Thursday, January 3, 2013

good luck to Sully, and to all

For awhile now, I've been expressing skepticism about the financial prospects of a lot of online media. The online advertising model seems broken for all but the most popular sites. There's an almost endless supply of free online content, and that means that while revenues have increased, rates have declined, making it harder and harder for individual sites to remain solvent on advertising revenue alone. From a simplistic supply-and-demand sense, there's just so much content, including tons of it provided by people who will willingly write for free. (Like me.) That's without even getting into the rise of adblocking extensions and add ons. Hamilton Nolan of Gawker-- a blog and a company run by a man who knows how to monetize online content, whatever else you want to say-- had a pretty good rundown of how online media is likely to go in the near future. I'm a little less optimistic than he is. I'm not sure that paid online commentary is going to be a viable career for more than a few hundred people in the future. But perhaps time will tell.

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.

18 comments:

paul h. said...

That's funny, I actually remember now, that's where I ran across your blog --- Rod Dreher was citing the initial Sullivan post that quoted you.

Anyway, I think that Sullivan definitely has enough dedicated readers to make his new venture worthwhile; but I strongly doubt that this model would work for more than a handful of bloggers.

Brett said...

If it all moves towards subscription models, then that would be journalism as a business coming full circle. It was mostly subscription-based until the rise of advertising-supported papers in the 19th century, and it could be subscription-based in the future.

Since most blogs aren't or will never be profitable for their owners, I suspect that little will change for most bloggers unless blogging itself goes out of fashion. Even in a situation where the online media most political blogs cite becomes tied up in paywalls, bloggers with subscriptions could link to each other (and blogs themselves might become more important for those who won't pay subscription fees, but can't figure out how to get past the relatively easy paywalls that most places have).

Alexios said...

"..his fierce commitment to looking anywhere and everywhere for fresh voices, quality writing, and provocative opinions is a profound credit to him."

Well put, Freddie. I would add that those are the very characteristics of the Dish that helped build it's readership. Sully is intellectually honest, airs dissent, and is always interested in fully exploring topics from any and all vantage points that are worthy of being part of the discussion. The Dish is a great filter that way, making it more than a mere editorial platform.

What it provides is more akin to "programming" than anything else. There is a new post every 40 minutes or so, from morning to late evening. There are regularly recurring features, some of which are interactive with the readers, helping build a sense of community. Those are some of the reasons why it creates so much value. He built and refined that programming over 12 years, incorporating the feedback of the community he inculcated. That value is the reason why he has the support he has, which is why this subscription-based venture will probably be viable.

The Kickstarter point is salient, but then again Sully spent the first 6 years without any corporate or institutional support (apparently) and therefore presumably with little remuneration. Maybe he's finally going to reap a big financial reward for hard work and intelligent strategic development of a platform that delivers a lot of value to a high number and diverse spread of people. That is indeed replicable, it's just takes talent, intelligence, hard work, and a lot of time devoted to fulfilling a worthy vision.

That's my take, anyway, for what it's worth.

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Freddie said...

I'm leaving this spam because it's amusingly apropos.

Anonymous said...

You are my favourite blogger. I've read you avidly for the past 3 years. I enjoy your prose more than that of any other blogger, and look up to the forthright way you wear your heart and convictions on your sleeve. I am having a tough time myself in my life, and reading your blog makes me happy. I can't offer any kind of insight apropos of viability of paywalls, this post is just to say 'thanks'.

Freddie said...

That means a lot to me, it truly does. Thank you for saying so.

Son_et_lumiere said...

I think something like what the Exiled crew are doing with NSFW Corp could work, since it's only $3 a month for access. And you get some great writers and reporters like Ames, Leigh Cowart, and regular War Nerd columns.

Something like that where the writing is real and personal, i'm far more likely to be interested in and pay money for than some lame old NYT articles or whatever.

Zac said...

I normally lurk here, but Paul reminded me that I also found your site, back in 2008, by way of the Dish, and I'm glad I did, because you're one of my very favorite writers online, and you're one of the few who regularly forces me to re-examine my own beliefs as a liberal and as a moral person in general. You provide a unique and valuable service. Thank you for that.

Alexios said...

Freddie,

I wholeheartedly agree with the complimentary sentiment(s) above. Moreover, I would've so agreed if all you'd ever written were merely one of these two exquisite pieces (for different reasons, mostly):

http://www.wunderkammermag.com/politics-and-society/forgetting-fundamentals-conservatism


http://lhote.blogspot.com/2012_03_01_archive.html

So thank you, Freddie. Thank you for your desire to share yourself & your thoughts, your honesty, and your effort & time. Thank God (or whomever you credit) for your talent, but thank you for sharing it with us.

Warm Regards,

Alexios

p.s. -- If the praise gets too saccharine for you, don't worry, I'm sure there are hordes of critics waiting to descend at a moment's notice. There always are whenever a strong voice disrupts the cacophony of consensus.

Alexios said...


Let's see if I can manage to successfully link to those pieces of writing (oops)...

not the moment you think it is

there





Alexios said...


One down, one to go. Here's the 2nd one:

Visit W3Schools

I think that should do it...

Alexios said...

Dammit. At least it links to the proper Freddie article, despite the ridiculous link title that got copied from the HTML example I used to figure out how to link in Blogger (should be clear by now I don't speak HTML). Ok, last try (crossing fingers):

there

Freddie said...

Thanks Alexios!

Peter Hoh said...

Freddie, what about a link to the original Sullivan link?

Freddie said...

If I can find it! Has to be at the Atlantic site somewhere... I'll look.

Anonymous said...

thanks for share.

James said...

As one budding academic to another, please please please avoid using 'Byzantine' as a dismissive putdown.

It's contributed to the preposterous extent of Western-centrism you see in perceptions of the medieval era for many years now, and is Orientalising.

I'm sure you get equally annoyed with people using 'rhetoric' as a put-down.