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CHANGING READERS’ HABITS IS TAKING TIME

The ongoing push to monetise online content

REVENUES from print media advertising are continuing to shrink and publishers are still looking for ways to get readers to pay for the online content they consume. Slovakia was the first country to witness the launch of a national online subscription-based content payment system, Piano Media, which encompasses a broad range of media publishers, including The Slovak Spectator. But individual media outlets are also trying out other schemes.

Piano hasnowexpanded to Slovenia and Poland.(Source: SME)

REVENUES from print media advertising are continuing to shrink and publishers are still looking for ways to get readers to pay for the online content they consume. Slovakia was the first country to witness the launch of a national online subscription-based content payment system, Piano Media, which encompasses a broad range of media publishers, including The Slovak Spectator. But individual media outlets are also trying out other schemes.

“The positive aspect of the Piano paywall system is that it generates revenue that Medialne.sk did not previously have,” Tomáš Czwitkovics, editor-in-chief of Medialne.sk, a website dedicated to media and advertising that is part of the scheme, told The Slovak Spectator. “We also did not experience the notable decline in user traffic that we initially feared the most.”

Piano Media is an online payment scheme under which readers can access webpages across several sites after paying a single annual, monthly or weekly charge. It was launched in May 2011.

“We are pleased with how Piano is progressing in Slovakia,” David Brauchli, the company’s spokesperson, told The Slovak Spectator. “We took an unknown model and applied it to the market and have converted a significant number of newspaper readers into paying subscribers. Our steady growth proves the concept is successful but we also realise we aren’t going to change reader habits in 18 months.”

Brauchli said that Piano Media believed that if the system could gain acceptance by a number of readers, others would follow – and that, by and large, this has happened.

“Since the launch we have seen steady and continuous growth but, of course, we always want more subscribers,” said Brauchli.

Lucia Franková, head of the Hospodárske Noviny daily’s web operations, said the paper’s website aspires to offer readers more exclusive information behind the Piano paywall. The Týždeň weekly is taking a similar approach.

“It is a long-distance run, but we are gradually teaching more and more people that special web content is not created free of charge,” Ľudmila Jozefáková, manager for sales and marketing at Týždeň, told The Slovak Spectator. “People who generate this content need paying, and revenues from online advertising have not covered [these costs] completely and will not even cover them in the future. But it is crucial to put behind the paywall really valuable content.”

The weekly is moderately optimistic with regards to the future.

“Piano has great prospects, which, alas, the media that have joined do not fully realise,” said Jozefáková.

Tomáš Bella, Piano Media’s chief executive, has admitted that some mistakes occurred when the project was launched in Slovakia. He told the Trend weekly that people were led to expect that they would see better-quality content behind the paywall, but that this had not always happened. However, he warned that the media need to find a new source of income or face ongoing decline.

Brauchli, commenting on mistakes made, said that “because paid content is a relatively new field we did not have a model to draw upon, so a lot of the Slovak launch was trial and error”.

“Fortunately we were able to apply our learning from Slovakia to our subsequent launches in Slovenia and Poland,” Brauchli said.

Piano expanded first to Slovenia, in January 2012, and then to Poland, in September.

“We have to show that it [the Piano system] is not only for central Europe,” Bella said, setting out his ambition to launch the scheme also in a western European country.

In Slovakia all the national dailies, except the top-selling tabloid Nový Čas, as well as some weeklies, magazines, TV stations and others websites have joined the system. TV Markíza has not joined and instead uses the Voyo.sk service to provide video on demand. The Huste.sk TV service has left the scheme and now runs its own payment scheme.

Apart from expanding abroad, Piano Media also plans some new features for the Slovak market. One of these will be a so-called metered paywall, allowing users to view a specific number of articles before requiring payment.

“When we launch the metered paywall it will really be like Piano 2.0, the second iteration of a great idea,” said Brauchli, adding that the metered paywall model has proved very successful since its adoption by the New York Times. Since then, more than 400 newspapers worldwide have adopted some sort of meter. “When we acquired the Austrian firm Novosense, we gained the technical capability to introduce a metered system of our own. When we introduce our metered system later this quarter, we feel that publishers’ Piano revenues will rise significantly.”

Piano Media also plans to introduce an aggregation website to make it easier for readers to find all the system’s locked content in one place. This aggregation will be available for publishers joining the scheme as well.

“The purpose behind aggregation is to show readers what they can get when they pay for a Piano subscription,” said Brauchli.

Other methods

Another method used by publishers in Slovakia to generate income for content published online is Floowie, a Czech model for a paid digital platform for print media. About 150 websites in the Czech Republic also use Flattr, a Swedish-designed system allowing voluntary micropayments online.

“Both the Flattr and Floowie models are good, but neither has proved that it can bring publishers significant revenue,” said Brauchli. “There are a lot of solutions out there to help monetise content, but we have chosen to focus on the major publishing industry which is not really the space that either Flattr or Floowie occupies. Voluntary payments have never proven to be a successful business model without subsidisation.”

Czwitkovics of Medialne.sk does not believe that systems like Flattr can help professional news websites to generate revenue that would help cover their production costs.

“The money would be divided between too many subjects and I doubt that such an ‘indie’ solution could attract a large group of users, especially in a market like Slovakia,” said Czwitkovics.
In his opinion Flattr could be used to finance smaller projects, for example a watchdog blog or a Wikimedia-type service, or bloggers who want to stay independent from publishers and are not interesting enough for advertisers.

“Floowie is just one of many paid digital platforms for print media. Since publishers are pushing their own solutions, like apps for mobile devices and e-shops, to the fore and Floowie does not have very strong marketing I think readers willing to buy a print newspaper or magazine in digital form will buy e-papers on the website/app of the respective media outlet,” said Czwitkovics.

Franková of Hospodárske Noviny sees Flattr as being an interesting idea, which because of its facility to send money to a specific writer could address a select group of people, but said it would not be a mass solution.

With regards to Floowie, however, Ecopress, the publisher of Hospodárske Noviny, plans to join the scheme within the next few weeks.

According to Jozefáková of Týždeň, projects based on the voluntary principle from the outset can work on such a basis. She also pointed out that Flattr is used by websites whose content is generated by individuals, but that the resulting payments are not enough to live on.

“There is a difference between whether you do something alongside your [regular] job or whether you make a living in this way,” said Jozefáková, adding that if the latter is true then the job done needs to be “certainly paid” and not “maybe paid”.

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