Andrew Sullivan’s popular political blog the Daily Dish is going indie. In a “Declaration of Independence,” Sullivan announced plans to leave the Daily Beast behind and implement a $19.99-a-year subscription model. It’s not a “paywall,” Sullivan emphasizes, but a “meter,” allowing non-paying members to read a limited number of full stories before being cut off. External links from other blogs or social networks will not count toward non-members’ allotted total.
Sullivan explained the move, writing, “We want to create a place where readers — and readers alone — sustain the site. No bigger media companies will be subsidizing us; no venture capital will be sought to cushion our transition (unless my savings count as venture capital); and, most critically, no advertising will be getting in the way.”
The reaction from media observers was all over the map. When the New York Times’ Jordan Cohen asked his Twitter followers what blogs were worth paying $20 to read, some said none. “Foreign Policy” managing editor Blake Hounshell showed skepticism, Tweeting, “If @Sullydish freaks out about Obama, but it’s behind a paywall, does it make a sound?” Meanwhile, the Investigative News Network’s Adam Schweigert Tweeted, “Great. Now thanks to
@sullydish, every blogger will put meters on their blogs just like every local paper thinks they’re the NY Times.”
Schweigert makes a good point. Andrew Sullivan isn’t some pajama-clad mouth-breather toiling away in his mother’s basement. He’s an industry veteran who edited The New Republic before the word “blog” even existed. When Sullivan left the Atlantic in 2010, his blog had 1.2 million visitors a month, and since joining the Daily Beast, that site’s traffic grew from 2.8 million uniques to 5.7 million as of last November. And while his heady brew of opinion and aggregation may look like the little blog you started out of boredom, Sullivan practically invented that style and has since perfected it.
Of course It’s not just Sullivan’s size and reputation that make him uniquely positioned for the move. As Radiohead, Louis CK, and everyone who followed in their footsteps learned, there’s value in being first. It may work for Sullivan (and judging by the fact that he’s signing members up at a rate of 36 per minute, to the tune of at least $100,000), but the next high-profile blog to embrace meters will miss out of the novelty of being first.
OK so let’s get this straight… Unless you’re a blogging sensation AND you have a time-machine to go back and do it first, you shouldn’t add a paid membership or meter to your blog, right?
Not necessarily. Look at Ben Brooks of The Brooks Review. Last July, Brooks abandoned ad-supported monetization in favor of a unique membership model. It’s neither a meter nor a pure paywall. Brooks lets non-members access everything on the site, but only after it’s been up for seven days. And while Brooks says via email he’s only been able to convince 250 of his 8,200 RSS subscribers to pay, he recommends the model to fellow bloggers.
“The brilliant part about any paywall is that it always works no matter the size of readership. Even if you only have one member, you’re getting paid.” Sure, Brooks is making less money with the membership model than he was with advertisers, but the paywall lets him concentrate on writing, not pageviews. He’s relieved to finally leave the advertisers out of the equation.
“Ads, all ads mind you, are ugly. They have to be in order to get your attention. Moreover they’re often in the way of reading. If the blogger is filling ad slots himself, then there’s the added problem of biases. How do you write something negative about a product or company when they are the one paying you to write?”
For even more proof that a small operation can make money directly from readers, look no further than the 2001-version of andrewsullivan.com. Back when the blog was just starting out, Sullivan raised $7,000 in 3 months through reader donations. But that was before what Sullivan’s mix of opinion and aggregation became Standard Operating Procedure for so many other blogs. And some of these competitors are just as good at what Sullivan does, like “New York Magazine”‘s Daily Intelligencer which will serve as a more-than-apt free replacement for readers who don’t want to shell out $20 a year.
And therein lies the biggest problem with Sullivan’s approach: People will pay for longform journalism or stunning interactives like the New York Times’ “Snow Fall,” but will they pay the aggregators, when free social and algorithmic tools help fill that void? Or the opinion-holders, of which there’s certainly no shortage on the Web? I’m not saying aggregation, when done right, doesn’t have value, And Sullivan and his crew are among the best at what they do. But oxygen has value too, and no one pays for that. We only pay for what we can’t get for free.