Loyalty and obsession are intimates: Andrew Sullivan goes independent

Jan.
3
“We, the journalists, have part of what it takes to create an informative and exciting site. You, the users, have the other part.”

Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan announced that he’s parting ways with the Daily Beast and taking his blog, The Daily Dish, independent. Truly independent: no advertisers! (Though he hasn’t ruled that out for the future.) Today he announced that he’s already raised a third of his $900,000 annual budget by asking loyal readers to pay $19.99– or more if they choose. I’m a big fan of the site, and a daily user, so I bought a membership on the first day. And I’m rooting for Sullivan and his team.

What interests me most about his gamble is what Andrew Sullivan is gambling on: the relationship between an obsessive blogger and his most loyal users. As Mathew Ingram puts it: “Sullivan is betting that his personal brand and goodwill with his readers is enough to convince a substantial proportion of them to fund his writing.”

Thus: “The only completely clear and transparent way to do this, we concluded, was to become totally independent of other media entities and rely entirely on you for our salaries, health insurance, and legal, technological and accounting expenses.”

Independence from big media = dependence on passionate users. Before they ran this calculation, Sullivan and his team (it totals seven people) had several indicators of how strong their relationship with the users actually was. For example: “The computers say the average Dish reader spends up to 17 minutes a day on the site – a massive investment of time and energy.”

Another indicator was the contents of the inbox. Conor Friedersdorf filled in on the staff of the Daily Dish when Sullivan and his team were employed by The Atlantic. He describes what it’s like to sift through the emails that come in to the Dish:

I finally saw the reader inbox in all its glory while guest blogging for Sullivan as he vacationed. It’s a gig I did several times, all of them while The Dish was hosted here at The Atlantic. I’ve never received so much delightful correspondence. The Dish readership is massive, highly educated, ideologically diverse, employed in a stunning array of fields, and spread out across the world. Of course, those same attributes characterize the readership here at The Atlantic, and I’ve gotten tons of wonderful emails in the course of my current job, but something about the blogger’s personal, informal tone inspires correspondence of a different character. Compare the comments on the average item here at The Atlantic with the loyal readers Ta-Nehisi Coates has cultivated in the comments section of his blog, where it’s more like an intimate community.

At The Daily Dish, I once asked readers in advance of a road trip across The South what I should see. I didn’t just get hundreds of suggestions; I didn’t just get extended essays on the geography, sociology, and competing styles of barbecue that characterize the region; I didn’t just get notes from people in eleven states; I also got invitations to stay overnight with Dish readers in a dozen cities, or to stop by for dinner at the houses of their parents, or to please write if I passed through where they live so they could at the very least buy me a cold beer. I was just a guest blogger. I don’t doubt that Sullivan could live rent free for five years if he asked nicely.

In other words, core users have been “giving” to Sullivan’s site for years. They have been giving their time, their persistent attention, their loyalty (meaning: a bond strong enough to withstand the moments when Sullivan offends the user with his opinions and unruly emotions) and such other contributions as can be seen only by sifting though the inbox.

Q. Can you charge for news and commentary on the web?

A. It depends.

It depends on how strong the relationship is between you and the regular users of your site. Sullivan and crew have ample reason to bet on that relationship– not only the stats, but the inbox, out of which emerges regular features like View from Your Window and the curated reader comment posts. The Daily Dish is mainly an aggregation site. The editors find some of the stuff, the users find the rest.

I know of no site that better fulfills Alan Rusbridger’s vision of “mutualised” journalism. (He’s the editor of The Guardian in the UK.) What Rusbridger means by that is simple, really: We, the journalists, have part of what it takes to create an informative and exciting site. You, the users, have the other part. You give to us so that we can we give to you.

This open and collaborative future for journalism – I have tried the word “mutualised” to describe something of the flavour of the relationship this new journalism has with our readers and sources and advertisers – is already looking different from the journalism that went before. The more we can involve others the more they will be engaged participants in the future, rather than observers or, worse, former readers. That’s not theory. It’s working now.

And, yes, we’ll charge for some of this – as we have in the past – while keeping the majority of it open. My commercial colleagues at the Guardian firmly believe that our mutualised approach is opening up options for making money, not closing them down.

I would never have given my twenty dollars to Sullivan if I couldn’t link to items on his site, knowing that any user of my Twitter feed could freely access them, regardless of whether they subscribed to the Daily Dish. Part of the intimacy between Sullivan and his core readership involves this (somewhat obscure) third party: the much larger group of web cruisers who will never pay but who will visit from time to time when something strikes their interest. If the core users understand and accept that they are, to some extent, subsidizing the more occasional visitors then their annual payment is more likely to be renewed.

Eliminating advertisers from the equation promotes this kind of clarity. My guess is that the more open Sullivan chooses to be about the finances of the site, the more successful he will be in raising money from the most loyal users. An advertiser-supported site has a harder time being completely transparent, for the simple reason that “part of what we sell is you, commoditized…” is not easily communicated to fully sentient beings.

One of the first things I teach my students about the transformation of journalism by digital means is the unbundling effect. Nicholas Carr summarizes it:

Readers don’t flip through a mix of stories, advertisements, and other bits of content. They go directly to a particular story that interests them, often ignoring everything else. In many cases, they bypass the newspaper’s “front page” altogether, using search engines, feed readers, or headline aggregators like Google News, Digg, and Daylife to leap directly to an individual story. They may not even be aware of which newspaper’s site they’ve arrived at. For the publisher, the newspaper as a whole becomes far less important. What matters are the parts. Each story becomes a separate product standing naked in the maketplace. It lives or dies on its own economic merits.

The unbundling effect–which is (sorry to use this term) a mega-trend in digital media–strongly favors niche journalism. So what is Sullivan’s niche? It would be awkward, but you could try to characterize it topically: gay rights including gay marriage, Obama’s “long view,” the coming crack-up of the Republican Party, decriminalizing pot, the struggle for freedom in Iran and the rest of the Muslim world, the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and its discontents, all views of the world descendent from the philosopher Michael Oakeshott and the critic Christopher Hitchens…

But a better way to put it would be: Andrew’s own obsessions. That’s the real niche. This is the extreme opposite of the “all the news that’s fit to print.” I think Sullivan and his team are going to meet their goal. They will raise more than the $900,000 they need to run the site for the first year of their independent existence. They could never do it if they fell back on the View from Nowhere. Loyalty and obsession are intimates.

20 Comments

  1. I remember when I fell for the Andrew Sullivan con as well. Thankfully I overcame that naïveté years ago.

    The modern media world is populated by people who are only out for themselves, it’s designed that way for very specific reasons, all others are culled at the earliest stages. It’s all about control, and only allowing the advancement of those that can be counted upon to put their own personal brand and career success first, priority one, all other priorities rescinded.

    Sullivan taking this route implies that he wants out of the constraints that have been placed upon him in the other places where he’s published. Perhaps he will tell us about some of the compromises he’s made along the way, now that he has the opportunity to speak freely and fully.

    • And, if I wanted to burn $20 to read Sully on a regular basis, Aaron’s reasoning is the only thing that would make me do that.

      That said, Aaron, wasn’t Sully semi-unbound when he edited TNR?

      Oh, yeah – an entire issue singing the praises of “The Bell Curve.”

      See, Aaron, you can now save your $20.

      ===

      Beyond that, and Jay noting that, with interns, he really has a seven-person staff, the question there is “why”?

      A lot of stuff he writes these days is Atrios-type microblogging with one sentence plus a link. Maybe one in four posts is midi-blogging and only one in 10 is longer form.

      Speaking of Jay and customer service, I’d want a detailed “financials” breakout before I made any contribution even were I of a mind to read Sully regularly. What’s he going to pay himself? $100K? $150? $75?

      • gabos says:

        I don’t love Andrew Sullivan, and I disagree with his contorted conservatism often. But I am strongly inclined to pay $20 merely because I believe so much, regardless of his opinions, in the merit of this endeavor. This is where journalism has to go, at least in part, and success will lead others in the same direction. It’s the model that’s important here, regardless of what you may feel about Sullivan. However, I hope there will other opportunities to support such a model, ones that you (and probably me) feel more comfortable with (I give regularly to Glenn Greenwald, btw, who represents some kind of partial of this– you might consider the same).

  2. Matt Welch says:

    I think the biggest question is not whether he can make this pay in Year One (or Year Seven, whatever); it’s what even a limited closed-ness does to the oxygen flow of someone who has thrived so much on being open. Glenn Beck is richer and more independent than he’s ever been — and he hasn’t mattered less in a decade.

    The intimate relationship you describe has been nurtured by unfettered access; changing that calculation, however porously, seems to me to be the biggest gamble here.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      Hi, Matt. I agree, it’s a gamble. Your observation touches on the point about paywalls that is usually overlooked, which is not: how many people will pay? but how large a price will the site pay by not being fully open. Much depends on the details of the meter. From what I can tell, Sullivan and company are aware of this calculation, but that does not they have it right..

  3. Ben Asher says:

    It seems like this is essentially taking journalism to a similar business model as shareware computer software in the 1990s. Try it, and use it all you like, but if you really like it and want it to keep being made, then contribute.

    I wonder though, whether Sullivan could have ever achieved the requisite level of public awareness as a writer without having been supported/promoted via the traditional publishing industry. I first became a fan of Sullivan over a decade ago after reading his cover article in the NYTimes Magazine on Hate. It seems that writing exclusively within your own authorial eco-system would limit your exposure going forward, to some extent. I don’t know how much.

    It is also interesting to think of Sullivan’s move in the context of Louis CK and other comedians’ decisions to remove themselves from the established corporate distribution system by self-releasig their albums for digital direct download. As a comedian, who does not have the level of publicity of these comedians, it seems that going the traditional route, and relying on that machine for part of the initial publicity is the only option still. Of course I could put out an album/ make a concert film available online – it would be a small concert – but I think you need to haave a certain level of a following before you can pull it off financially, and it still seems like you need to have your work promoted by a powerful media organization for a decent amount of time. I consider powerful media orgs to be TV shows, publications, popular blogs, youtube, radio shows. I don’t think a creator’s work can succeed without being seen in this way first.

  4. How much does the technology cost to maintain a blog with as much traffic as Sullivan’s? Does he intend to add additional staff? A budget of $900,000 per year for a three-person group seems high. I must be missing something.

  5. Jay Rosen says:

    You are. With paid interns and part-time staff it’s closer to a seven-person group.

  6. Leon says:

    Good read, thank you.

    I read the last sentence as “inmates”. My Freudian cynic slipping out, i suppose.

  7. Charlie Haviland says:

    I still “unbundle” the New York Times delivered to my Detroit door. And, I spend about seventeen minutes a week with The Nation. But, Sullivan will get my twenty bucks, and I will pimp his now “independent” Daily Dish. Thanks, Jay

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  10. Scott Lewis says:

    I was hoping you’d touch more on the challenges that come with changing from an advertiser to a reader-supported model. While it is tremendously attractive to build a truly independent, reader-supported service, Sullivan has taken on a big burden that might be best called “customer relations.”

    Anyone hoping to build something like what he’s outlined should grapple with this challenge.

    I don’t at all doubt Sullivan and his team’s ability to build a paying community of between 15,000 and 45,000 paying subscribers.

    But managing this many customers, dealing with their problems and, most importantly, pressing them to renew at a high rate, is not easy. It’ll require an advanced CRM, staff and even the personal touch of the leadership.

    The relationships will even need more attention if donations of $500+ become something Sullivan relies on.

    Readers as the sustaining force is awesome. But, like advertisers, they are paying for a service and they will need attention.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      I agree with you, Scott. That’s going to be one of the big challenges. So will CMS and technology issues. I don’t think we’ll know about the success of the experiment until February 2014 at the earliest. That’s when Sullivan and crew will have a sense of the renewal rate.

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