As Andrew Sullivan prepares to stop blogging, a decision he announced in a note to his readers, many are trying to parse what this moment means for opinion journalism.
Is it the end of the blogging era?
Could The Dish survive without its headliner, like The Tonight Show after Johnny Carson? Or does this conclude an experiment in commentary and curation paid for by a community of readers rather than a collection of advertisers?
As for Sullivan, could stepping away from the news cycle afford him the sort of perspective that allowed, say, David Simon to create The Wire after leaving newspapers? Will he find that, despite his best intentions, he just can't quit blogging? Scores of different questions could as easily be pegged to this announcement.
For answers, I looked back.
* * *
In 2000, the year when Andrew Sullivan began blogging, AOL and Time Warner announced their ill-fated merger, The Tribune Company paid $8 billion for The Los Angeles Times and a collection of other media properties, and Internet penetration in the United States hadn't quite reached 60 percent of the population. Google AdWords launched that year. Facebook wouldn't exist for four more years.
That fall, Rebecca Blood published "weblogs, a history and perspective," tracing the format to 1997 and aptly describing it for the uninitiated. "Their editors present links both to little-known corners of the web and to current news articles they feel are worthy of note. Such links are nearly always accompanied by the editor's commentary," she wrote. "An editor with some expertise in a field might demonstrate the accuracy or inaccuracy of a highlighted article or certain facts therein; provide additional facts he feels are pertinent to the issue at hand; or simply add an opinion or differing viewpoint from the one in the piece he has linked."
These weblogs provide a valuable filtering function for their readers. The web has been, in effect, pre-surfed for them... By highlighting articles that may easily be passed over by the typical web user too busy to do more than scan corporate news sites... and by providing additional facts, alternative views, and thoughtful commentary, weblog editors participate in the dissemination and interpretation of the news that is fed to us every day. Their sarcasm and fearless commentary reminds us to question the vested interests of our sources of information and the expertise of individual reporters as they file news stories about subjects they may not fully understand.
That description of the format at its best holds up surprisingly well.
That year, The Daily Dish, as it was then called, consisted of a navy blue background with white type, and unfolded at a much slower pace than later iterations. Like much of the broadly political blogosphere, it gained both energy and a larger community of readers in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. And right from the start, Sullivan distinguished himself from many other bloggers by linking not only fellow travelers in whatever cause he was pushing in a given post, but also people who were vehemently disagreeing with or even cursing at him. (As a blogger who emailed Sullivan hoping he'd link me, I soon realized that he wouldn't stop sending traffic no matter how forcefully one criticized his ideas, a quality that I've always respected as much as anything he has achieved.)
In what seemed like big traffic numbers at the time, Sullivan counted 200,000 readers during a single month in 2002. When The New York Times published "At Large in the Blogosphere" that spring, it posited that "bloggers like to disagree, but they are unanimous about blogging's advantages over traditional journalism: greater looseness of spirit; openness to more points of view; a more conversational tone; and a compulsive honesty that has bloggers linking to articles in which they found their ideas." It also quoted detractors of the medium.
Sullivan's blog "sets a standard for narcissistic egocentricity that makes Henry Kissinger look like St. Francis of Assisi,'' progressive Eric Alterman, then at The Nation, declared. The criticism would be unthinkable today. Narcissism is relative, and we've grown accustomed to a world of daily "status updates," Tweets that alert thousands of followers to fleeting observations, and Instagram posts that display for far-flung acquaintances our favorite meals, pets, and offspring. If blogging is defined as it once was—personalized, conversational in tone, loose in spirit, open to broader range of views than mass media—then the era of blogging isn't over so much as almost entirely assimilated into mainstream media.
If blogging is "highlighting articles that may easily be passed over by the typical web user," every curatorial-minded Facebook and Twitter user is a micro-blogger.
And if blogging is a single individual filtering the world through their perspective in posts of reverse-chronological order? Well, that approach will continue to exist, too, but Sullivan shifted away from it long ago. To conflate the blog that he started in 2000 and the site that he runs today is to miss a significant evolution. "There comes a time," Sullivan wrote this week, "when you have to move on to new things, shake your world up, or recognize, before you crash, that burn-out does happen." This isn't a new insight. Sullivan understood from almost the beginning that The Daily Dish was unsustainable as a one man operation. At first, that meant his insisting on a month long break every August, when the blog went dormant. But soon enough, he sought help from other writers.
He was hardly alone in turning his site over to guest bloggers during subsequent vacations, but the evolution didn't end there. Around the time he was contracting with Time magazine and then The Atlantic to host The Daily Dish, he hired Patrick Appel, his longtime deputy, to read the entire Internet, pass along fodder, and later to prep skeleton posts that Sullivan would finish off with commentary. While an intern at The Atlantic in 2007, one of my many duties included drawing on years of reading Sullivan to pass along ever more fodder. After a stint as features editor of a short-lived web magazine, I briefly joined a growing team at The Dish full time, guest-blogging when Sullivan was on vacation and searching the Web in normal weeks for anything on which he could build a good post.
This personal tie to what became The Dish inevitably shapes my reaction to this week's announcement (though my role was insignificant compared to Appel, Chris Bodenner, and other staffers who deserve tremendous credit for improving the site). As Andrew's friend, I'm glad he has decided to make his health a priority.
May he grow old in our company!
As a 15-year reader of his blogging, I will miss the daily commentary and its powerful strengths, even as I look forward to future essays and books—mediums where his several weaknesses will be mitigated by time spent reflecting, editing and refining. Writer and musician James Poulos put it this way: "Andrew's combative, omnivorous mind is built to blog, but his heart has long beaten with a melancholy that the internet seems built to crowd far out of view. Like any student of Oakeshott, he knows that even small stretches of repose can open onto big, hidden vistas. I look forward to reading Andrew, so to speak, by the fire and off the clock."
As do I.
This moment is unusual in that it feels like a goodbye, even though Sullivan is very much sticking around. (Does anyone imagine that he'll be able to resist penning The Case Against Hillary?) What's less certain is the fate of the platform he built.
As an erstwhile Dish staffer and guest-blogger, and an avid reader of its current incarnation, with its masthead of thoughtful writers and expert curators, I urge Sullivan to consider that he could perhaps quit blogging and step back from The Dish while still acting as its publisher. "While Andrew can be vociferous with his disagreement," Megan McArdle, one of many writers who has guest-blogged for The Dish, told me Wednesday, "he has always had a remarkably generous spirit about sharing the attention he got—he sought out a wide range of opinions, including those that disagreed with him, and linked to as many voices as possible. That he also opened his own platform to so many of us was even more remarkable."
Perhaps The Dish could continue to render that service to rising writers and readers eager to discover them. With its eclectic history of guest-bloggers, one can imagine the site evolving into something like Saturday Night Live, with a guest host each week to put their stamp on the broadcast even as they work with a staff that keeps continuity and produces its own stars. It's hard to overstate how much such opportunities mean to young people struggling to make it in a field where getting recognized for one's voice and ideas isn't guaranteed. As a writer, I won over many a longtime reader thanks to my time at The Dish. There are a dozen writers who I follow each week that I wouldn't have discovered without it.
The community of Dish readers is another feature of the site that is worth conserving. They are a delightfully diverse group, possessed of a public-spirited willingness to share, via email, impressively informed, thoughtful perspectives on most any subject. Marijuana use as a successful adult, whether to spank children, the experience of having a late-term abortion—on those subjects and so many others, the Dish community has produced engaging collections of insight, debate, and personal narratives unlike any I've seen elsewhere. In attracting these correspondents and inspiring them to share their ideas across ideologies and identities, Sullivan mediated something that may well be impossible to recreate if it disappears.
"It’s hard to imagine The Dish continuing on without Sullivan, because the stand-alone Dish relied—for all of its independent revenue—on its readers’ loyalty to The Andrew Show," Michelle Dean, another writer who has guest-blogged on the site, opined in The Guardian. "This loyalty was not particularly elastic at the best of times. His audience was always small (only some 30,000 readers subscribed) if apparently influential." Perhaps she is correct, and my notion that the platform can continue to sustain itself without any Sullivan blogging is unrealistic.
But it is a testament to his skill as the editor of his own irreverent little digital magazine—and to the people he hired, the sensibility that he shaped, the diversity of views that he welcomed, and the liberal, enlightenment values that were his lodestar—that so many of The Dish's readers visited the site even when he was away. I needn't say anymore on the subject, because as ever, Sullivan's community of readers will weigh in with eloquence and originality in coming days. I'll read that correspondence wistfully, as if it were the last time, but I hope that it isn't.