Visitors to the website of Keskisuomalainen, a regional newspaper now encounter two options of paying a few Euro cents for some news content and reading others for free. The newspaper has launched a pilot project to test readers’ reaction to paid online material. The expectations are low and chief editor Pekka Mervola concedes that one doesn’t become rich with that.
Squeezed by falling readership and insufficient online advertising revenue, Finnish newspapers are tiptoeing into a trend set by well-known international titles such as The Times and The Sunday Times of Britain.
Newspaper readership in Finland continues to fall since 2006 when mass circulation evening newspapers and regional news papers have been steadily losing readers. According to statistics released this autumn by National Media Research (KMT), last year there was a fall of about 3 per cent in the readership of the print copies of the biggest Finnish newspapers.
“We have undertaken this because there is nothing to lose either”, says Mervola.
The goals next year are high because the web pages of the newspaper will be divided into paid and free parts. The free content will remain basic domestic and foreign news, while other content will be made payable. Keskisuomalainen’s pilot will be followed later by Savon Sanomat, also a regional newspaper and sister newspaper owned by the same concern.
The ideology is clear: “You subscribe to a newspaper and as free gift, you receive online service, says Mervola”. Long-term subscribers will thus, receive rights to the full version of the online service and the paid online content will be used to entice visitors of the website to become subscribers to the paper version.
According to Mervola, regional newspapers have an online competitive edge over nation-wide publications.
“People are prepared to pay for information that is close to them” he believes.
The Keskisuomalainen’s online wallet and pay-wall projects are opening moves in a situation where Finland’s media houses are locked up in their foxholes waiting for when and how it eventually becomes unavoidable to make a decision on paid online material.
Tapio Moisio, in charge of development in Keskisuomalainen concern now demands action: the rules of paid online content have to be agreed on collectively.
“Now we need the whole sector to pull in the same direction. If the whole sector doesn’t go along we are not in any way going to have customers use the service. And if one tries it alone then both cheeks get hit and hard”, he says.
Of course all have plans: for instance, nearly every media house says it is testing a micro pay system similar to the one initiated by Keskisuomalainen.
“The idea is still being investigated and no decision has yet been taken says Chief Editor of Helsingin Sanomat, Mikael Pentikäinen, commenting on the paper’s projects. “In the next stage it is probable that payment models will be developed to ease the current online services such as Helsingin Sanomat’s Digital Newspaper or paying for the use of archives”.
Also Iltalehti, the newspaper with the biggest number of online visitors in Finland is also looking into different pay models during the autumn. Several possibilities are connected to the online payments – nearly two million people visit Iltalehti’s website every week.
“The New York Times has promised to publish its new payment system at the beginning of the year which, before hand, appears interesting”, says publisher and Chief Editor of Iltalehti Kari Kivelä.
Kivelä forecasts that several models of payment will come online: people can make an impulse purchase but also buy wide-ranging service packages.
“The once-a-year lump sum is perhaps not the best possible for online payment”, he says.
Everyone is thinking about payment for online content but few are prepared to embark on the route. At least no one wants to breathe a word about the planning.
“If a lamp is lit somewhere then surely it has to be carefully kept hidden”, says Chief Editor of the business daily Kauppalehti, Hannu Leinonen.
Leinonen guesses that media houses would surely try out different payment models.
“But profitably would probably come from quite small streams. We are going back from free online content and through a more difficult route, says Leinonen
Right now the web does not excite the Finnish Newspaper Association.
“No big wheel is going to be set in motion. The wisdom stone has been sought for 15 years and it has not yet been found”, says Director Pasi Kivioja.
Kivioja is exceptionally skeptical. According to him content offered by newspaper – i.e., online journalism – is very difficult to change into paying again.
“If people want to pay for anything, then different themes formed around an online community and for instance, games would be such a thing”.
According to Kivioja completely differentiating the newspaper online content doesn’t provide rescue.
“If a person reads the web pages of evening newspapers and for instance, briefly visits the website of Helsingin Sanomat, he has already had enough and no longer necessarily interested to buy any newspaper”.
Finnish media houses are still weighing their intentions in relations to pay online but decisions have already been taken elsewhere in the world.
With great sensation, Rupert Murdoch’s British newspapers The Times and Sunday Times announced in July their move into online payment. Their collective pay wall is above one pound sterling in a day and two in a week.
The New York Times will raise its own pay wall in the beginning of 2011. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said in the autumn that the paper version could someday disappear entirely to the vault of history.
British newspaper the Times has run into difficulties due to payment introduced for the online content. A representative of media office MEC commented in The Independent in the beginning of the autumn that advertisers’ interest in the paper’s website has seriously declined because visitors to its pages have collapsed: visitors are now 90 per cent less than before.
Falling audiences is also feared in Finland. Newspapers are enticing visitors to the websites with diversified material and that mass would then be presented to advertisers. A few years ago Helsingin Sanomat loudly declared that it will significantly increase its free online content.
Pentikäinen still emphasizes that the newspaper will retain its “large free online news service”.
Translated and edited by Linus Atarah