BuzzFeed, Andrew Sullivan, and the Future of Making Money in Journalism

The Daily Dish's business experiment matters to the future of the Daily Dish. BuzzFeed's business experiment matters to the future of online journalism.

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At first blush, they would seem to have nothing to do with one another. BuzzFeed -- the Internet's finest crackerjack box of sticky, clicky listicles sprinkled with original reporting -- announced that it raised $19 million in venture funding. In a far-away corner of the Web, Andrew Sullivan, the pioneering blogger who has expanded into a mini-magazine within the Daily Beast, announced he was taking his team private, forgoing advertising and venture money, and relying instead on all-you-can-eat subscriptions for $19.99 (or more, if readers felt generous).

It is serendipitous that BuzzFeed and Sullivan's Dish made their announcements hours apart, because their stories belong together even if their styles are opposite. The archetypal BuzzFeed article begins, "50 Puppies to Get You Through Your Bad Day: Bet you can't stop looking at these dogs." The archetypal Dish article begins, "The Future of the Welfare State, Cont.: Douthat counters Ezra [blockquote]." But both sites are doing something extremely correct, both sites entertain and inform a mass audience, and both sites offered fitting glimpses of the future of paid journalism -- or, more accurately, two halves of that future.

Let's start with the Dish. Andrew Sullivan's massively successful blog has taken a grand tour of old-school media, from Time, to The Atlantic, to Newsweek/Daily Beast. Flying solo, it will have to bring in somewhere around $1 million every year. Andrew's strategy is to junk the ads and raise the money entirely through subscriptions. Like, the model is a meter: After a certain number of internal clicks, you hit a limit -- no more click-throughs! -- and you're asked to pay (links from other articles around the Web don't count toward the limit). Andrew lays out the core principle:

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.

I don't doubt Andrew's sincerity, but this is a core principle motivated or reinforced by economic necessity. It's possible that the Dish could attract some independent advertising, but it would require a sales and marketing team, which has never been a part of Sully's stable. Furthermore, it's possible that the very thing that makes Andrew compulsively readable makes him a challenge to advertise. Fiercely independent, hyper-personal, and often unpredictable essays and amuse-bouche-links about politics and culture are not in the highest demand among tony advertisers, who have historically spent most of their money on sites and channels dedicated to business, technology, consumer products, or local needs -- none of which are really Andrew's forte. But all that doesn't matter a lick if readers are willing to pay. And they are. Twelve thousand readers subscribed at $28 on average through yesterday, bringing the Dish roughly 30% toward its one-year goal.

It's probable that the Dish can live a year on subs alone. It's plausible that the Dish can live for two years on subs alone, or three, or 30. But practically everything else -- the vast majority of journalism, from the New York Times to the pop culture blogs that specialize in bikini shots -- cannot survive on the good will and generosity of their readership, and there is no expectation that they will. Advertising is what makes news and entertainment -- first in 19th-century newspapers, then on early 20th-century radio, then on late-20th-century television, and now on early-21st-century Web and mobile -- affordable at a mass scale. The news needs successful advertising to breathe.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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