Andrew Sullivan goes it alone
The big media news of the day is that Andrew Sullivan is taking his team, going independent, and running the Daily Dish as a standalone business. It’s a risky move, but it’s not that risky. And I like the direction he’s moving in, for a number of reasons.
Firstly — and this is absolutely vital — Sullivan is clear that “there is no paywall”. Sullivan wants as many people as possible to read his blog, and you don’t do that by preventing them from doing so. If you follow an external link to an Andrew Sullivan post, you will always be able to read that post, whether you’ve paid him or not, and no matter how many posts you’ve previously read that month. This is a concept taken straight from the NYT, and it’s very smart; I wish that other publications, including the FT and WSJ, would follow suit.
If you want absolute proof that this is not a paywall, just look here: “our RSS feed won’t be affected by the meter”, he says. Sullivan has, from day one, always served up a full RSS feed, and that is not going to change. So if you want to read every word he writes, without paying a penny, that’s easy: just subscribe to his RSS feed. The purpose of what Sullivan calls “a freemium-based meter” is emphatically not to keep people out: it’s not a wall. Rather, it’s a mechanism for allowing Sullivan’s most loyal readers to pay him for the content they love. So far, about one third of them are paying more than the $19.99/year headline price: they want to support this project, he doesn’t need to threaten them with some kind of if-you-don’t-pay-me-you-won’t-be-able-to-read-my-stuff pitch.
The real parallel here is not media paywalls so much as it is Kickstarter projects. It feels good to support something you love and admire — it feels much better, indeed, than paying some kind of sticker price for the same thing. Sullivan’s price point of $20/year is very close to the $25/year cost of subscribing to Newsweek, which Sullivan is now leaving. But the two payments feel different: it’s the difference between paying an individual and paying a faceless corporation. And although Sullivan is doing this on an unprecedented scale — he has a significant staff now — this kind of model is not unprecedented. Jason Kottke tried it way back in 2005, and Maria Popova has been doing something very similar for a while. The only real difference is that Sullivan is being a little pushier about asking for money, and making it a little bit difficult for very regular readers of his website to read absolutely everything without paying.
I am a big fan of Sullivan’s decision not to accept advertising. Once upon a time, selling ads on blogs made sense — but now it doesn’t. They can turn a blog into an unreadable mess if you’re not very careful, and the amount of cash they generate is rapidly diminishing. They do horrible things to pageload times, they annoy readers, and — most importantly — they would turn Sullivan from being a blogger into being a publisher. Some people are great at making that move: Josh Marshall is a prime example. But one of the great attractions, to Sullivan, of going out on his own is that he’s going out on his own. Having done that, the last thing he’s going to want to do is hire a publisher who will tell him that he needs to do this or that.
And in any case, publishers don’t come cheap — by the time they’ve paid for themselves, there’s often very little money left over to pay for everything else.
The big unanswered question about Sullivan’s business model is how the economics are going to play out. He seems to have brought in about $100,000 today, from loyal readers — that’s about 4,000 subscribers off the bat. But that $100,000 is going to go fast. Sullivan is coming off a fat contract at NewsBeast, signed when Tina Brown was flush with lots of Barry Diller cash. He almost certainly couldn’t get her to agree to replicate that contract when it came up for renewal, so it’s hard to know how much money he’d receive if he stayed at the Beast. But my guess is that Sullivan wants the staff of seven, including two paid interns, to earn somewhere in the neighborhood of $750,000 a year between them, plus benefits. Add in what Sullivan lumps under “legal, technological and accounting expenses”, and you’re well into seven digits. So while today’s haul is impressive, Sullivan is going to have to keep those subscription revenues coming on a pretty steady basis, and he’s surely targeting a paying subscriber base of at least 50,000 — about 5% of what he calls his “unofficial staff of around a million unpaid obsessives”.
That’s a high bar to set: it’s roughly the same as the circulation of The New Republic, which Sullivan used to edit. But if anybody can get there, Sullivan can.
And when it comes to income and expenses, Sullivan’s in a pretty unique and special place. His income, for starters: there’s a long list of publications which is happy to pay him top dollar to write for them. And I’m sure he could sell a book any time he wanted, too. As for his expenses, he was famously grouchy about moving to New York, and I suspect he won’t stay here much longer now that he doesn’t have to be here for work purposes. And then there’s his HIV+ status: as he told Andrew Leonard, “You only live once, and in my case, I never expected to live this long. So why the fuck not?”
Finally, Sullivan is burning no bridges here. If this works, great; if it doesn’t work, I’m sure that there will be a fair few publications out there willing to add their names to the list of places which have hosted the Dish. It’s what the financial types call a free option. And I’m very glad that Sullivan is taking the plunge, to see just how much money is out there for someone looking to make it on subscription revenues alone. I only have one request for him: please be very transparent about the numbers!