What Andrew Sullivan's New Venture Could Teach Us About the Web

He hopes to prove that "an independent site, if tended to diligently, can grow an audience large enough to sustain it indefinitely."

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Before Andrew Sullivan got paid to host his blog at Time, The Atlantic (where I worked on his staff), or The Daily Beast, he posted at a simple Web site of his own creation, its background dark blue, its text white, and its pitch simple: if you're a regular reader, please help support the The Dish. "Donations from loyal readers are a crucial component of our budget and make it possible for our site to remain on the web," he wrote to mark his five year anniversary as a blogger. "If you like andrewsullivan.com, please consider becoming a supporting member with a contribution of $20 or more. We welcome all contributions large or small. How much should you contribute? Your call entirely. Contributions both large and small are welcome. If you're an occasional reader, consider the basic pledge of $20. If you're a daily reader, why not give $50?"

All these years later, the pitch isn't so different: on February 1, Andrew Sullivan, Patrick Appel, and Chris Bodenner, as formidable a blogging team as has ever existed, intend to leave The Daily Beast in hopes that The Dish can stand on its own. Rather than seeking investors or advertisers, they're asking their core readers to pay $19.99 per year to cover their salaries and expenses. "The decision on advertising was the hardest, because obviously it provides a vital revenue stream for almost all media products," Sullivan wrote. "But we know from your emails how distracting and intrusive it can be; and how it often slows down the page painfully. And we're increasingly struck how advertising is dominated online by huge entities, and how compromising and time-consuming it could be for so few of us to try and lure big corporations to support us. We're also mindful how online ads have created incentives for page-views over quality content."

I paid for The Daily Dish back in 2001.

Blogs weren't really on my radar when I began my autumn abroad in Seville, Spain. But the September 11 terrorist attacks caused me to return to Internet cafes far more often than I would've otherwise. What's happened, I would often wonder, in the few days since I last logged on? It felt strange to see the U.S. changing from afar, to wonder how it felt to be there. In hindsight, I see that I was seeking a connection to home, a feeling of community, as much as information. Little wonder AndrewSullivan.com met that need more than the dry prose of newspapers. I gave during the next pledge drive. It was the first time I'd sent anyone money on the Internet.

Years later, as an intern at The Atlantic, I met Sullivan and began sending him links to items about which he might want to blog. Patrick Appel sat in a nearby cubicle, desktop computer running, laptop also open, looking as if he was constantly attempting to read the whole Internet. (He was.) At that point, having read The Dish for years, having met the man who created it, having sent him links that he turned into posts, and having watched his right hand man hard at work... at that point, I thought I fully understood The Daily Dish, but I was missing something crucial.

I'd never seen the reader e-mail.

Wow is it important. It's easy to see Sullivan's talent and charisma. Though casual readers may forget about Appel and Bodenner, anyone who has ever blogged for a living appreciates how masterfully they curate the Web each day. What's invisible to almost everyone, as the Web gossips about whether The Dish can succeed or not, is the character of its core readership.

I finally saw the reader inbox in all its glory while guest blogging for Sullivan as he vacationed. It's a gig I did several times, all of them while The Dish was hosted here at The Atlantic. I've never received so much delightful correspondence. The Dish readership is massive, highly educated, ideologically diverse, employed in a stunning array of fields, and spread out across the world. Of course, those same attributes characterize the readership here at The Atlantic, and I've gotten tons of wonderful emails in the course of my current job, but something about the blogger's personal, informal tone inspires correspondence of a different character. Compare the comments on the average item here at The Atlantic with the loyal readers Ta-Nehisi Coates has cultivated in the comments section of his blog, where it's more like an intimate community.

At The Daily Dish, I once asked readers in advance of a road trip across The South what I should see. I didn't just get hundreds of suggestions; I didn't just get extended essays on the geography, sociology, and competing styles of barbecue that characterize the region; I didn't just get notes from people in eleven states; I also got invitations to stay overnight with Dish readers in a dozen cities, or to stop by for dinner at the houses of their parents, or to please write if I passed through where they live so they could at the very least buy me a cold beer. I was just a guest blogger. I don't doubt that Sullivan could live rent free for five years if he asked nicely.

If The Dish succeeds, it will be partly because Sullivan has cultivated the loyalty of a readership sufficiently active to make possible A View From Your Window, a daily feature on The Dish; sufficiently interesting to author The Cannibus Closet, a book authored by Dish readers; and because Team Dish figures out how to keep getting gold from that community going forward (finding the questions that elicit the most interesting answers; and keeping it fun and natural to respond). That singular community is one of the most unique assets possessed by the enterprise.

Felix Salmon has more on this point:

The purpose of what Sullivan calls "a freemium-based meter" is emphatically not to keep people out: it's not a wall. Rather, it's a mechanism for allowing Sullivan's most loyal readers to pay him for the content they love. So far, about one third of them are paying more than the $19.99/year headline price: they want to support this project, he doesn't need to threaten them with some kind of if-you-don't-pay-me-you-won't-be-able-to-read-my-stuff pitch.

The real parallel here is not media paywalls so much as it is Kickstarter projects. It feels good to support something you love and admire -- it feels much better, indeed, than paying some kind of sticker price for the same thing. Sullivan's price point of $20/year is very close to the $25/year cost of subscribing to Newsweek, which Sullivan is now leaving. But the two payments feel different: it's the difference between paying an individual and paying a faceless corporation. And although Sullivan is doing this on an unprecedented scale -- he has a significant staff now -- this kind of model is not unprecedented. Jason Kottke tried it way back in 2005, and Maria Popova has been doing something very similar for a while. The only real difference is that Sullivan is being a little pushier about asking for money, and making it a little bit difficult for very regular readers of his website to read absolutely everything without paying.

I very much want The Dish to succeed. Andrew is a friend. I'm a huge fan of what Patrick and Chris do. I'm a regular reader. I'm a staff alum. And I want lots of diverse journalistic ventures to flourish. As a media observer, I'm also curious to see whether The Dish is going to change as an editorial project now that the incentives of the people assembling it every day are different. Page views matter less. Core audience matters much more, especially the ones willing to pay most. Does that mean marginally fewer posts of more depth? Or is the current mix going to be stable?

Or will The Dish change in completely unexpected ways?

(It always has.)

It'll be exciting to watch and see.

Finally, I wonder how relying directly on readers, rather than on intermediaries (like advertisers or Tina Brown), might change the pressures felt by a blogger. Sullivan's understandable desire is total independence. But perverse incentives are inescapable. Earlier in his blogging career, Sullivan, formerly a War on Terror hawk, turned against the Iraq War and the Bush Administration generally, an editorial shift that surely changed his readership. It seems like that sort of editorial shift might feel easier to execute with a multi-year contract from an ideologically diverse magazine than it would while counting on a subscriber base. I have no doubt that the non-subscription Dish, as it exists now, would be just fine if Sullivan turned on Obama.

Would The Dish as it exists a year from now be fine if that happened?

I think so. I hope so. I'm not sure.

Sullivan is incapable of holding his tongue when he feels passionate about something, whether it's trailblazing gay marriage advocacy, crucial anti-torture polemics, or absurd Sarah Palin conspiracy theories. So if he changes his mind about anything major we'll find out what happens. And no matter what the future holds, Sullivan is once again poised to teach us all something about the Internet. As he put it, "If this model works, we'll have proof of principle that a small group of writers and editors can be paid directly by readers, and that an independent site, if tended to diligently, can grow an audience large enough to sustain it indefinitely."

In that worthy attempt, I wish Team Dish all the best.