What ESPN the Magazine Is Doing Right With Its Online Pay Wall

And Why It Might Be Difficult For Other Titles to Do the Same

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Despite early admiration for ESPN's decision to put its magazine's website behind a pay wall -- by merging it with the ESPN Insider subscription service -- there may be some confusion about what it means.

ESPN isn't just building a pay wall around the magazine site; it's moving the site into a gated community that has attractions of its own.
ESPN isn't just building a pay wall around the magazine site; it's moving the site into a gated community that has attractions of its own.
Publishers shouldn't be so tentative about charging for content online. "Why is it, in this business, we are apologetic when asking [consumers] to pay for what we give them online?" ESPN General Manager Gary Hoenig asked BusinessWeek's Jon Fine, who broke the news today. "It's not like people in the milk business who think, 'We should give it away for free -- we can make money on the cartons.'"

Notice, though, that ESPN isn't just building a pay wall around the magazine site; it's moving the site into a gated community that has attractions of its own. Those attractions will probably remain the gate's main justification even after ESPN The Magazine settles in.

That's because most online content is way more like water than milk. It comes from the tap, basically for free. Try charging a quarter at public water fountains, and people will just stop using those fountains.

You can sell water, of course, the way Aquafina and co. sell bottled water in stores. But you better have a pitch -- such as, in the case of bottled water, elements such as portability, taste, purity and packaging.

If you want to charge for news and photos on the web, it helps to offer material that's essential and rare. The sports content on ESPNTheMag.com, despite its high quality, is neither very essential nor particularly unique. ESPN.com, to name one other site, can certainly help satiate most people's general sports interest.

And that's the case for many magazines. Subscribers will pay for print copies, which provide a high-quality reading experience as well as a sense that they've gotten something for their money. If they're staring at a computer screen, on the other hand, it's usually too tempting to find a similar site before paying for access. So simply putting much of a magazine site behind a subscriber wall would mainly limit the magazine's online reach -- in exchange for very little incremental reward.

But ESPN's Insider offers stats, data, rumors, ratings, live expert Q&As and customizable game simulations -- much of it exclusive. That's a hard-to-duplicate package with specific value, especially for people playing fantasy sports or betting. Insider's got some 350,000 subscribers paying about $7 a month, $40 a year or $60 for two years.

"We have an existing value proposition with Insider that has been part of a magazine subscription for several years," Mr. Hoenig said when asked about it. "By combining the two sites, we enhance that proposition and strengthen our reader experience."

The whole thing looks like a smart move by ESPN. It just does not, to be clear, suggest that many magazine websites should try big walls on the web -- not without something else of value behind those walls.

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