The Andrew Sullivan traveling blog show

January 4, 2013

Why is Andrew Sullivan selling? And what are his readers buying?

Sullivan, maestro of the popular blog The Dish, pulled off the impossible this week. After announcing that he was breaking free from his bosses at the Daily Beast and would henceforth finance the site with $19.99 annual subscriptions from readers, he collected about $400,000 in two days from nearly 12,000 Dish enthusiasts, some volunteering more than the suggested amount. Published since April 2011 by the Daily Beast, and before that by the Atlantic, and before that by Time, The Dish now returns to its 2000 origins as Sullivan’s indie project.

If you admire journalism and entrepreneurism, you’ve got to be pulling for Sullivan and his five employees and two interns to pull down the $900,000 he says he needs to operate The Dish for a year. As Sullivan states in his declaration of independence, the rewards of his success won’t fall just on The Dish: “The point of doing this as simply and as purely as possible is precisely to forge a path other smaller blogs and sites can follow.”

But the questions remain: what is Sullivan selling and what are his paying readers (he calls them “members”) actually buying? More nudge than paywall, The Dish “freemium” subscription system will give non-members a limited number of free “Read On” clicks for longer posts each month, after which they’ll be reminded that they really should consider paying $19.99. “Everything else on the Dish will remain free. No link from another blog to us will ever be counted for the meter — so no blogger or writer need ever worry that a link to us will push their readers into a paywall,” Sullivan writes. But cheapskates who want to avoid paying and evade The Dish’s nagging can just use their RSS readers to consume the complete site.

If any of The Dish’s members threw money at Sullivan in the name of convenience, I’d be astonished. I also doubt that many of these members worry that The Dish will vanish if they don’t subscribe: Sullivan isn’t saying “give me money or I’ll shoot this blog.” Had contributions trickled in and then stopped at $100,000 by the end of the month, my guess is that Sullivan would have refunded the funders and moved The Dish back under a larger Web umbrella. (BuzzFeed Sullivan, anyone?)

No, what Sullivan is selling and what his readers are buying is more ethereal than a magazine subscription. His request for money has successfully located the most passionate of Dish readers who valued Sullivan’s site highly when it was free and now, thanks to his dunning notice, have an opportunity to value it even higher by giving $19.99 or more. The response to Sullivan’s pitch doesn’t turn The Dish into a Veblen good, but it does reveal a previously untapped willingness of readers to pay for something they could get for nothing. Is it too much to imagine that we’re witnessing an HBO moment for the Web, like when somebody convinced people to pay a premium for TV, which they had become accustomed to getting for free? Probably, but a writer can wish.

You could compare Sullivan’s early success to NPR and PBS pledge drives, but you’d be wrong. Sullivan hasn’t had time to guilt anybody for not subscribing and he isn’t offering tote bags. You could compare his success to the Kickstarter phenomenon, but you’d be wrong again. Kickstarter specializes in start-ups and projects that need one last push, not ongoing profitable operations like The Dish. Or, you could compare his success to that of the New York Times‘s paywall, but you’d be wrong once more. Nobody who subscribed to the electronic editions of the Times got all giddy inside after doing so, or urged their friends to do the same, or felt like they were a part of the Times family after navigating its insanely complex online sign-up page. The Sullivan allure (I resist writing “cult”) may exceed even that of The New Yorker, a magazine that provides class-cover for the insecure who subscribe to it and pretty good journalism for all. But you can’t leave The Dish on your monitor to signify your identification with the site the way you can by leaving your New Yorker on the coffee table. Like the devotion of Deadheads, the fervor of the Sullivanians would require the biggest fMRI device to unlock and decode.

Because I just happen to own the biggest fMRI device and have captured a Sullivan enthusiast and made him submit to a brain scan, I have ideas about what motivates them to pay. To begin with, they find Sullivan to be a brilliant showman and a quick mind with loads of charisma. Even when they’re reading him and think that he’s full of it, they feel compelled to scroll to the end to determine exactly how full he is. And like his fellow blog pioneer Mickey Kaus, Sullivan upholds for his fans the Kinsley maxim that only by daring to go too far can a journalist ever dare go far enough. In the earlier days of American journalism (or at any London newspaper today), a cunning provocateur like Sullivan came as part of the package. But American journalism has become too tame, professional, and respectable to employ columnists who stir people up — a Sullivan specialty — or hold extreme positions, sometimes switching an extreme position (i.e., changing his mind) for another extreme position. The other blog entries, aggregation, the views out windows, and readers’ views that pad out the site can be useful, too, but if Sullivan were to go tomorrow, so would the site. You can’t produce a variety show without a headliner.

Like Glenn Beck, Bill Moyers, Bill O’Reilly, and Charlie Rose, Sullivan has acquired a fireside manner that attracts and maintains a large audience. Even when his fans don’t agree with his pulpit-thumping, his virtue-mongering, or the pyrotechnics of his righteousness, they still respond to his style. He’s their priest, they’re his parishioners. As tithings go, $19.99 a year is pretty cheap.


When Slate, my last employer, erected a $19.95 paywall in March 1998, we got about 30,000 subscribers before dropping the wall for an advertising supported model in early 1999. Were we too early to market? Not charismatic enough?  A victim of slow dial-up services? Too corporate because we were owned then by Microsoft and not enough people wanted to give Bill Gates $19.95 even if it supported Michael Kinsley? We gave subscribers umbrellas as a bonus. If, by any chance, you still have a Slate umbrella, send a photo of it to as I can’t remember what they look like. How many subscribers at $19.99 could I get for my Twitter feed? I’d pay $19.99 a year for @daveweigel’s feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

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What sets Sullivan’s blog apart from others is the vareiety of topics. Without fail, there are always a multitude of interesting posts every day, something which can’t be said for other, single-topic blogs.

Reading his blog is like reading the New Yorker, Time, or the Sunday New York Times.

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