Sully’s Experiment

We’re all getting used to the gradual growth of paywalls for popular online content. And some of us have wondered whether the decline of some previously big and bad online media providers (say, the NewsBeast) might tempt some of their bigger draws to move elsewhere.

Still, Andrew Sullivan’s announcement today that on February 1 he’s taking The Dish to an independent, subscription-based operation–with, moreover, no advertising–is surprising and interesting.

He’s got a bunch of posts explaining how this is likely to work and fielding questions and suggestions, but it seems he’ll follow the Times pattern of providing some content for free and then charging subscriptions for unlimited access. He’ll dun you for twenty bucks a year, but will apparently accept lower subventions. So it’s something of a voluntary system, and you won’t even trip a meter and use up your “free” visits unless you choose to “Read On” and access full posts beyond the site’s front page.

I have no idea whether this will work, and it seems Sully doesn’t, either. He does have a vast readership, so I’m guessing he’s already calculated that a relatively low percentage of full subscribers would get him into the black.

But the experiment is certain to have an influence on how rapidly subscription-based content–or the technically somewhat different paywall, which bans access altogether to non-subscribers, sometimes after some free visits–spread, particularly among political news and analysis providers.

I definitely share Kevin Drum’s anxiety over the trend’s implications for bloggers:

From a purely selfish point of view, though, this is a trend that’s a real problem for blogging. I currently subscribe to three newspapers: the LA Times, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. This costs me over a thousand dollars a year, but I need to have access to all these sites to do my job decently. But as more and more media sites start erecting paywalls, I simply won’t be able to afford to keep up all the subscriptions. Andrew’s 20 bucks a year is obviously fairly small change compared to subscription fees from big media operations, but as more and more sites go down this path, my choices are going to get harder and harder.

This isn’t the biggest deal in the world at the moment. It’s just worth a mention. Blogging has always been critically dependent on having free access to a wide variety of media, since you need to trawl through huge amounts of material to find the occasional pieces you want to write about. But as free access gets rarer, blogging is going to get harder. I wonder what it’s going to be like a decade from now?

Yeah, I do, too. The Washington Monthly does not have a budget for subscriptions to other periodicals. I pay for New York Times out of my own pocket, and have resisted the temptation to pay for the WSJ, though in part that’s so as not to enable my sick addiction to Peggy Noonan columns. WaPo is reportedly on the brink of instituting a Times-style paywall, and depending on what they put behind it, that could have a tangible impact on my own work (I would give up access to the Post‘s editorial page quite easily, but not so much Wonkblog or The Plum Line).

Eventually someone’s going to figure out a reasonable way to recoup the cost of online content. Ads are clearly not the bottomless bonanza they once appeared to be. Politico’s got a successful model based on the unique circumstances of being able to charge lobbyists very high ad rates for a print edition circulated among DC policymakers. Everybody else is just scrambling. And Andrew Sullivan has as much right as anyone to find out the truth about how much people value his work.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.