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Internet paywall erected

THE DAY of the thin grey stripe has arrived. Now appearing above content on some of Slovakia’s biggest online news providers, the stripe indicates that users will soon – though not quite yet – have to pay to view the content beneath it. The appearance of the stripe marks the launch of a unique multi-site paywall which is about to divide the Slovak internet into ‘free’ and ‘premium’ content.

THE DAY of the thin grey stripe has arrived. Now appearing above content on some of Slovakia’s biggest online news providers, the stripe indicates that users will soon – though not quite yet – have to pay to view the content beneath it. The appearance of the stripe marks the launch of a unique multi-site paywall which is about to divide the Slovak internet into ‘free’ and ‘premium’ content.

On April 18, 2011, Piano Media, as the service is being branded, launched the paywall as a trial service. The eyes of online publishing experts worldwide will now be on Slovakia as Piano prepares to switch from trial stage to full operation on May 2. For now, the content that participating publishers have marked as premium is still free to access and the readers of nine Slovak news websites can create users accounts which will allow them to continue browsing content behind the paywall without any charge for another week after the system begins full operation.

After that, however, every registered user will be asked to pay a monthly fee of €2.90 to access content marked as premium. Alternatively, users can pay €0.90 weekly or €29 annually.

On the day the trial version of the service was launched, 34 services were included, provided by nine media outlets which decided to charge for their premium content via Piano.

The Sme daily will charge for access to the opinion section of its website, the flash version of its print edition which is available from midnight every day, full access to the Sme archive, and a package of premium services from the motoring site natankuj.sk. Most interactive features on the Sme website will also be covered by the paid-for Piano system. From May 2, posting more than three comments a day in online debates on sme.sk, adding online classified ads, or extra services like requesting professional medical help from online doctors will require an up-to-date subscription.

The Pravda and Hospodárske Noviny (HN) dailies will charge to access their opinion sections, and to allow participation in online debates on their websites. In addition, HN will also put its full online archive behind the paywall, but will now make all its printed supplements and magazines available online and promises to provide an ad-free version of its website to paying readers.

The Šport daily will also offer an ad-free version for Piano subscribers, as well as early access to all its articles, and full access to its archives and online debates. Šport is also promising exclusive staff articles for paying customers.

The Týždeň weekly will also be ad-free for those who pay, and will grant Piano subscribers early access to all print-edition articles, full access to its video section and the opportunity to post comments.

Private TV channel JOJ is so far the only Slovak broadcaster to take part in the project, offering an ad-free version of its website to Piano users. In addition, the medialne.sk news portal, which covers the media in Slovakia, is putting part of its content behind the paywall, as is the MeToo.sk video portal. The specialised monthly magazine PC Revue is granting paying users full access to reviews and products sections, full access to all articles from the print version of the magazine, as well as a flash version of the print edition.

Tomáš Bella, the chief executive of Piano and founder of the project, believes that Slovakia is an ideal country to test this world-first service, since there are relatively few media outlets in the market and thus a large proportion of them can be persuaded to participate. Recent surveys have also shown that the Slovak internet-using population would be willing to pay a monthly fee of about €3 in return for unlimited access to added-value content on key Slovak news sites.

Indeed, dozens of readers contacted Piano on the first days after the service was launched. The company said many of them wanted to know whether they would be able to include the payment on the invoice from their internet service provider.

“This is what we will have to deal with as soon as possible after the start,” Bella told The Slovak Spectator, adding that interest in the service had exceeded his expectations.

“Paradoxically, we are getting a lot of e-mails from retired people worried about whether they will be able to handle the payment technically,” Bella said. Some people also wrote to criticise Piano for threatening freedom of speech.

“We are trying to explain to them that it will be better for them if there are more media so they can select from more sources of information, rather than having everything for free which would cause some media to quit, thereby making the selection poorer,” Bella said.

But some observers remain sceptical about the timing of a paywall for news websites, since they say people are financially exhausted in the current post-crisis period.

“It's necessary to say about the consumer behaviour of the Slovak population that it is sensitive to swings in the prices of goods and services,” Pavol Karász of the Prognosis Institute of the Slovak Academy of Sciences told the TASR newswire.


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