The announcement today that, at the end of its contract with The Daily Beast, Andrew Sullivan is taking his Daily Dish blog independent, and plans to support it with a metered subscription costing $19.99, has been treated, with some justification, like a major development. It’s rare to see a blogger who’s been fortunate enough to make it into the mainstream publishing apparatus decide to leave it and return to the independence and risk of the early days of the blogosphere. And Sullivan’s decision will be an important test case for what price readers assign to his site, and how many of them place a specific monetary value on the Dish at all. But it’s important to recognize that, while it’s a big deal for this particular blog, the choice to take the Dish independent and what happens afterwards shouldn’t be overinterpreted.
“People form an emotional relationship with the site and have a sense of belonging and take pride in being able to support something they enjoy,” Brain Pickings editor Maria Popova told the Guardian last week of the reason she relies on subscriptions rather than advertising to support her site. “It’s the same reason people have been donating to public libraries for centuries.” But that emotional connection that allows some sites to survive, that allows Louis C.K. to make an enormous amount of money from independently distributing a special and selling tickets for his tour, or that allows certain projects to be funded almost immediately on Kickstarter is also a reason that many publications won’t be able to get by solely on the passion of their audience. Or, as Time’s James Poniewozik put it on Twitter, “Less interested in whether ppl willing to pay for @sullydish blog than how many total blogs they’d be willing to pay $20/year each.”
It’s great for Sullivan and company, whose support this blog has benefitted a great deal from over the years, to go independent, and I heartily hope they succeed. But I hope their business model becomes sustainable not because I think we need it as a sole light forward in a dark publishing landscape. Rather, I think we need a lot of models, so new entrants into the market have lots of paths to sustainability. Some products that have been prestige for the entire run of their existence, like The New Yorker, will be able to flourish in their walled gardens without ever venturing out into a more open marketplace. Others, that have both passionate and casual readers, and perform the services both of delivering basic news information and offering up longer, more proprietary analysis, like the New York Times and the Dish will do well with metered models. Projects like ThinkProgress and Pro Publica, which want a certain amount of independence from corporate interests and protections from the vicissitudes of the advertising marketplace, will successfully justify their necessity to a variety of non-profit funders. Rather than aiming to be among the most privileged and valued of products and individuals from the start—a position that guarantees financial support, but that doesn’t clarify the nature of the product they’re distributing—publications and content distributors would do better to know the fundamental nature of their business, and to choose a revenue support model based on that.
The success or failure of the Daily Dish’s meter model will tell us something about what kind of support a site with that sort of brand, longevity, and audience can expect to muster, just as the Times’ paywall has given us similar data for large, long-established newspapers, and Talking Points Memo did for the reported news site that grew out of Josh Marshall’s blog and discussion community. But it shouldn’t have to be a litmus test for the future of online journalism. Instead, this should be a reminder that we’re at the beginning of a long period of developing new business models out of the decline of one old one.