Over in the comments to Tim Burke’s recent post about newspapers and civil society, I was reminded of something I’ve something I wonder about every time I read about the decline of newspapers and the problem of getting people to pay for news online: ESPN.com. Way back at the start of the web, just about everything at ESPN was free. I distinctly remember my Dad predicting that this wouldn’t last and that eventually most free information sources – newspapers included – would start turning to fee-based models. That did happen in some places, but it didn’t really work and very few of the fee newspaper models are still around (though many do charge for stories only a week or two old).
ESPN, on the other hand, seems to have put more and more behind a paywall. I’ve never subscribed, so I don’t quite know how much is there, and I don’t check the site often these days – Yahoo’s free sports news, which is my main use for Yahoo, is usually enough for me – but my impression is that not only has ESPN increased the proportion of content for pay, it’s also increased the total amount of content for pay. I don’t remember there having been quite so many columnists/analysts in the past. That doesn’t necessarily mean the model has been a big success, but it does lead me to believe that they think it’s been serving them well.
So how does ESPN do it? Are they like the Wall Street Journal, an exception in a world of free information? Is the site subsidized by the broadcast and magazine divisions? Or does sports journalism as a whole follow a primarily pay model? I suppose I could click on some other sports sites; with the NCAA tournament starting up, I’ll be looking for more news (actually, only if Cal wins).