Piano Media has launched national paywalls in Slovakia and SloveniaCopyright: Dreamer, via Wikimedia Commons
Four months on from the launch of Slovenia's paywall and this feature looks at the early effects of the Piano system in Slovenia.
With its small number of potential readers (the country’s population is just over two million) currently suffering the effects of stringent austerity measures, Slovenian media organisations are under increasing pressure.
The Piano system has been in place since January, charging subscribers €4.89 a month to access restricted content from nine publishers, with most of Slovenia's major daily newspapers putting a portion of their content behind the wall. Many journalists, however, are already convinced the system will not have a major impact on revenues.
"I don't think that Piano is going to save anybody commercially," says Marko Crnkovič, a columnist and deputy digital development manager at Delo, the Slovenian daily with the largest circulation (just over 40,000). Delo puts around 10 to 15 per cent of content behind the wall, and as with other participating organisations, this generally consists of premium and exclusive items like interviews, features and multimedia content.
While as expected only a small number of users have signed up, they become noticeably more critical about online content now they are paying for it, says Crnkovič: "It’s a big lesson for us. Print is still seen as the 'real thing'. Monetising will make it clear to journalists and editors that digital is the real thing too."Monetising will make it clear to journalists and editors that digital is the real thing tooMarko Crnkovič, Delo
But while it may accustom people to the idea of paying for content, Crnkovič does not expect huge revenues from Piano. And by the end of the year, Delo plans to launch its own paid-for 'packages' outside of the system, comprising different combinations of iPad, web, mobile and archive content.
Primož Cirman, an economic and political journalist at Dnevnik, Slovenia's second largest daily newspaper, says that like many journalists he was sceptical about the introduction of the paywall. Aside from his concerns about providing Piano with unlimited access to subscriber data, he believed the system might act as "an excuse not to consider creating your own paywall".
"I think that in the long term each media organisation will have to think about how to do it for themselves," says Cirman.
Participating organisations are rewarded both according to the time spent reading Piano content on each site, and the site through which the subscriber initially signs up. The type of content is also used in Piano’s algorithm; videos, podcasts and in-depth articles are given more weight than wire copy and discussion forums.
One argument in favour of this system is that it can mitigate the tyranny of a hits-driven approach. But there is still intense competition among participating organisations, and one of the most noticeable trends has been for publications to try increasingly to cement a distinct identity, says Cirman.
And it is worth noting that the Slovenian media still bears some lingering effects of the socialist era, when the front pages were filled with dry political reporting.
"Now papers are putting their own stories on the front page, and the Piano system will only make that happen more often," says Cirman. When writing them, journalists do not know whether or not their articles will be behind the paywall – although many have found it "quite a cultural shock" to find their work getting far fewer readers, says Cirman.
He believes the paywall will encourage journalists to make news stories more readable. "We have noticed that if you write hard news stories in a slightly different way, it can have a dramatic effect on the number of views online," he said.
Dnevnik has been experimenting with how it presents content, for example by waiting until early morning (rather than the evening before) to post articles that are likely to be popular. But a weakness of the Piano system, Cirman says, is that it "ties the hands" of its participating organisations. "It's the same formula for everyone," says Cirman, "the only room for manoeuvre is which articles you put behind the paywall."being required to pay for good stories will mean that readers simply won't read themBoris Vezjak, academic
Boris Vezjak, an academic teaching a media ethics course at Maribor University (in Slovenia's second city, Maribor) and regular media contributor, is not convinced by the argument that Piano will improve the quality of the media. "Readers don't necessarily spend longer time reading the better content," says Vezjak. "There is a need for other criteria to reward better journalism within a paywall system."
In tough economic times, Vezjak believes that a more likely effect is a less-informed public, since in many cases "being required to pay for good stories will mean that readers simply won't read them".
Such a view is fairly widespread among Slovene journalists. Tanja Lesničar-Pucko, a Dnevnik columnist, recently made a similar argument [Slovene], and Igor Bašin, a music journalist whose Saturday column for Dnevnik is now often behind the Piano paywall, agrees.
"I think that the Piano system uses principles more appropriate to large worldwide media organisations," says Bašin. "Only two million people read and speak Slovene. So Piano is a sort of barrier stopping Slovenian people from getting 'good' information about what is happening in the world or their own country from the Slovenian media."
But David Brauchli, communications director of Piano Media,
argues that the barriers to payment are psychological rather than
"To purchase an entire month of Piano costs less than two beers or a small pizza in central Ljubljana," Brauchli says.
"Piano isn't supposed to save a newspaper commercially, it's an
additional source of revenue. When a newspaper chooses to implement
Piano’s system there is no loss of online advertising."
He adds that the analytics data and know-how provided by Piano enable Slovene publishers to set up a subscription system which would be difficult to implement themselves, and helps them to improve their approach to monetisation on an ongoing basis.
Many agree that some kind of paid content system is inevitable going forward and that Piano is helping Slovene media overcome their readers' psychological barrier against that idea. But as Primož Cirman says, it is still too soon to fully assess the impact of Piano either on the finances or the approach of Slovenian media organisations. "At the moment, we are all still learning," he said.