No more sugar daddies

Andrew Sullivan turned his popular blog into an independent, reader-supported site

Andrew Sullivan’s decision in January to leave the Daily Beast and turn his popular blog, The Dish, into an independent site that relies on reader payments of $19.99 a year (or more, if they choose; no ads, at least for now), touched off a lively discussion among media obsessives. Will this experiment in free-market journalism work, and no matter the outcome, what does it say about the future of the trade? Sullivan, in many ways, is sui generis. He was one of the first mainstream journalists to start blogging, back in 2000, and he has built a large and loyal following—a real community of people who share his interests (everything from politics to poetry), and his take on those interests. The question is whether that’s enough to support a business that currently employs seven people. As Sullivan put it, “We have almost no precedents for where we want to go.” CJR caught up with Sullivan via email in mid-January.

You reached $400,000 in the first week. How long till you raise the next $400,000 (or if you’ve already reached it, how long did it take)? It slowed down after an initial rush for pre-subscriptions. We won’t know the final number until we’ve had a few weeks with the meter installed. Right now, people are paying in advance. 

What kind of revenue do you need to break even? We made a conservative estimate of around $900,000 for all expenses for seven staffers, design, tech, legal expenses, health insurance, etc. 

Do you have a personal traffic goal? What were your traffic numbers at Daily Beast? In other words, what will success look like? Not really. We’re moving away from measuring ourselves by pageviews or unique visitors, and toward maximizing reader enjoyment. But we have had an average of around 1.3 million unique visitors a month in the last few months, and around 10 million pageviews. In October, we got over 18 million pageviews—but that was election-related, obviously. 

Will we see more original analysis and less curation? We will continue to do both, which is our specialty. But we will probably focus the meter on the original content. 

How many posts do you have a day, and how do you decide when to weigh in and what to ignore? We typically have roughly 40 to 50 posts a day, or around 240 a week. I just write about what interests/angers/amuses/frustrates me. And my team does its best to find things online that will do all of that.

Will guest bloggers now be paid? Nope. We don’t really have guest bloggers anymore, because we now have a staff that can carry The Dish when I’m on vacation or sick, like now. 

Will any current features (e.g., the Ask Andrew Anything videos) become exclusive subscriber content? No. There will be no premium service with extra goodies. We are offering The Dish as it is for $19.99 minimum, although a full half of our readers choose to pay more. How much further we can go depends on our budget for the year. Our immediate goal is to do this and be able to pay the rent. That’s our own rent. We won’t have an office.

What advice do you have for other bloggers who are thinking about going indie? Go for it. Any journalists not open to radical change right now are in danger. We realized the status quo was more treacherous than this gamble. And if we fail, we will have at least tried. We hope we succeed—largely because it might create a path for more bottom-up journalism, since the top-down version is on life support.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.