Andrew Sullivan, for those not familiar with the blogger’s work, is Christopher Hitchens 2.0: a professional provocateur who delights in pissing off both the Right and Left. Although he still identifies as a conservative — he backed the Iraq war, is wary of universal healthcare and is opposed to progressive taxation — Sullivan has supported Democrats at the last three presidential elections. He’s pro-gay marriage, against the “war on drugs” and believes abortion is morally wrong.
He is, in other words, anything but predictable.
Yet he managed to stun media watchers around the world earlier this month by announcing he would take his highly-read blog, currently housed at The Daily Beast, independent. In a seemingly unprecedented move, Sullivan’s ad-free blog will be run under a New York Times-style metered model, with regular readers asked to pay $20 a year for access. Was this the ultimate act of hubris, many wondered, or a sign of things to come?
The experiment, so far, seems to be working. Sullivan is on track to reach his first-year funding goal of US$900,000 after raising a third of that sum within 24 hours after announcing he was going solo.
But even if he pulls it off, Sullivan’s strategy appears unlikely to be reproduced successfully any time soon — especially in Australia.
“I doubt there’s another blogger in the world who could do what he’s doing,” he said. “Even Andrew Bolt [described by News Limited as the country’s most-read political blogger] would struggle if his sole source of income was what his readers were willing to cough up.”
Sullivan, as Dunlop points out, was one of the first writers to grasp the power of the blogging medium. The bearded Brit set up his first blog in 2000 while working as editor of the New Republic (where he gained notoriety for publishing extracts of The Bell Curve, which argued genetic factors could help explain IQ differences between races). After six years running his blog independently, Sullivan spent the next six blogging for Time, The Atlantic and The Daily Beast.
His following is enormous, international and devoted, with readers spending an average of 17 minutes a day on the site. Sullivan himself is scarily prolific, uploading 240 posts a week.
“There just isn’t another writer or blogger around the world who churns out the amount of material he does,” Dunlop said.
Former Australian political commentator George Megalogenis, who ran the popular Meganomics blog for five years, argues the economics of charging blog readers don’t stack up in smaller markets like Australia.
“I can’t see how you could maintain the thing at a salary replacement level,” he told Crikey. “I don’t think you could make it commercially viable for the amount of hours you would have to put into it.”
Getting 10,000 readers to fork out $10 a year, Megalogenis says, would be a big achievement for an Aussie blogger. But a $100,000 salary wouldn’t be enough to entice a top commentator to ditch a job in the mainstream media — especially when you take salaries for support staff and website maintenance into the equation. Writers such as Bolt (who is travelling and unavailable for comment) would also have to consider the downside of giving up the influence that comes with a regular newspaper column.
Megalagonis also has other doubts about the enterprise. “Even if you could make it pay, I wouldn’t be convinced the relationship is pure,” he said. He worries charging for access could lead to bloggers pandering to their readers rather than provoking them.
Sullivan, a shrewd marketer, is proceeding carefully by keeping his meter as porous as possible. As he explained on his blog The Dish:
“Our particular version will be a meter that will be counted every time you hit a ‘Read on’ button to expand or contract a lengthy post. You’ll have a limited number of free read-ons a month, before we hit you up for $19.99. Everything else on the Dish will remain free. No link from another blog to us will ever be counted for the meter – so no blogger or writer need ever worry that a link to us will push their readers into a paywall. It won’t. Ever. There is no paywall. Just a freemium-based meter. We’ve tried to maximize what’s freely available, while monetizing those parts of the Dish where true Dishheads reside …”
He’s even admitted the new meter won’t affect his site’s RSS feed — meaning cheapskates can continue to read as much of his content for free as they like. As Jack Shafer points out, Sullivan is selling something “much more ethereal than a magazine subscription”: he’s offering a sense of community, of being part of a bold new experiment. Whether readers still want to pay when all the hoo-ha has died down is another question.
“The real test won’t be year one but year two,” Dunlop predicted. “[But] if anyone can do it, he can.”