Will the “purest, simplest model for online journalism” work?

by WAN-IFRA Staff | January 4, 2013

Over the last couple of days probably the biggest story among the news media commentators has been Andrew Sullivan’s decision to leave The Daily Beast and take his blog The Dish independent. Early stories reported that he had made the decision, then that he had raised $100,000 in less than 24 hours, then $333,000 and now, barely more than 48 hours after the announcement, he and his team have received more than $400,000 in advance subscription payments. This is still well before the actual switch to the new blog, which is due to take place in February.

Sullivan’s decision to shun advertising and the support of a big media company and revert to “the purest, simplest model for online journalism: you, us, and a meter,” has struck many with its directness. “As we debated and discussed that unknowable future,” Sullivan wrote, describing how he and his team made this choice, “we felt more and more that getting readers to pay a small amount for content was the only truly solid future for online journalism.”

The price point that the team chose – $19.99 – “seemed the lowest compatible with a serious venture,” Sullivan wrote. And although some readers feel it would have made more sense to go for a round $20, and others have taken advantage of the opportunity to donate more (in one case much more), the number of advance subscriptions that have been taken out suggest that it was a good place to start.

Sullivan told David Carr of The New York Times that his team have calculated they will need a budget of $900,000 a year to make the site work. Currently The Dish employs five staff and two interns.

“I’m perfectly prepared for this not to work,” Sullivan told Carr, but almost halfway to their goal in just two days, it seems likely that The Dish team will see their new going-direct-to-the-reader business model succeed, at least for their first year.

What everybody is wondering is whether this kind of non-subsidised, stripped-down, straightforward approach will work for others. As Mathew Ingram notes in GigaOm, The Dish’s move is compatible with the view of ‘post-industrial journalism’ presented in the Tow Center report by Emily Bell, C.W. Anderson and Clay Shirky, which sees the unbundling of content as a likely and necessary step for the future of journalism.

Part of Sullivan’s appeal is its personal nature – both because readers appreciate his writing in particular, and because he as an individual is directly asking his audience for their support. And this is isn’t a personal appeal from just anybody: he is a ‘blogging superstar’ with a reputation that not many can equal.

Is it the beginning of the end of the golden age for the blogosphere, as Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution wonders? Or is The Dish a one-off initiative that might be riskier than it sounds? As several commentators have said, just because people are willing to pay $20 for one site, it doesn’t mean that they will be prepared to do so for many.

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