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.