Andrew Sullivan and the Future of Blogging

Andrew Sullivan may change the face of blogging. Or maybe not.

Last night, Courtney and I watched Downton Abbey. I find it little more than a soap opera in tuxes, but I enjoy it. However, what we both commented on at the end was that, thanks to its airing on public television, we were able to watch a two-hour show, uninterrupted, with nary a commercial. Same goes for other great shows in recent memory, like The Wire and The Sopranos (both on HBO). Be it a donation or subscription, viewers are supporting the production of these shows by paying a monthly or annual fee.

Last week, premier blogger Andrew Sullivan announced that his online real estate, The Dish, would be moving away from ad-driven hosts (he’s been with TIME, The Atlantic, and, most recently, The Daily Beast/Newsweek). He’s asking for an annual contribution of $20, and in less than a week, he’s raised half of the $900,000 budget that he needs:

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.

Sullivan has a staff of several full-time writers, and a couple interns, and he’s now going to have to pay for his own technology. One of the perks for me of being at Patheos is that they take care of all the technology — and they’re usually quite good at it. The lack of tech support is what drove me away from Beliefnet.

In the year between Beliefnet and Patheos, I was on my own, blogging at my own domain. I was also selling my own ads, with limited success. I sold a couple, at good rates, but other ad blocks sat unsold, or streamed Google ads at a couple cents per click. At my current traffic, I could probably make as much or more selling my own ads as Patheos pays me. But I’d have to sell my own ads, which I hate, and is a total pain in the ass. I’d also have to make sure the site works — I spent a ton of time on this when I was on my own, adding and subtracting plug-ins and widgets. I spend no time on that now. I spend all my time writing.

Further, being on the biggest religion site on the Internet affords me some great cross-pollination. I get posts listed on the homepage a couple times a month, and I get readers when I’m linked to by Scot or Fred or Hemant. I have an editor who oversees my fit at Patheos. And she allows me to launch ancillary projects like #progGOD.

But I hate the ads. I hate them. I use an ad-blocker, so I don’t see ads on other sites. But I have the ad-blocker disabled for Patheos because I want to see the ads that run here. Sometimes they’re funny, other times pathetic. And sometimes they’re even for something that my readers might be interested in (you can buy ads to run exclusively on my blog, of you’d like — I think that’s a much smarter use of ad dollars than site-wide ads). And, yes, the pop-ups (or pop-unders) suck ass.

Sullivan has opted for a model not unlike NPR or PBS (personally, I support NPR, but not PBS — so I pay for Prairie Home Companion, but I’m a freeloader for Downton Abbey). In what would be a dream conversation at a coffee shop, Sullivan sat down with David Carr to talk about the model:

Carr: A year from now will be a nervous moment when you start looking at renewals. Maybe some people just wanted to date you, but didn’t really want to marry you.

Sullivan: And that’s O.K. If we weren’t meant to be married, then that’s fine. I’m perfectly prepared for this not to work. Our basic principle is we’re simply journalism going directly to a reader with nobody — no newsstand, no proprietor, nothing — in between. That is an honest free-market journalism, with journalists offering their wares on the street.

Carr: You make it sound so tawdry.

Sullivan: There’s nothing tawdry about offering your wares on the street. It’s how magazines and newspapers started. It is a model where the people decide and no one is in charge of the velvet rope deciding who gets to write or who gets the big writing contract or not. In some ways we’re breaking up cartels and creating a true kind of journalistic capitalism. Those sites that readers really want to stay in existence will have to earn that.

I had a quarter million unique visitors in 2012. I figure about one third of those are one person visiting the blog on two devices (since unique visitors is a misnomer — it’s actually unique IPs), so let’s say that 150,000 individuals came here last year. If each person gave $1, I could quit all my other jobs and blog full-time. But that will never happen.

20,000 of you visited this blog 200 times or more last year. That seems like the audience most likely to pay to read what I write. If those 20K readers paid $20/year, I’d make enough to get paid handsomely and have enough left over to have great tech support. But even that seems pretty unlikely.

So, for now, I’m happy to be at Patheos — to be in a blogging community and to be compensated based on Patheos’s ability to sell ads.

But, I wonder, what do you think about Sullivan’s foray into subscription blog reading? Would you pay for a blog like this? And, if so, which blogs would you pay for, and how many blogs would you pay for?

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  • Phil Miller

    Personally, when it comes to ad-free content, I like the This American Life or Radiolab model. They do solicit money from listeners, but you don’t have to donate to access the material. Some people will pay, and others won’t, but in the end, more people get access to the material.

    Personally, I don’t know if I’d pay money to access blogs or not. I’m probably not a dedicated enough reader of them to pay for that many even if they are relatively inexpensive. Ads on blogs don’t really bother me unless there of the pop-up variety.

  • Personally, I think sites that have a variety of choices are the best. Like The Young Turks or The Majority Report – they have free content, but they also have subscriptions to get access to more. I can’t think of a single blog, though, that I would pay very much – if anything – to read. I also don’t think I know anyone who would. I love Andrew Sullivan’s stuff, but not enough to pay for it. Maybe most blogs are doomed to suffer with ads.

  • As with anything, I only pay for what I consider to be a unique value. Would I pay for access to, or HuffPost, or Politico? Never. They are valuable to me, but they are not unique. Will I be paying for Andrew Sullivan? Yes. I will be. I’ve been reading his material for a decade and the information I read is a unique value to me. Would I pay for Theoblogy? Yes. I would. Because Theoblogy is a unique value to me, by which I mean your material is not so much informative as it is stimulating and thereby encourages some damned excellent conversation. That is its value to me.

    As for your unique visits, one thing to note: many of your readers no doubt use their mobile devices to view your site (I do this, though not very frequently). If they are on 3G or 4G networks while viewing, the network IPs may variously roam from day to day, and therefore will frequently appear as “unique” though the viewing activity is from the same individual’s device (also, many people use three or more devices these days, such as laptop, mobile, and pad). So while I am not sure what stat software you use to track visits, be aware that your unique visits are likely to be somewhat lower than what your software is indicating.

  • It’s probably worth noting that PBS and NPR receive funding from the government as well. Maybe if you mixed in some DoD propaganda you could get in on some of that action.

  • Pax

    I read tons of blogs, and if I had to p as y $20 f or each, I would probably just pick 1 or 2 (or 0). I just don’t have the budget for it. I don’t begrudge anyone who wants to move to a subscription service, I just won’t be buying.

    Also, there’s enough good free content that I wouldn’t really miss it if I had to axe one from my reading list. I doubt that this model would work unless some critical mass of bloggers moved to it or unless you were already really really big. I think it’d make other bloggers think twice about linking to you, and it would be tougher to grow.

    For what it is worth, I like ads (except pop ups).

  • Ken B.

    While I admire Sullivan’s move, it’s important to remember that he was one of those on the other side of the velvet rope. He’s starting with an audience he’d built up from a pre-existing, big media platform.
    I saw a guest on Charlie Rose the other night who foresees the internet as moving towards more deep content, for which I’m glad. So, there probably is a market for Sullivan’s undiluted, direct journalism.

  • Ken B.

    P.S. – I very much prefer reading this blog on Patheos over Beliefnet. I was glad for the move.

  • David

    In addition to government funding it is worth noting that npr stations do have advertising. The “sponsored” and “made posible by” messages that talk about a company, what tbey offer, and how to get more information sound like commercials to me. The only difference I see is that they are at the beginning and end of the shows. This is at least how it works with Boise NPR stations.

    • Ric Shewell

      Hey! I’m in Boise, too!

      I use 4 different devices regularly to browse and read blogs. I probably wouldn’t pay a required fee, but I might contribute to a blog or a network of blogs if I was asked for a donation. That’s more similar to NPR, I dontate, and I’m proud to, but I still have to listen to who their sponsors are. Ads, like David said.

  • Tanya

    What if you could pay (pick a number –$30 or $50?) for your favorite 20 blogs. Maybe not web-wide, but within the Patheos community, or under some other aggregate — political, or home improvement or something like that. $20 a piece is a lot, but if you got more than one page for an annual fee — it would feel like the old paper magazine model. You subscribe because every month there are several articles you’d read.

  • I really like Andrew Sullivan’s blog – I’ve been an RSS subscriber at least since it was hosted at the Atlantic, and of course I really like yours and have subscribed since it was at Blogger.

    In general, and especially as a designer who loves content and wants to treat people well, I’m a fan of membership models on sites. They tend to lead to deeper content, better user experience, less vitriolic comments, and less cheesiness for the sake of pageviews in the writing. I love all that. Best of all I love how Daring Fireball does it – RSS sponsorships, occasional t-shirt sales, and a single high quality ad allow him to keep his content free to non-members.

    But where I’m torn is that if all of the sites that are important to me were to stop free content/free RSS, it would be financially impossible for me. I could never afford to support them all, and so I’d have to read much less. On this side of such a hypothetical decision I feel like I’d be worse off if the web were to go that way. To say nothing of the growth I’ve experienced through them I’d also be missing many relationships.

    I guess it’s hard to say, though – maybe I’d have more time to engage with/further reflect on the few that I did support. It just feels so un-web like. So… not Homebrewed. Elitist is a strawman and I don’t think it’s the word I want, but it still feels like we’d be missing something.

    All that to say: I’m fascinated to see where the content/news/etc. based web goes in this sense, as the way it currently is isn’t sustainable and we all know it.

  • KRS

    Your site offers topics and discussions that are helpful to Christians seeking a broader approach to faith. They may not even realize what they are looking for or need. If sites are subscription based, it may exclude those who are searching, but not ready to whole-heartedly commit to specific approaches. I believe it would limit the breadth of discussion and exclude those who need it most.

  • AJG

    I subscribed to Sully. I’ve been reading his blog for over ten years. He’s fair, open-minded, and admits when he’s made a mistake and will to change his mind (e.g. Iraq War). He’s also excellent at what he does and provides interesting content.

    HOWEVER, he’s probably only one of a half dozen bloggers in the world who can do this on a sustainable basis. He was one of the first bloggers out there and has a huge following already. New or lesser-known bloggers don’t have this advantage. I think he can make it work, but I’m skeptical about this model expanding successfully. There’s just too much good free content.

  • AJG

    I subscribed to Sully. I’ve been reading his blog for over ten years. He’s fair, open-minded, and admits when he’s made a mistake and will change his mind (e.g. Iraq War). He’s also excellent at what he does and provides interesting content.

    HOWEVER, he’s probably only one of a half dozen bloggers in the world who can do this on a sustainable basis. He was one of the first bloggers out there and has a huge following already. New or lesser-known bloggers don’t have this advantage. I think he can make it work, but I’m skeptical about this model expanding successfully. There’s just too much good free content.

    • AJG

      Sorry about the double post!

  • I just want to echo what Jonathan Stegall said above. Of course I’d pay for what’s important to me! But I could never pay for it all. 20 bucks for Andrew Sullivan? Sure. 20 more for Tony Jones? Um… ok. Before you know it I’m having to choose between Tony and Scot McKnight and that awesome knitting blog I love and — in other words, if everyone did it, it would be unsustainable (Kant would have a field day).

    This is why I like what Patheos is doing, by gathering many voices under a tent to diffuse costs and share success. No one hates ads more than I do (I know you think you do, but it’s impossible) but it is organizing and enabling some structure on which a new economy could be built.

    Surely Patheos couldn’t do it if I paid them $20 (which I’d totally be willing to do). But could they do it if I paid $45? Might i be willing to do that? Hm, maybe I would, if that plugged me into a network of massive value for me (I won’t even pay for cable TV, so the bar for me is high). No doubt the Patheos eggheads are up late wracking their brains about this every night.

  • I think its an interesting concept and bloggers like Andrew Sullivan can probably get away with it for a while. To parrot what Dave H. says above, I actively follow 19 blogs and numerous more through the occasional twitter post or repost. If I were to pay $20 for each blog I want to read in addition to the monthly amount to allow access to the internet I would end up paying $920 just to read the blogs/news online that I want to read. In other words my wife would scream bloody murder and I would end up only paying for Tony’s blog (or maybe pay once for all of Patheos?).

    I hate the adds and pop-unders but at this point in time I’d rather deal with a little nuisance and be able to read whatever I would like than be restricted to only a select few.

  • T.S.Gay

    Although it may be the future, its a shame a wild/natural beginning, as it were, will become tamed,cultivated.
    So many interesting people- Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Ahteist, Secular, Jewish, Hindu, Pagan, Buddhist, Spiritualists. And so many nuances. This planet has been evolving for so long compared to the minutiae that is this spirt era. And the planet will probably go on without it. So I’m saying, I love the wildness of this beginning of our internet. To me, it’s like the USA wildwest era. I have this nagging idea that the internet will be part of the key to the unity of us spirits. And that as it evolves. This post today is just a small part of what is and will happen. But we have to help the result become a city on a hill, so to speak, and not a tombstone.
    I really don’t like the idea of being forced into some enclave of homogenous grouping. That’s already happened in too many cultures.

  • It’s working for Glenn Beck.

  • Tom

    As much as I do like to read your blog I wouldn’t pay to read it…that being said, I have bought your books as a result of reading your blog. I’m not sure there is any blog I’d pay to read. I suppose it would depend on the amount of content and varying writers. So…if you and Phyllis, Doug and a couple others each wrote…I’d consider purchasing a subscription.

  • Keith Rowley

    The problem for me is that I like to link to blog posts I like and with a subscription model the people who follow that link would not be able to access the content, unless you had some amount of reading you could do free before you had to pay.

    Another problem is getting paid content into a rss reader as I don’t like any site enought to go get the content. I want it delivered to me.

    • Sully has addressed both of these things: in-bound links will work to show posts, and he’ll continue to publish a full — and free — RSS feed.

  • Keith Rowley

    How many comment at least 10 times in the year on your blog? 20? 30?

    I think this may be a better metric than unique visits of people with enough interest to consider paying.

    (your site says my comment is too short so I am adding filler)

  • Dan Hauge

    I know this is a bit off the trail, but speaking of blog ads–my new favorite hit your site today–Oranum Global Esoteric Community. Live chat Tarot readings! Man, where does Patheos find this stuff?

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