ESPN, The Magazine: Helping the economy or committing publishing suicide

August 14, 2009

ESPN1I love ESPN, The Magazine. I was one of three media critics who spoke positively about the launch of the magazine back when it started. This introduction is more than needed because what I witnessed at the post office last week sent shock waves through my system and caused me to stop and question the wisdom of what ESPN, The Magazine is doing.

Here is the story: I went to check my post office box at the main Post Office in Oxford. I saw a middle aged man taking a copy of ESPN, The Magazine from his box, he looked at the cover and then dropped the magazine at the garbage can. My heart almost stopped. Throwing ESPN, The Magazine in the garbage without even looking at the magazine. I dove into the garbage can and picked up the magazine. I looked at the cover that was half covered with a flap offering the subscriber “Your subscriber thank you gift!” The cover line on this flap screamed “What can you get for $1 these days? See inside.”

What was inside scared me even more than the moment the guy dropped the magazine in the garbage can. The answer to the cover question was “26 issues plus FREE ESPN Insider for $1.” The magazine told the “active subscriber” that “At ESPN, we are committed to delivering top value for you hard-earned money — especially during these tough economic times. That why we are offering our currently active subscribers a Thank You gift they can’t get anywhere else. 26 issues of ESPN The Magazine for just $1… That’s an unbelievable savings of $128.74 off the newsstand price!”

An entire year of the magazine for $1. Keep in mind, this is not an offer to new subscribers, or a trial offer. This offer “is valid for current subscriber renewals only and this offer is nontransferable.” My active subscriber did not even take the magazine home. Is the magazine really trying to help its subscribers in hard economic times? Or is the magazine committing publishing suicide by continuing to follow the dead American magazine publishing model: counting numbers rather than finding customers who count?

I do not believe that selling a one year subscription for $1 is the right answer to the hard economic times. It is, in my humble opinion, yet another example of a print publication committing publishing suicide.

If these hard times are not forcing the magazines to start selling to customers who count, rather than counting customers, I do not know what some publishers need to wake up and change their circulation methods. I do not know when the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) will go back to the good old days when they only counted the “customers who count.” Now is the time to change. Tomorrow is too late.


  1. I finally dropped my subscription to ESPN the Magazine because it just didn’t appeal to me anymore (I do still subscribe to SI along with 4 golf specific magazines). ESPN the Magazine would sit around in my house unread, much like the one the guy tossed straight out of the mail box. He just saved himself the trouble of taking it home and letting it sit around the house cluttering up the place! I can’t explain it but it just didn’t hold my interest and found few articles that were of interest to read.

  2. We have been trying to convince advertisers for years to reach the people who count, not count the people you reach. Until that happens, magazines will continue to languish. Is anyone seeing a turn-around on the media buying scene?

  3. SI is still a compelling read for me and SI’s investigative journalism is top-notch. ESPN The Magazine is very weak and doesn’t bring anything new to the party.

  4. Not sure if I agree on the subscription offer, but the I think ESPN gets it…print, online, news…integrated, engaging, exciting…and oh, informative…I’d be curious how many insider members they have…

  5. Interesting to see how ESPN the magazine is following the very sub model they patterned their look, feel and “hip” editorial mission after: Rolling Stone. Didn’t Wenner and Co. have some crazy $100 lifetime subscription rate a couple of years back?

    Curious how that worked out for RS in the “numbers” game. I can tell you, for me personally, it diluted the value of the RS brand.

    Neither pubs are must reads for me, and in this age of constant news flow, you have to give your audience a compelling must read value prop.

    • In fact Drew, it was $99 for a lifetime sub. and I bought one for my son with that price. With the $1 left, I can buy a one-year sub. for ESPN, The Magazine. All the best.

  6. $1 is ridiculous, but if it works, I guess it doesn’t matter what I think. I’m still amazed that I subscribed for two years to Esquire at a cost of about 43 cents per copy — when the very first issue of Esquire 75 years ago cost 50 cents.

    I’d rather see magazine publishers rely on subscription and newsstand sales revenue than advertising; the former means the readers really want the magazine content and the publishers/editors have to produce quality content to keep them; the latter means a subscriber simply said, “One buck for a year? Yeah, what the hell, why not?” More of those mags end up in trash or recycling bins than on coffee tables.

  7. Well…first off, they did this a while back in a worse way with the whole faux-cover of Ricky Bobby to promote Talladega Nights. That was worse, and other magazines have done it, too.

    “I’d rather see magazine publishers rely on subscription and newsstand sales revenue than advertising.”

    You must not be in the business, because that’s not how it works. You keep your subscriber base up to lure and keep advertisers, because one advertiser pays a hell of a lot more than one subscriber, or 100 subscribers.

    • “You must not be in the business, because that’s not how it works.”

      Funny, but I AM in the business. I know very well that that’s how most magazines survive, and — as your comment indicates — most folks “in the business” can’t conceive of any other way to do it. But there are magazines — mostly smaller, niche ones — that survive with very little advertising and higher cover prices.

      Go back in history a bit and you’ll find that the ad model was not always the dominant one. If some or most mags want to chase that model, that’s fine. But not everyone’s drunk that kool-aid.

  8. This is quite interesting article. Everything here posted is so right. Sometimes reality is not good.

  9. […] Automation World — and people tell me that I have met with some success in that endeavor. His second blog post I’m citing is how not to do it — compliments of ESPN The […]

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