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January 02, 2013 6:15 PM Sully’s Experiment

By Ed Kilgore

We’re all getting used to the gradual growth of paywalls for popular online content. And some of us have wondered whether the decline of some previously big and bad online media providers (say, the NewsBeast) might tempt some of their bigger draws to move elsewhere.

Still, Andrew Sullivan’s announcement today that on February 1 he’s taking The Dish to an independent, subscription-based operation—with, moreover, no advertising—is surprising and interesting.

He’s got a bunch of posts explaining how this is likely to work and fielding questions and suggestions, but it seems he’ll follow the Times pattern of providing some content for free and then charging subscriptions for unlimited access. He’ll dun you for twenty bucks a year, but will apparently accept lower subventions. So it’s something of a voluntary system, and you won’t even trip a meter and use up your “free” visits unless you choose to “Read On” and access full posts beyond the site’s front page.

I have no idea whether this will work, and it seems Sully doesn’t, either. He does have a vast readership, so I’m guessing he’s already calculated that a relatively low percentage of full subscribers would get him into the black.

But the experiment is certain to have an influence on how rapidly subscription-based content—or the technically somewhat different paywall, which bans access altogether to non-subscribers, sometimes after some free visits—spread, particularly among political news and analysis providers.

I definitely share Kevin Drum’s anxiety over the trend’s implications for bloggers:

From a purely selfish point of view, though, this is a trend that’s a real problem for blogging. I currently subscribe to three newspapers: the LA Times, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. This costs me over a thousand dollars a year, but I need to have access to all these sites to do my job decently. But as more and more media sites start erecting paywalls, I simply won’t be able to afford to keep up all the subscriptions. Andrew’s 20 bucks a year is obviously fairly small change compared to subscription fees from big media operations, but as more and more sites go down this path, my choices are going to get harder and harder.
This isn’t the biggest deal in the world at the moment. It’s just worth a mention. Blogging has always been critically dependent on having free access to a wide variety of media, since you need to trawl through huge amounts of material to find the occasional pieces you want to write about. But as free access gets rarer, blogging is going to get harder. I wonder what it’s going to be like a decade from now?

Yeah, I do, too. The Washington Monthly does not have a budget for subscriptions to other periodicals. I pay for New York Times out of my own pocket, and have resisted the temptation to pay for the WSJ, though in part that’s so as not to enable my sick addiction to Peggy Noonan columns. WaPo is reportedly on the brink of instituting a Times-style paywall, and depending on what they put behind it, that could have a tangible impact on my own work (I would give up access to the Post’s editorial page quite easily, but not so much Wonkblog or The Plum Line).

Eventually someone’s going to figure out a reasonable way to recoup the cost of online content. Ads are clearly not the bottomless bonanza they once appeared to be. Politico’s got a successful model based on the unique circumstances of being able to charge lobbyists very high ad rates for a print edition circulated among DC policymakers. Everybody else is just scrambling. And Andrew Sullivan has as much right as anyone to find out the truth about how much people value his work.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • howard on January 02, 2013 7:33 PM:

    i personally don't read sullivan for free, so i'm certainly not going to pay for him, but the idea that you might subscribe to a magazine-like entity, so to speak, doesn't strike me as flat-out impossible, but there's a limit to how much success it can have given the likelihood that a very large amount of good quality content will remain available for free online.

  • emjayay on January 02, 2013 8:32 PM:

    The price of a good quality paper magazine, written by a bunch of people and edited by some others with maybe a bunch of cartoons or photos or artwork: $10 to $40 a year. Why would anyone pay $20 a year for the comments of one guy, on a blog which as far as I've been able to figure out has no comments, the best part of blogs vs. print media?

  • square1 on January 02, 2013 8:38 PM:

    Blogging isn't going anywhere. Frankly, I don't see the Sully/NYT model working long term. To be relevant you need to be discussed and linked to. Being locked behind a paywall is not the best way to be part of the zeitgeist. The NYT can get away with it in the short to mid term because, hell, it is the Times. Sully will be forgotten a lot faster if he puts too much content behind a wall. What's that saying about opinions? Everyone's got one. Most pundits that expect to charge for theirs will find out that someone else is perfectly willing to pontificate for free.

    As for Benen....sigh.

    Last time I checked, this is his JOB. If he was forced to subscribe to 100 blogs at $20 a pop, he would be laying out all of $3k/year in subscriptions, including his existing subscriptions. That's not exactly a career-crushing expense.


  • TomParmenter on January 02, 2013 9:05 PM:

    And then there's Josh Marshall's new first-class lounge featuring prominent personages prating personally to paying patrons.

  • HMDK on January 03, 2013 2:48 AM:

    Sully would have to pay me to read him, so...

  • max on January 03, 2013 5:36 AM:

    I pay for New York Times out of my own pocket, and have resisted the temptation to pay for the WSJ

    I refuse, outright and absolutely, to provide Rupert Murdoch with one thin dime. Or if I can possibly manage to avoid it (and I mostly do) one thin click.

    (I would give up access to the Postís editorial page quite easily, but not so much Wonkblog or The Plum Line)

    What we need here is for the NYT to buy the WaPo, and work out a massive trade with the Moonie paper so the WaPo is the Times, and the Moonie paper can be whatever the hell they want and they get Krauthammer and the usual sorts for FREE. Then the NYT can be my daily fishwrap, which would be a major improvement. (All they'd have to do would be to wrap the NYT front page (minus the Giants, Yankees, et al) around the ex-Post's Metro and Sports section.

    Boom. All fixed. (If they were smart, they'd eat the LA Times as well. The Village Voice had the right idea, but maybe the wrong niche.) I would be very happy to stop paying money to Kaplan and pick up the FT instead.

    As for Sully, well, he's doing the right thing. What we are really seeing here is the slow migration away from the various old gray lady models of newspapers and towards something entirely different, which in turns means maybe one newspaper survives (and that's going to be the NYT) which can then pinch run for an American BBC.

    I don't think it's going to matter to bloggers that much in long run, provided that the bloggers aren't trying to compete with Tiger Beat on the Potomac.

    max
    ['It's all an economy of scale thing.']

  • anandine on January 03, 2013 9:03 AM:

    I read Andrew pretty much every day. He's the fiscally conservative balance to my inherent tax-and-spend liberalism, without being socially conservative, which I have no use for. But I don't like him enough to pay to read him. Maybe I'll try Frum as an everyday conservative read.

  • zyxw on January 03, 2013 9:33 AM:

    There's too much free content out there for any but the true believer's to subscribe to an opinion blog. Sure, Sullivan may make enough to make it work for him, but he will be preaching to his own choir.

  • Lynn Anderson on January 03, 2013 11:59 AM:

    I'm someone who sometimes disagrees with but always enjoys Sullivan. I read his blog faithfully and didn't hesitate to subscribe - relative to what I'm paying for magazine/newspaper subscriptions and cable, the asking price seems quite reasonable.

    But I don't think his move has larger meaning. For me, Sullivan is an anomaly. I'd have a hard time going through my day without reading his blog. But others? I'm not going to throw $20 at every blogger, newspaper or website I read. Call it what you will - meters, paywalls - as soon as I have to open my shrinking wallet to access an article, chances are I won't be reading it. Case in point: I used to check out the WSJ editorial page daily. No longer. Living without it hasn't been that difficult.

    The key difference here is a strong emotional identification with the product (in this case, Sullivan. Glenn Beck is another example of someone who's succeeded with this model). But most sites don't have a devout fan base. Readership may be broad but it's also shallow. Ignore that and charge for content and many web outfits might find themselves sitting alone in their rundown virtual shops, waiting for someone to walk through the front door.