Blogger, writer, pundit (though he’d probably wince at that third term) Andrew Sullivan has taken an uncertain financial certain and made it even more uncertain, and exciting. He’s leaving a cushy (presumably well-paid) spot blogging at the Daily Beast and is striking out on his own, with this staff, ad-free, surviving solely off of subscriptions.
I’ve written before about the financial difficulties of running a small online media venture in the post-Lehman world. There’s a lot going against you. Not the least of which is the fact that, as I mentioned the other day, advertising is dying as a financial model. That’s why you’re hearing more and more about your favorite sites holding fundraisers, and others going “premium” in some way or another. In a nutshell, the bubble of free quality Internet content is bursting, fast.
I read a tweet yesterday that ticked me off. It was from a young guy working for a well-known online media venture, who tweeted that he’d never pay money to read a Web site (you could practically hear the disdainful stress he put on the words “never” and “Web”). And a lot of people wouldn’t. “Why buy the cow?”, as they say. We’ve all gotten accustomed to – spoiled by, even – free quality content across the Internet. Even I’m guilty of it. I stopped subscribing to the Washington Post four years ago. Why pay for it, I figured, when I can get it for free online.
It was, in retrospect, a dumb idea for the Washington Post to offer paid subscriptions at the same time it was offering the exact same content for free. It almost seems idiotic, in retrospect, to think the result would have been anything but ever-decreasing revenue and profit.
The blogs started differently. We didn’t get into the game expecting a profit. We have something to say and the Internet let us say it. As our readership and influence grew, so did our time commitment, and the desire, but also the need, to monetize a venture that was transitioning from a part-time hobby to a full-time job. At some point, when you’re working continual 14 hour days, you either need to find a way fund yourself or find another job. And for a while, advertising filled the financial void. It permitted us to work, and grow, the Netroots, and become a powerful and influential force in American politics.
Then came Lehman, and four years later, we’re all – from the biggest news site to the smallest blog – trying to figure out how to make a living when online advertising is dying, or at the very least has fallen and doesn’t look like it’s ever getting back up.
In Andrew Sullivan’s case, the proposed solution is subscriptions, a bit New York Times-style, but less restrictive. You’ll still be able to read the content on the home page, and any longer articles (presumably with a “read more” button) will require a subscription. But, you can still read all the content via RSS, or via an outside referral (i.e., a link fro twitter or another Web site). Andrew reports that during his first day he raised over $100,000. And that’s pretty amazing, considering he asked for $19.99 a person. One donor even gave $10,000.
Felix Salmon of Reuters estimates that for Andrew to run his venture, including paying seven staffers, will cost $750,000 a year. So while $100,000 in one day is a darn good start, Andrew will need to keep it up in order to fund his venture for an entire year, and then he’ll need to start all over again next year.
I don’t know what the answer is. I stopped doing regular fundraisers years ago, when advertising became a serious way of funding our operations. Those days are over, and we’re fundraising again. We’ll also considering other more-creative ways of raising money for specific aspects of the blog, and will hopefully announce some of those soon.
I don’t know what the answer is. And maybe, as some (younger) people have said to me, our current predicament is neither good nor bad, it’s simply change and progress, and will eventually lead to something new and better. I hope that’s true. But I worry when I see publications like Newsweek assimilated and shut down, and when newspapers across the country are cutting back and turning off. It is definitely a new era. I’m still struggling to see it as better.