“What we are trying to do is set up the biggest paid content experiment of all,” said Tomáš Bella, CEO of Piano Media. Addressing The Guardian’s Changing Media Summit on Wednesday, Bella talked about the mindset of the company as one that looks beyond the dualism of paid vs. unpaid—a mindset that seems to be paying off. The system allows readers to pay for access to a group of participating publishers. So far, the experiment has yielded promising results in the smaller markets of Slovakia and Slovenia: people are more likely to pay for this sort of inclusive paywall as opposed to paying for individual ones. The payment system has had no negative impact on traffic, and surprisingly, people even paid for content that was already free. “It is definitely not the articles we are selling,” said Bella, “we are selling peace of mind.” He likened it to the cable TV model of paying for a lot of channels, where most subscribers don’t watch most of the channels.
Subscribers were not the only ones to benefit from this peace of mind. According to Bella, publishers can afford to hire 25 to 40 journalists with the revenue generated. They have unwittingly raised the level of discourse by applying the paywall concept to comments—a user gets a limited number of free comments before having to pay to comment. As one editor happily told the Columbia Journalism Review, “All the idiots have left the forums!”
How effective the model will be as it expands into other markets remains to be seen. But beyond looking at traffic and revenue, this kind of system could help consumers obtain a more balanced media diet in our age of information bubbles. The key to a balanced media diet is reading from a variety of sources, something that is more difficult with individual paywalls. How many times has your Internet browsing led you to an article that you wanted to read, but implored you to subscribe first? For me, it happens all too often. I have no problem paying for content, but as much as I would like to balance out the disproportionate amount of time I spend on The New York Times, it doesn’t make sense for my wallet to pay for all the other great content behind paywalls. As a media consumer, the idea of a subscription service with multiple publishers is appealing. Of course, even if the system catches on in Europe, it doesn’t mean media companies here will be gung-ho about sharing. But since 40 percent of revenues goes to the site where the subscriber signs up, and 30 percent goes to the sites where the subscriber spends time, it might make sense for business too.
Would you subscribe to this sort of system?