Time, Conde, Hearst to Create an "iTunes for Magazines"

The three biggest magazine publishers in the country -- Hearst, Time Inc and Conde Nast -- are investing in a separate company that is being touted as an "iTunes for magazines." Or a Hulu for magazines, if you prefer. It would be a online storefront for digital versions of these publishers' magazines (Esquire, Time, Vanity Fair, etc) that you could read on your computer or smartphone. The site would also try to sell print subscriptions to readers.

But if these publishers want to make money, they can't sell a product (online news) that's already free. Does that mean we're about to see a deluge of paywalls across magazine websites?

Early reports don't mention price points, or many specifics at all. But I don't see another way around it. Time magazine is basically all online. The New Yorker gives away a surprising amount of content for free. If that doesn't change, there's no reason to register at a new site.

On the other hand, once the paywalls are up, the best way to get people to pay for something they consider nearly-free is to bundle diverse content and convince readers they're getting a deal. For example, you could sell me Esquire, Time and Vanity Fair subscriptions -- along with access to all of their online content -- for the price of two yearly magazine subscriptions. Print magazines increase their rate base (the readers they guarantee to advertisers) and the publishers pad their bottom line. The publishing platform would also have to take a cut.

But would this work? It's hard to know. I subscribe to three magazines. But I don't pay for any online news, and I'm not sure how much I would pay to read news online. The important thing is that magazine publishers are doing something. If online advertising isn't bringing home the bacon, with its banner ad straitjacket and paltry click-through rates, salvation must be sought elsewhere. Holding hands with your arch-rivals to open an online store for magazine stories? That's certainly elsewhere.