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Call it the new Iron Curtain: Slovak media erect a nationwide paywall

It’s become a cliché in discussions about the future of news: Most readers won’t pay for news online because they can find it elsewhere for free.

But what if consumers had no free alternatives? What if every news site in the country erected a paywall on the same day? It’s a far-flung hypothetical (and a newspaper exec’s fantasy) in the United States, but it’s about to become reality in Slovakia — well, almost. Call it the new Iron Curtain.

Nine of Slovakia’s major news organizations have partnered with a company called Piano Media to create a unified, um, pay curtain, which goes up Monday. After a free two-week trial, users will have to pay €2.90 ($4.20) per month for unlimited access to all sites.

The man behind the curtain is Piano’s CEO, Tomas Bella, formerly the editor-in-chief of Slovakia’s largest broadsheet. He’d tried to create a pay model at his own paper — charging readers for individual commentaries — and failed miserably. Three other Slovak news organizations had also failed. This time, Bella said he took a cue from cable TV providers: One company charges for access to multiple channels, with opportunities to charge extra for premium content (think of in-depth financial news as news’ HBO).

“We don’t think it’s a problem of people refusing to pay — we don’t think it’s a problem of money. It’s a problem of convenience,” Bella said, speaking to me by phone from Bratislava. “The complexity of the system and the complexity of which media will get what amount of money is hidden from the user.”

A subscriber logs in only once for access to any site in the Piano network. The company handles all billing, software, and support. Piano takes a 30 percent cut and divvies up the rest among members based on how much time users spend on their sites — and time is the measurement, not pageviews. Publishers get to control what content goes behind the curtain, and they can offer special benefits for paying members. For example, Bella said some publishers plan to remove ads, while others might make stories available earlier in the day to paying customers. Bella said most publishers [see below] agreed to make leaving comments a premium feature, which has the added bonus of raising the level of discourse. Haters gonna hate, but haters, they gotta pay.

Piano is following the John Gruber rule of pricing: Keep it simple. It’s a flat rate, always billed monthly. Compare that to The New York Times’ tiered pay model, which has drawn criticism for its complexity.

Bella said the partnership with Slovak media companies took a year to finalize. He initially approached 12 publishers and expected half of them to sign on. The nine who did include all three national broadsheets, specialty newspapers, magazines, and a television station. No single publisher has more power than another. “At first, our plan was to give the media a share in our company,” Bella said. “We said no, because we realized it would be very hard to get them to agree on anything.” Bella said some partners have offered to buy his company, but he refused.

Three euros a month is not a lot of money. Bella said he is more interested in changing attitudes than making money. It’s psychological: If you start slowly, maybe, just maybe, you’ll persuade people that news is worth paying for. A nationwide paywall is like a reset button after years of free riding.

Bella hopes to sign up between 0.8 and 1.5 percent of the Slovak population (5.4 million) in the first year — which, he says, would represent by far the largest digital subscriber base in the region. If it takes off, he’ll expand to other small, single-language European countries, such as Holland or Denmark.

And of course, it’s Slovakia’s size and relative language isolation that has left it with a comparatively contained media universe; Bella concedes that his pay model probably wouldn’t work in a country like the United States, 60 times larger and with more free news sources online than anyone can count. But it’s an interesting experiment that will no doubt be watched by those who wish they could build a similar paywall in their own country — and, of course, by the remaining free sites in Slovakia to see how much of their peers’ audiences they can siphon off.

[Update: This story originally said all nine publishers had agreed to make commenting a paid-only feature. Actually, only five of the nine have.]

What to read next
Ken Doctor    Aug. 25, 2014
“Things” editor, distribution editor, correspondent for progress — as newsrooms change, so do the ways they organize their human resources.
  • Anonymous

    Very interesting! I applaud the Czechs for their innovation! Someone has to pay for good investigative media! And, it the public pays, it is less likely to become just a tool for corporate advertising. I vote yes.

  • Guest

    funny that you applaud Czechs who have nothing to do with it :)

  • Anonymous

    OOPS I mean Slovaks! There goes my rep!

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  • Jess Bidgood

    I’m not terribly familiar with the Slovak legal system, so help me out, AP. Is antitrust not an issue there? U.S. newspapers have quietly discussed this before, but they’d have to get an antitrust exemption.

  • Tomáš Bella

    Our lawyers say it should not be a problem. We are not asking the media to use just this system and not other means of payment, all the media are free to leave any time, there is really no exclusivity and all the media are putting different services into the system, independently, so there is no agreement on closing the same sections. So it is not that much different from situation when Google Checkout would open for business in one country from a certain date and 9 media would decide to try it.

  • Jess Bidgood

    Okay, I see. Thanks!

  • Anand Philip

    Am not sure if this should be applauded as a genius innovation. Other than the anti-trust nightmare this is, is the fact that this will necessarily shut out anyone who is unable to pay for financial or technical reasons. On the other hand, this will increase traffic to those media companies that dont adhere to this. if there are any. Also raises issues of whether this will inhibit new media agencies from going online- due to peer pressure etc.

  • Tomáš Bella

    The sites are not puting general news behind the paywall, it is really just the most exclusive content and services. So the total ammount of free versus paid content in Slovakia might not bee too different from situation in other countries, only it will be much more convenient for the readers, hopefully dramatically rising the number of those who will actually pay.

  • Anand Philip

    thank you for clarifying

    If that is true, the article is very misleading is it not? hope it gets updated.

  • Tomáš Bella

    I don’t think it is misleading. Two smaller sites are closing almost all the content, the big news portals are leaving general news free. I don’t feel the article implies otherwise. Full list of paid services can be seen here:

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  • Greg Golebiewski

    Do not call this Iron Curtain please, it is offensive to people who had to live behind that curtain. Not to mention that you misreport the scope of the initiative. My understanding is that only “premium” content is paid. Just like NYT The Economist of CNN for that matter. Are these media behind any curtain?

  • dgd

    I fail to see how a capitalistic enterprise that happens to occur within a country formerly behind the Iron Curtain is analogous to the Iron Curtain. The author either doesn’t know his history, the definition of “analogy,” or both.

  • guest

    tottaly bad idea.. :/

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  • DGH

    The advantage I see is for Slovak expatriots, who will – for a very reasonable price – have access to 9 media sites, instead of paying for each site individually. Also, I agree with those who call the article misleading – Iron Curtain? Would the author please explain this analogy?

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  • Josh

    Tomas, why do you think that posting comments by readers is the “most exclusive content”? All the initiative to put some exclusive content behind paywall is not bad… But I can’t see any logic that readers have to pay for commencing articles. While commencing they are creating the content itself – but have to pay for that. Also editors of the newspapers have to pay to get the opportunity to write an article? I see this as the worse part of the whole piano concept.

  • Tomáš Bella

    Josh, I would not call comments by readers the most exclusive content. Here, the logic is different: most of the major Slovak sites routinely have hundreds of comments under single article. The cost to the publishers is quite huge and the discussions are hardly managable any more. By introducing (quite symbolic) payment, the discussions actually became more civilised and more managable again. Many people actually have less problem with this than with paying for actual professional content because everybody understand that discussions were such a mess that radical solution was needed. And for many, paying € 3 per month is pretty good price if they get less idiots to read for that….

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  • Anonymous

    A reply to Mr.Bella below (I am not able to link):
    The truth is slightly different. The situation in public opinions developed in Slovakia to sharp contradictions between generations (potential pensioners or pensioners and youth), between liberals and socialist, between “high society” and middle class and due to this contradictions the discussion became unsuitable to officials, to politicians, to bankers, to speculators on finance markets, to owners of privatized properties (directly or through shares and funds). Many contributors to discussions are paid agents by political parties, pension funds, banks, state bureaucrats (they have no problem to pay even more than now) and on the other hand disappeared participants from groups of pensioners, students, housewife’s (no idiots!). First group force its opinions based on the aims to propagate growth of profit in any situation regardless on social consequences for second group. The whole discussion more and more resulted to content that apparently system (capitalism) is antihuman, with low moral of leaders of society and abnormal graspingness of rich part of society together with their immorality. The profits are capitalized and costs are socialized (The quotation of one commentator).
    The piano is bar against publishing other opinions than are official, democracy fails.

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  • Ula

    I am from Slovakia, living currently in China. I can read all articles and moreover I can post three comments a day for free. So what iron curtain is the author talking about? The “discussion culture” is very low, many people are offending others and thier comments must be deleted. I undrestand that it is additional work for the admin and people should pay extra money for this servcie.
    When I read for example Swedish discussions (I also speak Swedish), it’s totally different. People are much more polite and not permanently attackingand and insulting each other, so there is no need to delete their comments and admin has probably much less work.

  • Advisement

    Could you advise me how I can “post three comments a day for free” ?  I would like to use the possibility as pensioner.

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