Matt Hewson is a philosophy undergraduate at the University of Birmingham. He writes for the student paper Redbrick and occasionally blog at HuffPost UK.
Paying to read the news online is for many of us, an unusual concept. Most British newspapers have thus far opted to keep their internet-based content-free. Not so in Slovenia – since the 16th of January, readers have had to buy a subscription in order to access most news sites. Nine major Slovene publishers have banded together to create a national paywall that will guard elements of their collective material.
The move was coordinated by Piano Media, who were also behind the erecting of a paywall in Slovakia last year. The process will be very similar to the change that took place in Slovakia, but there are a few key differences.
The amount of information paywalled in Slovenia will be three or even five times more than in their European cousin, peaking for some publications at around fifteen percent of all content. Slovenian users will also find themselves paying around €2 more than in Slovakia – €4.89 for a monthly subscription rather than Slovakia’s €2.90. There will however be no restrictions on commenting, something that was initially in place in Slovakia, and a measure that was not received favourably; as Niemen Lab noted during an interview with Piano Media’s CEO, “citizens of a former Communist regime don’t want their free speech impinged upon.”
Broadly, the plan is to keep only the most interesting and exclusive content behind the wall, with a view to incrementally the amount over time. Features, interviews and columns are all to be restricted. It’s an interesting idea and a sensible one too – free online material simply can’t justify itself.
This system allows for entirely new revenue, with no losses, as subscriptions aren’t yet in lieu of advertising. While ads may eventually be dropped for subscribers, they’re currently set to stay. Marko Crnkovič, who works within digital development at Delo, Slovenia’s largest media outlet, wrote on the Delo site: “proceeds from the sale of advertising space on the Internet remain relevant.”
A deliberate desire to enact the changes gradually has seen a particularly novel approach from some of the paywall’s participants. Core information will still be available in most articles, but extra detail or multimedia elements will only available to subscribers. This is, Crnkovič said, to avoid alienating those who can’t afford to pay; “we will make sure that no one – not even those who will not be able or willing to pay – remains empty-handed.”
Furthermore, the effect that the wall has on the media landscape in Slovenia will be interesting to observe. The project’s predecessor in Slovakia failed to get one of the country’s major tabloids involved which, alongside Slovakia’s role as a national paywall guinea pig, is possibly related to their lower monthly subscription (although Piano Media have been extremely coy when it comes to releasing any figures). In Slovenia nearly every major publication is on board. What will this do to smaller newspapers or magazines, which still provide free content? It would seem that Piano Media have been almost wholly successful in coordinating links between major publishers and publications; any remaining publications will be so specialised that their readership will be rather more secure.
Would such a system ever work in the UK? It’s not completely unforeseeable – The Times already have a paywall, as do The Financial Times. Yet a coordinated effort between publishers and proprietors looks at best unlikely. It would be tough to reconcile paying for hard news coverage with the presence of the BBC – people already have to buy a TV license, so why spend more when the Beeb provide good quality journalism?
That said, there could be scope for paywalling some of the magazine content, the sort of material that isn’t available anywhere else. Piano Media have said that bringing a system to the UK is some way off, and in an interview with journalism.co.uk CEO Tomas Bella also spoke of the problems caused by the status of English as a world language.
While it doesn’t affect the UK yet, paywalls abroad should not be ignored. Piano Media plan to roll out more in Europe this year, and their expansion seems likely to continue. Free online journalism simply isn’t sustainable, for journalists or publishers. Expect to start paying. Soon.
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After finishing my stint in student media, I couldn’t help but look