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Andrew Sullivan Gives The Boeing Back

andrew-sullivan-black-white

A decade ago, an InstaPundit reader coined the term “Take the Boeing” when Mickey Kaus was mulling bringing his blog under the auspices of Slate.  Glenn Reynolds observed, “That’s kind of a nice term for blogger-affiliation with major media.”

Over the years, quite a number of the best (and a few of the not-so-best) bloggers have taken the Boeing, perhaps none more often than Andrew Sullivan, who went from being an independent to TIME to The Atlantic to The Daily Beast.

Now, though, he’s giving the Boeing back.

And so, as we contemplated the end of our contract with the Beast at the end of 2012, we faced a decision. As usual, we sought your input and the blogosphere’s – hence the not-terribly subtle thread that explored whether online readers will ever pay for content, and how. The answer is: no one really knows. But as we debated and discussed that unknowable future, we felt more and more that getting readers to pay a small amount for content was the only truly solid future for online journalism. And since the Dish has, from its beginnings, attempted to pioneer exactly such a solid future for web journalism, we also felt we almost had a duty to try and see if we could help break some new ground.

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.

[...]

And so last week, the three of us signed an agreement setting up an independent company called Dish Publishing LLC, and agreed to strike out on our own with no safety net below us but you.

The long and short of it is that Sully and his executive editors, Patrick Appel and Chris Bodenner, want to answer to no one but the readers. He’s not even going to have ads on the new site. But, since they’re good at what they do and spend an inordinate amount of time doing it, they’d like to continue to make a decent living.

The price of freedom, it is well established, is a buck o’ five. Come February, the cost of reading Sully’s musings will be $19.99 a year.

Traditionally, the only sites that have managed to make a go of it selling online subscriptions have been those that offered truly unique content of value to well-healed readers. The Financial Times  and Wall Street Journal are the best examples. More recently, the New York Times has actually managed to bring in quite a lot of revenue through an intentionally porous paywall.

Can a blogger pull it off? If anyone can, it’s Sully.

His blog has over a decade behind it and he’s somehow maintained the intensity of his production and his enthusiasm. With the daily grind having taking its toll on my own blogging in recent years, I’m fully aware how amazing that is.

He has a massive following.  At The Atlantic, The then-Daily Dish accounted for more than half of the entire traffic to the domain. I’d be shocked if it weren’t more integral, still, to the NewsBeast, such as it is.

To be sure, clicking through for nothing is a different kettle of fish than being a paying customer. At least in the early going, though, a lot of people will sign up out of sheer loyalty for past services rendered. Hell, I did that for Josh Marshall’s site at a substantially higher price and most of its content is still free; I’ll do it for Sullivan at least once. [Just did, actually.]

Still, off the top of my head, I figure they’ll need at least $500,000 a year to cover salary and basic operating costs. That’s 25,000 $19.99 subscriptions.

UPDATE: I see that Steven Taylor has already written a brief, skeptical take on the matter. He also notes a concern that I had as well about a byproduct of going behind a wall:

[O]nce one goes behind a wall, one is separated from the broader conversation that has been the hallmark of web-based writing.  (However, it may be that the model is dead and perhaps I am too informed by an old blogging mindset, having been at this going on 10 years, and by the fact that I have no pressure to make this the source of my livelihood).

It’s an interesting question. Presumably, enough of his readers will also be bloggers who will generously excerpt his more engaging content on their blogs. Whether that will undermine or enhance his business model is an interesting question, too.

UPDATE II: Sully clarifies:

One final point which may have gotten lost. There is no paywall. No one coming to the Dish home-page will ever be stopped. All links to individual posts will be outside the meter and as free after we launch as they are now. We have no intention of cutting ourselves off from the blogosphere we love and need. And vice-versa. The only meter arrives at the “Read On” posts, whose full text you have to be a member to read.

Amusingly, he’s especially going to use it for the View From Your Window posts, which are quite popular even though I’ve long since grown tired of them.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Rob in CT says:

    Hmm. It’s funny. I check the Dish daily. But I immediately reject the idea of paying $20/yr for it. And it’s certainly not b/c I can’t afford to.

    I’ll have to actually think about why that is. It’s chump change. Nada. And yet…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 1

  2. cd6 says:

    I’m not paying $20 unless they announce the weekends are going to have actual content and not poems and religious debate that makes me want to claw out my eyes

    I thumb through my bookmarks entirely on muscle memory when something exciting happens on Saturday, and keep disappointingly stumbling upon readers digest rejected essays about “what do our dreams mean.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  3. Damian P. says:

    At long last, this will give him the funding he needs to track down Trig Palin’s real mother!

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 15 Thumb down 5

  4. michael reynolds says:

    I’ll pay Sully twenty bucks. I’ll pay the NYT too, once they stop making it so easy for me to go around the paywall.

    But I think he’s foolish not to take at least some advertising. He’d be delivering a nice demo.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  5. Rob in CT says:

    Actually, given this:

    Our particular version will be a meter that will be counted every time you hit a “Read on” button to expand or contract a lengthy post. You’ll have a limited number of free read-ons a month, before we hit you up for $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. It won’t. Ever. There is no paywall. Just a freemium-based meter. We’ve tried to maximize what’s freely available, while monetizing those parts of the Dish where true Dishheads reside. The only tough love we’re offering is the answer to the View From Your Window Contest. You’ll have to become a member to find where the place is. Ha!

    Nothing will need change for me. I basically use it as a zoomed-out view of what the chatter is of late and then go elsewhere for more in-depth stuff.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  6. Still, off the top of my head, I figure they’ll need at least $500,000 a year to cover salary and basic operating costs. That’s 25000 $19.99 subscriptions.

    According to Sullivan’s Sitemeter, he’s currently averaging about 146,000 visits, and just over 201,000 page views a day. Pretty decent number that allow him to average at least 4-5 million visits a month. Even in December, which seems to have been a down traffic month across the blogosphere, he brought in 5.4 million visits. Obviously many of those are repeat visits. Nonetheless, it seems he’s got a healthy enough base of regular readers. Whether it will be enough to build a sustainable revenue stream will be interesting to see.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  7. James, you may remember 10 or 11 years ago when Sullivan was still independent – every year he mounted a massive donation bleg complaining that he just couldn’t afford to blog another word unless his readers hit the donate button. I mean, he asked for triple-digit donations! And he set a dollar goal, IIRC, of at least a quarter-million dollars each year. (Might have been more, actually.)

    I assume he got some significant fraction because he never shut down – and this was he was still way, way to the right side of the aisle.

    I recall that one time his blegging goal was so egregious that I offered on my blog never to post another word if people donated only half that much to me.

    Just curious, how come you figure he needs $500K of subscriptions to cover expenses and overhead? Blogging is darn near free of overhead.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  8. @Rob in CT: I missed that part (I must confess to have gotten bored and drifted away a bit towards the end of the post). As I just noted in an update to my post:

    On the one hand, this keep Sully firmly in the Blogosphere, but on the other decreases the incentives for most readers to subscribe.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. @Donald Sensing:

    Well, off the top of my head there are expenses for webhosting, which is not insubstantial for a high traffic site like the Dish. Additionally, one assumes that Appel and the others who write with Sullivan have been on some kind of a salary arrangement when the site was hosted by The Atlantic and, until February, The Daily Beast.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  10. Franklin says:

    @Rob in CT: There have been articles written about this. The difference between free and paying even one penny is massive. If you have to get out your wallet and type in a credit card number, THAT’s what stops most people.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  11. James Joyner says:

    @Donald Sensing: I figure at least $200,000 for Sully; $80,000 each for his two editors; and another couple of staffers in the $35,000 range comes to $430,000. And those may be low estimates. It wouldn’t shock me at all if Sully pulls in $250,000 a year.

    There’s hosting. Technical guys. Accountants. Various administrative fees, including PayPal’s take on each subscription.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. C. Clavin says:

    Bottom line is that no matter what you were going to pay to read Sully…as the Daily Beast is already working on a paywall. I’d just as soon give the money to Sully than to Tina Brown. It’s like the NFL…I’d just as soon the players make huge salaries…than the Jerry Joneses of the world make a penny more.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  13. Todd says:

    I paid as soon as I got to the link at the end his blog post. The Dish is one of the 10 or so political blogs that I read every day. Most are in my Google Reader, so I never even see the websites. However, when I do have to click through, to comment, or if they only offer a partial feed, I find the ads (especially flash based) on many sites terribly annoying. To me it’s worth $20 a year just to have it ad free.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  14. C. Clavin says:

    Sullivan’s biggest challenge isn’t now when he’s getting attention from almost every Media Site in existence…it will be next year…when he’s asking for renewals and there’s no Media Hype to help him out.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  15. Andre Kenji says:

    I think that Andrew Sullivan is heavily overestimated(To be polite), but I would pay for real information, not for generic political blogging.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  16. DC Loser says:

    I will probably pay Sully’s price to support his work. I also make it a point to sub to The Atlantic even though I can get all of its content for free on their website. But I want to suppor their excellent work.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  17. LaurenceB says:

    Already subscribed. I’ve been reading him free for years, so I feel like I owed something.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  18. Jib says:

    It will be easy to get around the meter. The model is really closer to public radio or TV than a mag or newspaper subscription. It is attempt to bring Kevin Kelly’s 1000 true fans approach for music to political blogging. Kevin Kelly’s model defines a true fan as someone who will spend $10 a month on a musician, either buying music or more often, paying to go to shows. That generates $120,000 a year which is good money for a musician. Sully needs 5 times more money and is charging $20 a year instead of a month so he needs 25,000 true fans.

    I have my doubts he can hit that number but if any political blogger could pull it off is Sully. Political blogging is just a form of sports blogging where the teams are ideologies. It is pure mindless entertainment and paying for it takes the mindless out of it. But people pay for cable TV to be mindlessly entertained so who knows. And the public TV model is interesting in that the traffic hit from a pure paywall is avoided.

    I am glad he is doing it. Advertising online s causing as many problems as it solves, we need better pay models.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. Tillman says:

    I gave Sullivan roughly three percent of what I pay for health insurance per year. I figured that was equitable.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  20. Argon says:

    Althouse would do really well behind a paywall. All in favor of Ann setting that up, say ‘Aye’!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  21. wr says:

    According to Mr. Sullivan, I’m part of an anti-American fifth column working secretly to destroy this nation from within, simply because I felt from day one that invading Iraq was a stupid and evil thing to do.

    Pay $20 a year for the privelege of reading his column? I’d pay that much not to.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  22. @James Joyner:

    Okay, but back in the day he was lone blogging with no staff or accountants or so forth and he was still asking for that much money.

    Well, “the value of a thing is what the thing will bring.” I guess he’s about to find out. My forecast is that he will discover pretty quick how unsuccessful paywalls have already proven to be.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  23. wr says:

    @Donald Sensing: For once, Mr. Sensing, I’m with you. What exactly is it that Sullivan brings that makes him worth twenty dollars a year more than, well, any other blogger. He’s a decent writer, but he’s proven himself over and over again to be an unscrupulous hack, carrying water for whichever creep he’s fallen in love with that month.

    Honestly, although I loathed just about everything he wrote, I got Hitchens. He really was a talented polemicist, with a wit and verve that could almost make you want to be convinced even when you knew he was wrong. Even crazy Alexander Cockburn had some of that.

    But Sullivan? He’s like Hitchens without the talent, charm, skill or grace. He’s nothing but a sledgehammer, battering away at his cause du jour. And then, when he changes his mind, battering equally as hard at the opposite side.

    Please, one of you smart people who are pledging to give him the cost of five grande lattes — what the hell is the appeal?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  24. Herb says:

    @Rob in CT:

    ” But I immediately reject the idea of paying $20/yr for it. And it’s certainly not b/c I can’t afford to.”

    I’m with you on this, Rob.

    My question is what am I paying for? Sullivan is a curator of interesting links, but beyond that….not sure if he really produces anything I feel the need to pay him for.

    With that said, the price point is low enough that I’m open to persuasion on this. Ultimately, I think the folks who want to make money from digital content should really avoid putting it on the web. Use the internet, by all means, but on a closed system.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. Tillman says:

    Look at that second graph. Some dude actually gave him ten thousand dollars.

    That is ridiculous.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  26. just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Todd: Wow! You have time to read 10 political blogs a day (there are 10 political blogs worth reading)? I can’t speak for others, but I’m too busy at my real job to read that many blogs a day? Should I have become a lawyer rather than a teacher? Did I join the wrong profession?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0