The big news of the new year – for those of us in the online world anyway – is that Andrew Sullivan is leaving Tina Brown’s Daily Beast and taking his blog independent again. I’m not sure anyone should be surprised by this. Although Sullivan’s site has been hosted by a succession of media “brands” his own “brand” has become steadily stronger than those of his hosts.
You weren’t reading Time or the Atlantic or the Daily Beast you were reading Andrew Sullivan and it just happened that these other organisations were kind enough to host Sullivan and his team. They may have helped Andrew’s audience increase but it was increasing anyway. They have now served their purpose and Andrew is returning to the independent world. I suspect that being his own boss suits him better anyway.
Of course, he’s returning to independence with a staff of seven now (two of them paid interns) whereas back in the pre-cambrian era his two “pledge weeks” each year only needed to support himself. Everything was smaller and fresher and newer back then. I suspect he only needed $50,000 then whereas he’s hoping to raise about $1 million now.
And, like Felix Salmon, I suspect he’ll get it. In the first place, he has about a million visitors a month. Secondly, the paywall he’s introducing is, at $19.99 for a year, eminently affordable. Thirdly, it’s so porous that you can avoid it if you want. This, however, is not the weakness you might think it to be. Andrew is betting that a sufficient number of readers are so fond of his webzine that they pledge their support. Not because it brings them any obvious “reward” or because they have to be if they wish to read his stuff but because they will want to be members of the club. Not just members but full members. This is the great advantage of a personal – as opposed to a corporate – brand. The connection, especially for those of us who have been reading Andrew for a decade or more, is much stronger.
I think it’s sensible too that Andrew is choosing to relaunch his site without advertising. Again, it makes it clear that the bond is between the blogger and his readers. We’re all in this together and if you don’t support the venture then it fails. No advertiser – who anyway pays much, much less than you think – is going to bail us out.
This is bold too and not something, I think, that newspapers or magazines could do. But it makes sense for individuals who have their own following. How many of those are there? Not that many. But I suspect many bloggers could perhaps raise more money from an annual “pledge week” than they suspect. Not enough to compensate them for all their time but enough to make a difference. I think – actually, I just hope – that some goodly proportion of readers (at whatever “level” you’re at) appreciate that, at some point, not everything can be free and that even “amateurs” catering to small or specialist audiences merit some compensation for the enjoyment they provide.
I don’t talk to the bosses here at the Spectator about the business side of things very much because, well, it’s not my department. I like to think that making the website “free” to readers helps promote subscriptions to the print edition. (Have I mentioned that you should subscribe? Well, you should.) The days of giving away the entire magazine for free each week have gone and, frankly, not before time. At the very least, however, the introductory offer of 12 issues for £12 is too good to be refused. You’d be supporting this blog – in some small measure at least – by subscribing.
I don’t suppose Andrew’s move will start a large trend of bloggers leaving the media platforms that signed them but I wouldn’t be surprised if some did. At the very least I suggest that his newest venture merits your good wishes and, if you read him regularly, your support too.
Of course I would say all that. Sullivan has been a blogging trailblazer and many of us are in some way indebted to him. Secondly, he’s been kind enough to link to me quite often. Thirdly, I’ve guest-blogged for him on a number of occasions. So I’m not a wholly disinterested observer in this.