June 17, 2024

Media Cache: In Slovakia, News Outlets Take Cue From Cable

PARIS — The newspaper industry is in trouble; cable television, despite the same challenges, is thriving. Could newspapers learn something from the cable guys?

In tiny Slovakia, publishers want to find out. Borrowing the cable TV business model, in which a single monthly payment brings mainstream networks, news channels and nutty talk show hosts into people’s living rooms, they are bundling their Web sites to create a more diverse offering.

For €2.90, or $4.20, a month, starting in May, users will get full access to the Web sites of the two leading broadsheets, SME and Pravda. Also included will be the sites of business and sports newspapers, magazines, a TV network, online video portals and a media news service. Until now, the sites have mostly been free.

The project aims to help Slovak newspapers deal with the same problem faced by their counterparts all over the world: how to generate more revenue from the Internet as print circulation and advertising dwindle.

When one of the Slovak papers, SME, tried to erect a pay wall on its own a few years ago — something that a growing number of newspapers are doing elsewhere — it failed miserably. Only a few dozen readers signed up.

“With one newspaper, it’s very hard to make a package that is worth paying for,” said Tomas Bella, chief executive of Piano Media, the company based in Bratislava, Slovakia, that is running the new system. “All the research showed that people were at least three times more likely to pay for a single platform like this, compared with individual sites.”

To try to make users’ experience even more like cable television, he said, Piano Media is in talks with Internet providers about letting consumers pay for service with monthly Internet access bills.

Mr. Bella said the goal was to turn 5 percent to 15 percent of the four million Internet users in Slovakia into paying customers within four years. For its work, Piano Media will keep 30 percent of the revenue and distribute the rest to the participating sites on the basis of the amount of time users spend on them.

The papers will not necessarily put all of their content behind the pay wall. At SME, for example, the commentary section will be restricted to paying customers, but much of the general news will remain free.

“We are a small newspaper in a small Central European country, so we do not have that much unique content,” said Matus Kostolny, the editor of SME.

Yet the small size of Slovakia could work to Piano Media’s advantage, he added. Once the pay wall goes up, Slovak readers will have limited alternatives for news on the Web. The only major holdouts are two tabloid papers and a TV network. And there is no Slovak version of Google News, which gathers free snippets of news from other Web sites in larger markets.

Mr. Bella said he wanted to expand the format to other countries, with the Czech Republic, Denmark and the Netherlands under consideration. Like Slovakia, these are relatively small, linguistically insulated countries with a limited number of media outlets.

Could the model work in larger markets? Herding together a comparable number of online publishers in vast media markets like the United States or Britain would surely be impossible. There, big newspapers have tended to set up pay walls on their own, sometimes citing competitive concerns or anti-cartel regulations as reasons for not joining with competitors.

True, there are other one-stop digital payment platforms, including Apple’s App Store, Google One Pass and, in the United States, a company called Journalism Online. In France, newspapers are developing a “digital kiosk” to offer paid access to a number of publications from a single portal. Yet under all of these systems, consumers still have to pay separately for access to participating publications’ sites.

The Piano Media concept is more like the unfettered Web that users have come to expect. Once behind the pay wall, consumers will not have to jump over additional barriers when they click from site to site. “If it works, we will keep our readers and get some money, too,” Mr. Kostolny said.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/25/business/media/25cache.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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