For loyal readers of ESPN The Magazine, an ultra-cheap subscription offer that bundles print and online content is terrific news. However, it may not have such pleasant implications for other publishers hoping to wring new revenues out of their digital offerings.

For the next two months, ESPN is inviting current subscribers to renew their subscriptions at a one-year price of $1. That comes out to just four cents an issue for the biweekly title. There are two catches: first, to get the offer, subscribers have to register for ESPN Insider, the premium-content section of ESPN.com. Also, after the year is up, their subscriptions will automatically renew at the normal $26-a-year rate unless they actively opt out.
What's strange about this promotion is that readers won't be getting anything they're not already getting; rather, they will just be paying less for it. A subscription to ESPN The Magazine automatically includes Insider access. (In fact, in a great example of the bizarre economics of print publishing, it actually costs more money -- $39.95 a year -- to buy a subscription that includes only a digital edition of ESPN, not the print version. In other words, ESPN is willing to pay you $14 a year for the right to tell its advertisers you read the magazine, even if you'd rather not get it.)

The problem, from ESPN's point of view, is that too few of its print subscribers were taking advantage of their free Insider access. The $1-a-year offer is an attempt to fix that. "We are promoting Insider," a spokeswoman tells DailyFinance. "A lot of our readers aren't registered, even though they have the option to get access. We just want them to start to see the value of the Insider."

This brings us to the bad news for other publishers. Just about every traditional print-driven entity is now looking for ways to get readers to start paying for the online content that they've been getting for free. Some of them, including The New York Times, are looking into the idea of a membership model wherein those who enroll will receive special goodies, such as tickets to members-only events, exclusive chats with columnists, and so forth. The ESPN experience, at least so far, suggests that the large majority of readers are satisfied with what they're already getting. After all, there's only so much content that one reader can consume. Premium content is only that if readers will pay a premium for it.

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