The question of how media houses can exact payments when putting content online without jettisoning their reader base or advertising revenues, continues to be one with no easy answer. While pay walls may have proved successful for large organisations with an international or specialised readership (say the New York Times or the Financial Times), the answer for smaller publishers is often less obvious.

Piano Media

Part of the solution may come from a project launched last year by Mr Tomas Bella, the former head of a Slovakian news organisation. His firm Piano Media, which created a single pay wall for the premium content of some of the country’s biggest media houses, was also rolled out in Slovenia, and this week is launching in the far larger market of Poland — home to an estimated 19.5 million Internet users.

A total of 7 media organisations covering 27 national and regional papers, 14 magazines and the country’s national public radio, have joined Piano, including Agora, which publishes one of the nation’s biggest dailies. Swiss-German media house, Ringier Axel Springer Poland, which publishes Forbes magazine in Poland, and the Polish division of media group, Mecom Publishing, which also owns media in Netherlands and Denmark, have also joined.

Mr Bella hopes the roll-out into Poland will show that the system works even in larger markets. “We thought that this would be a good test for Western European publishers that may not want to start with something like this but would rather see it working on a smaller scale,” he told Business Line.

The Piano pay wall works like this: for a certain fee (in the case of Poland Rs 35 a week, or Rs 3,000 a year), subscribers get access to all premium content put behind the pay wall in their country — rather like a subscription to cable television. “Our idea is to change the mind set of people who never pay for content online,” says Mr Bella, who believes people are far more willing to pay when there is just one pay wall and one payment system to go through, rather than many hoops. His thesis will be put to the test, as a number of the Web sites signing up in Poland already have pay walls, providing a ready comparison with the success of a system like Piano’s.

User numbers

Mr Bella is reluctant to give figures on exact numbers of users, though says that in Slovakia the pay wall didn’t reduce the number of visitors to Web sites. SME.sk, the Web site of the country’s second largest broadsheet, actually saw a rise in readership since the introduction of the pay wall, he says.

Exactly what is put behind the pay wall varies between the media organisations: some may put as much as 50 per cent of their content behind the wall, though the majority put between 5 and 15 per cent.

Piano helps them tailor which content works best behind the pay wall through regular analysis and takes around 30 per cent of the subscription revenues.

The remainder goes to the publishers, some of it is performance based, split between publishers on the basis of where readers spend most of their time.

Piano Media is cautious about revealing where it plans to go from here (it recently received Rs 13.5 crore in funding for international expansion). But Mr Bella insists that the larger markets of Western Europe or the US are not unsuited, though it would have to be more tailored.

“We have a few ideas of how it could be used– on a regional level or a package of left leaning magazines,” he suggests. “For now our focus is Europe and Poland will be the big test.”

(This article was published on July 18, 2012)
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