And in a note to me, Sullivan says:

we think of it as a meter which is only tripped when you click ‘read on’ for a full version of a longer post. most posts won’t have such a read-on, and all links to individual posts will be free. no one will ever be stopped when they come to the dish page. it’s a way like the NYT of getting revenue from our core subscribers while keeping much of the content free to everyone.

Still, the comparison to The New York Times metered model is significant. That one is generally considered a paywall, not a freemium model. Felix himself calls that one a paywall.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter. Maybe the term has outlived its usefulness. The Dish model is definitely asking, if not actually requiring, readers to pay for content. At the very least, it’s a clear move away from a free model, which typically is based on digital ads—entirely so most of the time.

Perhaps the difference is, as Felix says, that readers are being persuaded to pay but are not absolutely compelled to pay if they want to read everything for free.

5. Bonus reason why it’s all less significant than at first glance.

To a certain extent, Sullivan and his crew are, if not sui generis, an anomaly on the Web—one of only a handful of established bloggers able to draw what amounts to a mass audience, month after month, year after year.

In The Myth of Digital Democracy, published in 2009, Matthew Hindman assembles the data to show that, for a number of technical and cultural reasons, a small number of bloggers—and Sullivan was one of those singled out—dominate traffic heading to politically oriented sites. A lot of traffic goes to a few sites, while the vast majority gets very little. Hindman calls this the “missing middle.”

That’s why Sullivan’s experiment, even if it succeeds—and I wish him the best of luck—may not be as much of a bellwether as you might think, or hope.


Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014).

Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.