The Sullivan Model: Journalism As Mutual Respect
Andrew Sullivan announced Wednesday that his blog, The Dish, will be independently operated beginning this February. Previously hosted by The Daily Beast, The Dish is set to adopt an emergent distribution model pioneered by comedian Louis C.K. Just over a year ago, C.K. conducted an experiment.
The experiment was: if I put out a brand new standup special at a drastically low price ($5) and make it as easy as possible to buy, download and enjoy, free of any restrictions, will everyone just go and steal it? Will they pay for it? And how much money can be made by an individual in this manner?
Enough money to attract attention. Crowdfunding wasn’t a new idea, but it hadn’t sustained entire careers yet either. C.K. made that seem possible. The Dish will borrow other distribution ideas too, like a pay-what-you-want (as long as it’s at least $19.99 per year) option popularized in part by the band Radiohead. It will take a page out of The New York Times and utilize a meter system to limit the number of Dish posts nonpaying readers can access per month, not counting posts reached via inbound links (think Twitter) and RSS subscription. The Dish team has long aggregated its content, and they’re seeing early success for aggregating their business model.
Basically, we’ve gotten a third of a million dollars in 24 hours, with close to 12,000 paid subscribers (at last count). On average, readers paid almost $8 more than we asked for. To say we’re thrilled would obscure the depth of our gratitude and relief.
I spent last summer working for Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo. 12 years earlier, Marshall and Sullivan each launched political blogs that are now independent online publications. In 2000, they led the industry to deliver news to readers for free, and they should be among the first to be recompensed for that service. If we pay for any news at all, we should pay journalists who are bold enough to sacrifice corporate loyalties to publishers, investors and advertisers in order to reaffirm their deepest loyalty — to you. In his declaration of independence, Sullivan outlined a new value system for journalism to strive towards:
Here’s the core principle: we want to create a place where readers - and readers alone - sustain the site. No bigger media companies will be subsidizing us; no venture capital will be sought to cushion our transition (unless my savings count as venture capital); and, most critically, no advertising will be getting in the way.
Sullivan has learned from a journalistic proverb, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product being sold.” In refusing to sell his readers to advertisers, Sullivan is challenging the traditional relationship between newsmakers and consumers. It’s worth mentioning that such a challenge can only be issued from a position of privilege (in all the examples I’ve given, those who have circumvented middlemen have done so after they’ve established success and even celebrity. You need a crowd to crowdsource). But when power created by readers is democratically returned to readers, it’s never really lost. As he put it, there will be “no safety net below [them] but you.” The Dish will reap more than the necessary funds from this journalistic trust fall. With each donation, Sullivan builds a more intimate relationship with his readers. As Ann Friedman wrote in a blog post Thursday, “They are invested in him as a person, not just as a conduit for ‘unbiased’ reporting.”
Journalists haven’t always appreciated the power of their personalities. Personality was a threat to objectivity. But as the myth of objectivity fades, the importance of personality must grow. Perhaps the biggest lesson learned from Louis C.K.’s experiment is that consumers will choose to pay for a product they could otherwise obtain freely if they respect the seller enough. Readers want content, yes, but they also want those they admire to succeed. Ask for help, and they’ll happily oblige. The newest journalistic principle should be mutual respect.