For instance, yesterday I tried to access an ESPN Insider article at ESPN.com, but was unable to do so, despite being logged in (the top of the page welcomed me, while the body of the page told me to sign in). Insider allows users access to premium articles and features. It's not that uncommon, however, for the ESPN Insider service to give me issues when I'm trying to view articles.
These are the kinds of issues that news orgs will have to deal with, especially for sites that employ a free/premium model similar to ESPN.com's. It's one thing to have user authentication for an entire site (verifying that a user is logged in and a paying customer, in this case), but it's entirely different and more complicated to have select articles and features require authentication. ESPN.com, for whatever reason, gets confused and won't allow me to view certain premium articles, even though I'm clearly signed in.
The issue may lie in the way that ESPN tries to seamlessly weave free and premium content together. Free content is not segregated to blogs or held in some far corner of the Web site like some free/premium sites do. Rather, ESPN mixes free and premium content on every page of its site.
One article about an upcoming football game may be free, while another piece about the same game will be behind the Insider wall. It makes sense to want to create a seamless experience where free and premium content appear side-by-side. It's a great way to get people to notice premium content.
If the problem persists, I'll be calling ESPN customer service to have it rectified. That will cut into ESPN's margins. Fielding customer service calls because the site is having trouble understanding when I am and am not signed in is not a great way to make money off of premium features.
These confused user experiences are going to turn people off. If users are paying for content, they don't want to haggle with a Web site or call customer service. People expect Web sites to work, especially when they are paying customers.
If a company as resource rich as ESPN struggles with these issues on its Web site, imagine how a small newspaper in central Pennsylvania will deal with setting up a pay wall that consistently works. Most smart news orgs are talking about a free/premium model, and ESPN.com clearly shows that it's not always that easy to pull off. A strict pay wall with no free content is probably a poor idea for just about every news org.
ESPN, however, can get away with having issues like these, because ESPN does not need Insider to make money. ESPN is raking in plenty of broadcast money and has several revenue streams (not to mention the fact that ABC owns it). Insider is, in many ways, a nice little experiment for ESPN.
This is not to say that charging for news and features can't work, but it's important to keep in mind that setting up a system that A) works and B) doesn't turn customers away is easier said than done. And trust me, the last thing you want to do is spend time and money setting up a pay wall that just turns would-be paying customers off.