentage who act like idiots and spoil it for everyone," Mr. Bella said, "but once you ask people to pay, it's not a problem. All the idiots leave and the normal people stay."