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.