SLOVAK WORD OF THE WEEK

Piano

SLOVAKIA is unlikely to produce a globally feared terrorist, a saintly pope, or a marriageable monarch. But still, on occasion, there are people and projects which can stir international interest. In late April we saw the beginning of two such endeavours – the Ice Hockey World Championship, and Piano. Enough has been written about hockey, so this column will focus on the latter of the two - the plan to get web users to pay for online content, using a single access route to multiple sites.

Will Piano encourage web consumers to pay? Will Piano encourage web consumers to pay? (Source: SME)

SLOVAKIA is unlikely to produce a globally feared terrorist, a saintly pope, or a marriageable monarch. But still, on occasion, there are people and projects which can stir international interest. In late April we saw the beginning of two such endeavours – the Ice Hockey World Championship, and Piano. Enough has been written about hockey, so this column will focus on the latter of the two - the plan to get web users to pay for online content, using a single access route to multiple sites.

Before we go any further, here is a brief warning – the author of these lines is in the worst imaginable conflict of interests. The future of my employer may depend on the success of Piano, and I used to share an office with Tomáš Bella, the mastermind behind the project. Now that that’s behind us, let’s focus on the merits.

The plan to make people pay for selected services on the web has naturally met with some resistance. Forcing people to pay for something which has until now been free is no easy task, although few can explain just why it is okay to pay for news at the stand, but not on the web. And yes, all publishers would prefer not to mess with touchy internet audiences and continue to give them unrestricted access. But the numbers just don’t add up anymore. Slovak publications never had it easy. Around 320,000 copies of dailies were sold on an average February day. The figure for the Czech Republic, with just double the population? 1.1 million. And even the already low numbers keep falling. Most major newspapers have seen a 5 to 10-percent decrease in actual circulation for a good number of years, although the final numbers are somewhat blurred by marketing activities. Add to that the financial crisis, which taught companies that huge advertising budgets for print are no necessity, and publishers are in serious trouble.

Yes, you can always fire staff. But most media houses already function pretty efficiently. The entire domestic news department in Sme, the leading opinion paper, has 12 people. That is including editors. The business desk has six. The foreign desk five. Including its online operation, the newspaper has somewhere over a hundred people. Further cuts are possible. But can journalism of at least some quality survive them?

No one dares to estimate just how much money Piano will bring. But it is certainly worth a try, to bring in at least some cash and save at least a few jobs. Much will depend on how internet users view the project: as an effort to squeeze huge profits out of them; or as a kind request for them to bear at least some of the costs involved in preparing the value they receive. That will determine whether I shared an office with a Slovak version of Mark Zuckerberg. And whether I too will one day have my 'bin laden' with money coming from the web.


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