While the paywall experiment of the New York Times has received a lot of play in various online forums, one place where a working paywall - meaning that it is both making money for publishers and attracting traffic - is less well known, in the eastern European country of Slovakia. There an independent tech vendor called Piano Media has been successfully experimenting with its own paywall-based system of online publishing. Launched in Bratislava last spring, it gives subscribers online access to content from all nine of Slovakia's leading news sites. What's more, it does so for a single flat fee (less than US $4 per month, which is going up in March by 25%) that is paid after visitors have had a chance to sample a certain number of articles for free. Users can pay for their subscriptions by SMS messages.

Slovakia is a country with less than six million total population, and the paywall story is covered this week in the Columbia Journalism Review by William Baker. It is a lesson that others should study carefully. Indeed, the model has worked so well that they have expanded into neighboring Slovenia (and often the two countries are confused by outsiders) earlier this year.

Here are some lessons learned from the experience:

  • Be a small fish in an even smaller pond. "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," writes Baker. Slovakia doesn't have its own native language version of Google news, and there are few other news sources in the language either.

  • Spend a lot of time hand-holding skittish publishers. "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," says Tomas Bella, the CEO of Piano.

  • Limit the number of total monthly comments. Yes, you have to subscribe to comment, that isn't all that special. But what is unusual is that your overall comments are capped each month. This has resulted in troll-free forums, and the publishers have thought that the level of Slovakia's Internet discourse has risen since after the paywall.

  • Challenge some long-held beliefs of publishers. Bella has had a chance to see that many assumptions about paywalls, or online publishing, weren't accurate. Many of his content providers have changed the way they post articles based on his actual observations, which has helped to boost traffic too.

Whether Piano's national model can work in countries with larger publishing ventures remains to be seen. But in eastern Europe, it appears to be working.