Andrew Sullivan and the Future of Blogging

Andrew Sullivan and the Future of Blogging January 7, 2013

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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