Getting online users to pay for news has been a problem for publishers ever since the advent of the internet but a Slovak company has come up with a solution that seems to work, at least for small and linguistically isolated markets.

Piano Media has set up paywall barriers encompassing most of the local media, first in Slovakia in 2011 and this year in Slovenia, and is looking to expand into other European markets.

Piano’s scheme differs from traditional paywalls set up by individual publishers in that it ropes in most news outlets in a single market behind one barrier – which makes it difficult to find news outside the system. Users pay a flat fee ranging from €1.39 a week to €39 a year that gives them access to all content.

Initial response seems to be fairly strong. In its first month in operation in Slovakia, the scheme generated €40,000 in revenue – split between Piano and the publishers – while in Slovenia it generated €26,000, which comes to more per capita basis because of the smaller population.

Peter Macinga, a board member of Petit Press, one of Slovakia’s largest publishers, said the company put about 3 per cent of its content behind the paywall and had been positively surprised by reader response.

“When we tried to have our own paywall we abandoned it because only a few hundred people were willing to pay. We were making more from being free and selling advertising,” he said. “With Piano a lot of people seem to have bought annual subscriptions right away.”

As the system develops, Tomas Bella, Piano chief, said his company was becoming a specialist in advising publishers on how to adapt to the paywall and choosing which content to place behind the barrier. The trick is to drive up subscription revenues without hurting overall online readership, which affects advertising sales.

“It's easy to build a paywall, but it's difficult to build one where people will actually pay,” he said.

Mr Bella said the first two markets were a “proof of concept” and he wanted to try the same system in a much larger country this year. The problem would be gathering enough publishers to provide a critical mass that makes it difficult to skirt the pay barrier.

Ken Doctor, a US newspaper analyst and consultant and author of the book Newsonomics, said Piano had been pitching this idea at industry conferences around Europe for about a year. “It’s more difficult when you have bigger countries and more competitive media to get them to agree,” he said.

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