Even then, the news companies were skeptical. Two months after Piano’s launch, Bella says he got calls in which publishers told him “Now we can tell you that we never even believed that this would work. We never believed we would get any money, but there was very little risk. We knew that the people behind it had done some successful things in the past, so we tried it.”

Another factor: Slovakia’s biggest news publishers are much smaller than key players in other countries. They did not have billion dollar annual revenues to protect. This meant less institutional inertia keeping them from putting their trust in a small, untried company. It also meant that they did not have the time and spare cash necessary to create paywalls of their own.

Though Piano is staffed by publishing industry insiders, two of the three companies that own it are technology companies, which allowed Piano to develop its paywall technology at low cost and essentially in-house. Piano was created and launched for less than $1.2 million.

Still, perhaps the biggest reason for Bella’s success is Slovakia’s linguistic isolation. Slovak Internet users don’t have the universe of online information sources available to native speakers of world languages like English, Spanish, and French. And for now there is no Slovak version of Google News. Bella is quick to stress that most Slovaks are at least bilingual, but also admits that “it’s definitely easier to do this in a language which is not a world language.”

So whether the concept can cross international borders remains to be seen. Piano’s goal is to expand into five more European countries by the end of 2012. In countries similar to Slovakia, those with 1 to 3 million Internet users, total participation from the news publishing industry is not necessary for Piano’s system to work. Having about six publishers on board should be enough, says Bella. For larger countries, Piano plans to offer a region-based, modified version of its services.

To publishers asking only for the licensing of its technology, Piano has so far said no, insisting that publishing industry expertise and a keen understanding of reader psychology are what really make the system work. Piano says it is not afraid of bigger tech players scooping its market or even competing with it in Slovakia. “We are not really a technology company,” says Bella, “Apple or Microsoft or Google are not getting into the business of spending two months meeting with the publisher and advising them how to do business. That’s what we’re doing.”

Should it successfully launch in other countries, Piano plans to begin sharing data among its news publishers internationally. Bella is fascinated with the idea of finding out just how similar, or different, reading habits around the world are.

Piano’s expansion into Slovenia began at the end of January. Eight major Slovene publishers controlling twelve media brands are participating, including Delo, Slovenia’s leading daily.

Whether or not its business model survives outside Slovakia, Piano’s most important contribution to the global news business may be its ability to help publishers explain themselves to news consumers. Piano’s persistent championing of news as an important service, part of any functioning democracy, and one worth paying for, is a boon to a demoralized industry.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

 

More in The News Frontier

Drawing the News Ain’t Easy

Read More »

William F. Baker is journalist-in-residence at Fordham University and the president emeritus of WNET, the public television station in New York City. Evan Leatherwood and Eric Hurtig helped write and report this article.