Andrew Sullivan, one of the earliest political bloggers and always one of the best, says he’s betting on his readers in moving his prominent Daily Dish blog to a “freemium” system (much free, some paid). Actually, he’s betting on himself.
To be still more accurate, he’s betting on himself and two colleagues – Patrick Appel and Chris Bodenner, who are departing the Daily Beast, the blog’s current home – to do more than create a sustainable business for themselves. If they can pull it off, they’ll help demonstrate that the broader journalistic ecosystem is evolving in sustainable ways.
Sullivan’s announcement Wednesday was a semi-shocker. Though he’d started out more than a decade ago as a solo blogger, he’d gone on to a series of partnerships with major media organizations, including Time, the Atlantic and, most recently, the Daily Beast (which acquired Newsweek and then, at the end of 2012, shuttered it). Sullivan explained that now was the time to return to independence.
The payment system is a lot like the one at the New York Times, which is really more of a suggestion wall. As Sullivan explained:
“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 .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!”
The Times model, in turn, has a lot in common with National Public Radio, which thrives on two main revenue sources: big donations from corporate or philanthropic funders, and small donations from listeners. The Times, a for-profit operation, gets money from advertisers instead of large donors, but its paywall – which is: read this many stories free, then buy a subscription – is deliberately porous and simple to circumvent.
In a key decision, the new Dish says it won’t accept ads. The downside is obvious, namely leaving essential-to-survive money on the table. The potential rewards are real, however: a deeper bond with an audience that is already among the most devoted around – in part because readers have a sense that Sullivan is willing to go where the facts, as opposed to the dollars, lead him.
I would assume that Sullivan and his colleagues are looking, meanwhile, at other revenue sources. In this new ecosystem, we all have to look at and try just about everything on the business side of our journalism world, not just the content side.
Indeed, the new Dish’s business experiment includes a partner called Tinypass, a software startup that’s creating a payment platform for independent content creators. It promises both to make it easy, and not annoying, for audiences to offer their financial support, and to take a smaller cut of the proceeds than the competition. While I like the idea of Tinypass, I have no idea if it can get traction, much less scale up to support many, larger media businesses. Again, though, it’s part of an emergent media ecosystem that is growing more diverse and interesting by the day.
Sullivan is far from the first to move to a paid model, of course. Other bloggers have moved toward payments in a variety of ways, using a variety of platforms and methods. There are promising signs that it can work.
A key question is just how many individual sites people will pay for. Sullivan’s a year rate is cheap for one, but non-trivial once you start subscribing to lots of people. One thing I’d bet on is alliances among bloggers where we can pay a lot less for a grab-bag of sites, on the theory that many more people will be willing to join that way, creating win-win-win situations. Again – and I can’t use this word enough – the more experimenting and innovation the better.
I’ve followed Sullivan’s blogging from the beginning, initially because he was a member of a then-small tribe of people (I counted myself among them) who were using the web to create what we considered an evolved media form. In particular, it was immediate and conversational, with the benefits and risks that such a thing entailed.
I’ve often disagreed with Sullivan’s politics, but I always respected his passion, astounding energy and willingness to engage. I’m subscribing today.
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