the audit

Andrew Sullivan’s bold experiment

And how to think about it
January 3, 2013

The great journalism paywall debate has picked up steam lately as more newspapers move away from the idea of giving away content for free in favor of a metered model for digital subscriptions, which charges readers after allowing a limited amount of access.

But the decision announced yesterday by Andrew Sullivan, one of the grandfathers of the blogging business, marks a departure in several important ways. For us here at The Audit, the urgency of the paywall debate has centered on the fate of regional newspapers—established, large news organizations like the Times-Picayune and The Washington Post, for whom the free model was wildly inappropriate, for reasons we’ve discussed.

But Sullivan’s move to break from The Daily Beast and go it alone is different because his Daily Dish isn’t a news site but a classic blog—running commentary on the news with a high degree of interaction with readers. This is a form born on the Internet and, for that reason, associated with the ethos of free content that for a while seemed built into the very structure of the Web. As we now see, the free ethos was in fact culturally determined, just something that a lot of people decided, and not inherent to news on the Internet.

So here are a few reasons why this will be an experiment to watch, plus one bonus reason why it’s less a bellwether than it might first appear:

1. It’s a blog. Again, this strikes me as a big deal. So far, news sites that are charging at least could argue that they were offering original reporting or new facts. It may not be much at times, but it was something. Here, the offer is original insight and voice. That strikes me as a departure in the paywall debate.

2. No ads. For me, this was a “wow” decision since, as Sullivan says in his announcement, digital ad revenue “provides a vital revenue stream for almost all media products.” At first glance, digital ad revenue seems like money on the table that any site would want to pick up.

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But as Sullivan testifies, ad revenue isn’t free money after all:

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 pageviews over quality content.

The last point is one we’ve been arguing about on a theoretical level. And here is now another data point that points up the built-in tension between free and quality work.

3. The no-ads decision makes this pretty much a pure bet on quality. With no alternative revenue stream, the site’s fate will be determined entirely by individual readers’ decision, after the free clicks run out and the paywall pops up, whether or not to pay. Whether the decision will be based on the quality of of the posts themselves or the quality of the overall experience, or something else, is an interesting question. But the pay model is designed, as Sullivan says, to support quality work.

4. The term “paywall” is becoming increasingly less useful. Sullivan says flatly, “There is no paywall. Just a freemium-based meter.” It’s a question of definition, I suppose, but readers will be allowed to click through a “read on” button lengthy posts only a limited number of times, “before we hit you up for $19.99.”

That sounds like a wall.

Felix Salmon says the fact that the entire site is available for free, via a full RSS feed, means it’s not a wall per se.

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.