Extra extra, read all about it: Why Slovakian paywall technology startup Piano Media is making news

There's a commonly held belief that "newspapers are dying". Slovakian paywall startup Piano Media wants to change these perceptions of the industry – starting with its biggest client yet: Newsweek.
Extra extra, read all about it: Why Slovakian paywall technology startup Piano Media is making news

One of the biggest challenges for news and media organisations these days is getting people to pay for their content, especially since the Internet has led people to expect many things for free – including their news.

And you never have to look too far to find evidence of newspapers waning. Most recently, News Corp saw revenues decline 3 percent and its newspaper sales fall 6 percent while advertising revenue struggles.

“In 2007, we could sell a full-page colour ad for 30,000 euros. Now we’re lucky if we can get 5,000 euros,”  said Enric Sierra, Head of Web Content at Spain’s La Vanguardia in an interview with The Guardian back in June.

It's clear – newspapers need new ways to monetise.

Slovakia’s Piano Media, founded by journalist Tomáš Bella and born out of a startup lab in Bratislava, decided it would attempt to remedy this situation with a formula of its own, one that takes a few cues from cable TV packages.

One price for all

“We thought that the better way for people to pay for content was to group publishers together like cable television,” said David Brauchli, Chief Communications Officer at Piano Media. “People pay one price to access all media rather than having people pay one media and only getting access to one.”

Naturally, operations first started in Slovakia with the broadsheet newspaper SME, where Bella once worked as a reporter and editor for its online portal. Soon, followed by expansion to Slovenia and Poland.

To grow, Piano Media faced the challenge of convincing newspapers to put up a paywall, a considerable challenge as many fear the loss of page views and, in turn, digital advertising sales.

Creating a cable-like system for newspapers involved negotiating with publishers, separately, to agree on revenue-sharing agreements with Piano Media as well as other publishers. The company's Piano National subscription service sees a group of publishers in a region or similar field (such as car magazines) benefitting from one reader signing up to one publication.

For example, if one newspaper gets a subscriber, it receives 40 percent of the fee while Piano Media takes 30 percent for “running the payment system”. The remainder is divided up among the other publications depending on how much time the reader spent on those respective sites.

“It works better for some clients than others. It depends largely on how much content the publishers decide they want to lock behind a paywall,” said Brauchli explaining that sometimes newspapers with exclusive coverage or opinion editorials can see more benefits.

Paywalls and searching for new revenue streams

Piano Media describes itself as “Europe’s leading digital monetisation company” and has been on the cusp of new and different structures for paid content.

While it’s been a struggle for many subscription platform providers to convince publishers to get on board, Europe has seen a shift in mentality on paywalls. El Mundo, arguably Spain’s biggest newspaper, launched its own paywall last November; meanwhile The Irish Times will be erecting its paywall by year’s end, according to reports that surfaced earlier this year.

The fact is that media outlets have more options for paywalls now. No longer does one have to simply throw up a notification on its site asking for the readers to fork over the cash to read an article.

Newspapers have options like metered paywalls (as seen on the New York Times), and, in response, Piano Media has diversified from its National plan by creating Piano Solo, which as its name would suggest is a system designed for individual publications. This is what Piano Media has been doing with its biggest client yet: Newsweek.

The news weekly found itself in financial woes in 2012, even axing its print edition for a short time, before ultimately being acquired by IBT Media in 2013 and beginning a new stage of its digital development. So what could Piano Media do for Newsweek that it hadn't tried before?

Unique fingerprints

“In 2012, we acquired some technology called Hydra fingerprinting technology, which allows us to identify unique browsers through a gateway and that allowed us to launch a metered paywall rather than just a national system,” explained Brauchli.

Piano Media acquired the technology and associated rights from Austria’s Novosense.

The key edge that fingerprinting technology has over other systems is that it does not rely on cookies. Other paywall systems mean users can delete the cookies and do away with the article limits they had.

“Even if you’ve deleted the cookies, we have a proxy cookie on a gateway because we’ve identified your browser through about 15 different methods including what the user’s bookmarks are, IP address and the type of browser,” said Brauchli, who claimed the method is about 90 percent accurate.

This technology enticed Newsweek, including Newsweek EMEA in the UK, to go for Piano.

“Even if users delete cookies or surf in private mode, the articles they read will still be counted against the monthly meter limit, while a unified login provides seamless access across platforms,” said Etienne Uzac, CEO of IBT Media when the partnership was announced in March.

Brauchli told us, though, that picking up Newsweek during the publisher's state of flux brought up some challenges of its own.

“They were purchased by IBT Media off of the scrap heap and then were resurrected, so they didn’t really have a subscription plan,” he said, adding that Piano started anew with counting subscription numbers.

“A lot of these subscriptions they had were legacy subscriptions that were left over – we don’t really count those, we just count the new subscribers we’re getting and we’re doing very well.”

New technology and shifting attitudes

More media outlets are tinkering with different ideas for generating revenue and monetising online reporting. Whether it is package deals or solo plans, Piano Media and competitors such as Press+ and Tinypass will inevitably face the challenge of convincing smaller papers that this new tech is worth the investment.

“Our technology requires putting in a proxy server in front of their caching servers,” said Brauchli. “The implementation is harder to do and requires more technology so that’s possibly why we don’t win some contracts, because it’s just a little more difficult, even though it’s more secure.”

Piano Media remains confident in the technology with clients big and small. However, the bigger obstacle may not necessarily be showing old media organisations that the technology itself actually works, said Brauchli, rather it’s changing attitudes on how we now consume news.

The future for Piano Media

Piano Media now has its sights set on a number of new countries and regions.

Most recently, it signed a deal with one of Germany’s oldest and largest publishing houses, M. DuMont Schauberg, which has seen a metered paywall go up on the paper Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger. Meanwhile, the company added a new UK client back in May in DC Thomson for Scottish publication The Press and Journal. Also, Piano is currently talking to new clients in Russia and Montenegro. And expansion isn’t limited to Europe either.

Brauchli told us the company is “doing a deal with a very large Indian publisher”.

Just don't be surprised when you have to pay to read an article about the deal soon.

Featured image credit: Yeko Photo Photostudio / Shutterstock

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