That pessimism, however, should not be seen as advocacy. I begrudge no one their career in writing, or journalism, or politics, or media, or the arts. I want a broad, diverse online media as much as anyone. And the forces that I see making paid online commentary harder and harder affect writers I love as much as those I dislike. Recently, Jacobin and The New Inquiry have held subscription drives, looking to support themselves and their writers; Digby, for my money the best political blogger there is, has held her annual funding drive. What's unspoken but apparent to me: it's hard. It's very hard to make this sort of financial stability happen. That's particularly true of a publication like TNI, which started out as a venture of people who weren't initially concerned with profitability and only wanted to make something work making. I want so much for all of them.
I say this in the shadow of a much-discussed move by Andrew Sullivan, and his (sizable for a blog) staff of seven, into direct self-publishing and metered access to his content. Sullivan has taken pains to say that it's not a paywall, and as others have noted, it's still perfectly easy to get access to the Dish's content without ponying up the $19.99 (or more) for access. Like a lot of paid content now, the model is really more of a patronage/support/charitable investment one than a traditional buying and selling model. Is that sustainable? Hard to say. As Alyssa Rosenberg points out, this sort of thing has the same fundamental limitation as Kickstarter: it's far easier for people who are already established to get funded this way, when of course the people who most need funding are often those at the beginning. But if anyone has the power, scope, and reader loyalty necessary to make this kind of thing work, it's Sullivan.
Now: I owe something to Sullivan, and here it is. In the post announcing this move, Andrew writes
The point of doing this as simply and as purely as possible is precisely to forge a path other smaller blogs and sites can follow. We believe in a bottom-up Internet, which allows a thousand flowers to bloom, rather than a corporate-dominated web where the promise of a free space becomes co-opted by large and powerful institutions and intrusive advertising algorithms.If you'll forgive me for being self-centered-- I can scarcely imagine a blog that is more emblematic of this commitment of Sullivan's than my own. I started this blog in 2008 at a tough time in my life. I was poor, unhappy, and directionless. (I'm still poor, but now I'm happy, and I have at least a plausible vision of my future life.) I literally started this blog at a public library, here on Blogger's free platform using Blogger's free server space, with no connections in media or journalism or commentary, no published work, and seemingly no entrance into the Byzantine and cliquish world of professional media. I had little thought of anyone reading this blog. But within two weeks or so of starting it, Andrew Sullivan had linked to one of my pieces, and from their came far more clicks, links, and attention. My readership is small, but it is committed, and while I am terrible at communicating with people who thank me for my work, their support means everything. This is still an amateur blog, one for which I have never received a dime, although I have had people buy me books from my Amazon wish list, for which I'm immensely grateful. That amateur status suits me fine, both pragmatically and theoretically. But to be in the conversation, to have the ability to weigh in and be listened to-- that's a blessing, and I owe it to Andrew and his deep commitment to equality on the level of ideas. Whatever disagreements I may have with Andrew or with the Dish as an entity, his fierce commitment to looking anywhere and everywhere for fresh voices, quality writing, and provocative opinions is a profound credit to him. When it comes to writing, he is truly an egalitarian. More than anything, that commitment, and the workload it requires, will be his enduring legacy. I can only thank him and his staff and wish them all the best.
Everyone is grading on a curve, here. Right now is the time of well-wishes and optimism; later comes the gas bill. It says an awful lot that Felix Salmon saves "The big unanswered question about Sullivan’s business model is how the economics are going to play out" for his seventh paragraph. (The economics of a new business model-- seems important!) The fact that Salmon and other professional writers are lauding this move and sound a note of optimism speaks both to their very real admiration for Sullivan and to their pressing need for a new model, one on which their professional futures rest. Into that optimism must be injected caution.
I very deeply hope that Sullivan and his underbloggers are financially secure in the coming years. My prediction, were I forced to make one, would be that he will eventually catch on with another established media venture that has the war chest to adequately fund him and his staff. That's just an appraisal based on the difficulty that any new venture like this will face. But who knows? If they pull it off, I'll be the first to applaud, and my pessimism has been proven wrong many times. Here's to the wild chance.