Why Piano Media is worth watching

European paid-content company Piano Media announced Wednesday it is launching in Poland and has signed up 42 publishers. Poland, with 38 million people, is Piano's biggest market by far; it's previously served only Slovenia, which has 2 million people, and Slovakia, which has 5 million. Piano operates in a cable-TV-like model: Signing up through one of its members' sites gives readers access to all its others in a market.

Tomas Bella

Over the past couple months, I've interviewed both Piano chief executive Tomas Bella and its communications director, David Brauchli, when they visited Washington, D.C. Bella told me the company is "not rushing to the U.S. market," but I think publishers Stateside should pay attention to how things go for the company as it moves into larger markets. U.S. commentators have written elegantly about Piano's all-access model, but I found two other parts of the Piano approach especially interesting.

Data-directed paywalls

Before taking on a publisher, Piano does a deep dive into its Web analytics, Bella told me when we met in May. It then recommends to the publisher "which sections and which authors should be free or paid," he said. For some papers, its sports section, or even coverage of a particular team might make the most sense as a paid product, while other news should be available for free. That helps smaller publishers, which can't compete with larger ones on commodity news, but might enjoy a niche readers would be willing to pay for. "In reality, there are smaller [publishers] punching way above their weight" in Slovenia and Slovakia, Bella said. The bigger publishers in those countries put more content behind the gate, he said. Piano's turned away publications "when we don't think they have the scale to make sense," he said.

David Brauchli

"The whole business is built on data analysis," Brauchli told me when we met in June. One of the most popular pages for the Slovakian newspaper SME, he said, is a list of which articles are free and which are paid. It's behind the paywall.

Culture, too, plays into Piano's recommendations: Some publishers in Eastern Europe charge readers for access to their comments, which Bella said can number 5,000 to 10,000 per day on some articles. Those publishers actually "wanted to bring down the number of comments," he said, and the paid system lessened their need to moderate them.

Speaking to Jacy Meyer for a New York Times story about Piano in April, SME Editor Matus Kostolny said, "Some articles are locked [behind a paywall] forever. Some stay in that status only for hours.” Hot news stories, Kostolny said, can stay behind the paywall until they hit print, after which their value drops.

Piano pays publishers based on where readers sign up. "The thinking is we should advantage the people who took the bold plunge," Brauchli said. Forty percent of the revenue goes to the site through which someone subscribed, 30 percent is divided among the other participants using various metrics including time spent on the other sites, and Piano takes the rest.

"Content horizontals"

Just because Piano has no immediate plans to enter the United States doesn't mean the company hasn't thought about it. "We plan to get in at some point when the opportunity presents itself," Brauchli told me in an email.

Bella offered me several ways a Piano approach could work here: Grouping a digital subscription to one national outlet with several local ones, for instance, or gathering publishers of similar titles -- by political ideology, say, or by subject matter.

If you enjoyed bird-watching or cycling, just to pull a couple examples out of thin air, you might be interested in a package that would give you access to the surprisingly large range of birding magazines or one that combined several cycling outlets. Banding together would require a rather seismic shift in publishers' thinking, Bella acknowledged. Publishers, he said, have to realize that "Google and Facebook are our competition, not other publishers." Brauchli calls such aggregations "horizontal packaging."

And yeah, I had to ask Brauchli, whose brother Marcus edits the famously paywall-free Washington Post, whether they discuss paid websites: "All the time," he told me.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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