In the for-pay content business this week, many eyes are on Slovakia, of all places. Earlier this week, nine Slovak news and entertainment sites started charging for their content – together. The “Piano” system is similar to cable, in that a single fee gains access to multiple channels (as opposed to the recently introduced New York Times model whereby $15/month gets you access only to the Times). In this case, readers pay .99 euros a week/2.9 euros a month/29 euros a year.

SME, the biggest player, has so far just put certain sections and features behind the payment wall. According to Piano’s site, this is what readers will get for their money:

*Full access to Opinions section.
*Total participation in article discussion forums.
*Most popular broadsheet daily, most popular online news portal.
*Full access to the Opinions section..
*Flash version of the printed paper available at midnight daily from dennik.sme.sk. 
*Full access to our entire article archive.
*Ability to comment on articles (3 comments a day are free).
*Teraz.sme.sk section – all the news in one place.
*Adding the listings to the classifieds service inzeraty.sme.sk.
*Professional medical help from online doctors at primar.sk.
*Make a complaint at sťažnosti.sme.sk.
*Package of premium information from motoring site Natankuj.sk.

The main news are still free, and the paper’s deputy editor told the Czech daily Mlada fronta DNES that the goal was to add paid content without affecting current ad income. Pravda, another popular paper, has also focused on asking readers to pay for the opinion section and full access to the article discussions.

I have to say that I’m pretty skeptical that people will pay to comment and discuss. The Mlada fronta article, which appeared on 3 May, quoted Jaroslav Kabele, director of Internet projects for Mafra (the publisher of Mlada fronta), as saying that they had debated whether to charge for discussions but figured it would probably turn off readers. He said that roughly 10 percent of site visitors read the discussion sections (I guess he means the comments under articles) and around one percent actively contribute.

Still, even with my doubts, given the track record of some of those involved in the venture, I wouldn’t bet against it working. Piano Media’s CEO Tomas Bella, in particular, has been one of the leading Internet media strategists in Central Europe, and perhaps Europe as a whole. While at SME, Slovakia’s biggest daily, he introduced the concept of reader blogs, allowing any visitor to the site to set up easily a blog on the SME platform. As you can see here, thousands have done so, creating a wealth of interesting content. Readers rate each others’ content (attaching “karma” points) and editors also highlight their favorites. Serious, important debates have taken place on the site over the years, and all that extra traffic has certainly converted over to more readers for the main SME site and an identity for SME as an innovative, new media pioneer. The site was also one of the first in this region to hand out smartphones to their reporters and encourage them to shoot video while out on stories.

I’m also pulling for this to work for other reasons: Tomas did some training for us a few years back and served as a judge at the Social Innovation Camp that we organized in Bratislava in 2009. He’s a good guy and also feels strongly about the use of the Internet to push social change (and not just figure out a way for newspapers to survive in the digital age).

Jeremy Druker

Jeremy Druker is the executive director and editor in chief of Transitions Online. Twitter: @JeremyDruker Email: jeremy.druker@tol.org

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