What Andrew Sullivan taught us about paywalls and independent journalism
In a video-recorded interview with the Nieman Foundation in 2013, Andrew Sullivan recounted how, in 2000, he received the “light bulb idea” to start his own blog. He was in England, traveling from London to Oxford, and while at the train station he happened to see a stand with copies of the Evening Standard, which is an afternoon paper. “And I just realized that journalism has always produced material around the clock. Why don’t I just start writing at different times and provide the readers with the kind of journalistic service that the London papers are doing?”
So began an era. Over the next decade and a half, Sullivan would gradually build a massive audience, helped in part by having his blog syndicated on major news websites like Time, The Atlantic, and the Daily Beast. In 2013, he announced that he and a small editorial team would launch a standalone, independent news site, generating revenue by way of subscriptions. His theory was that he had enough dedicated readers who would be willing to pay to read his content, and he was correct. The site generated about a $1 million a year in revenue, enough to sustain him and his staff.
Then, this week, Sullivan shocked the media world by announcing he would cease daily blogging, citing the enormous pressure of producing round-the-clock content and a desire to write longform essays and books. The move produced no shortage of think pieces not only about Sullivan’s impact on the media and journalism, but whether or not his model proved that independent journalism can produce a sustainable business. While I tend to agree with those who do think there are valuable lessons to be drawn from his experiment, I think it should be done with several caveats. Sullivan’s endeavor, while successful, was in many ways unique and could not necessarily be emulated by someone starting out in journalism today.
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So here are some lessons we can draw from Sullivan’s two-year stint as an entrepreneurial blogger:
Establishing an online brand takes time
Andrew Sullivan didn’t start his blog from scratch and then suddenly begin raking in money. Not only had he been blogging for 14 years, but he had been an established journalist for years before that, at one point serving as an editor at The New Republic. And during those 14 years he was blogging he hosted his blog on the websites of major journalistic institutions, which not only endowed him with more legitimacy but also helped in attracting readers. There are very few writers on the web who have had that kind of prolonged exposure, and so the launch of any new website is unlikely to be met with an instant audience, much less one willing to pay to read your content.
Cut out as many middlemen as possible
Part of the reason that Sullivan’s venture was successful was because it had little overhead, and he knew from the very beginning that he would need to cut out as many middlemen as possible if he wanted it to work. Generating a million dollars a year in revenue sounds impressive, but that number gets chipped away at pretty quickly the more people you need to hire. Sullivan wasn’t bogged down by the institutional costs that plague many legacy media outlets — he basically just needed a computer and somewhere to host his website , and all other overhead went to his editorial staff. He didn’t have to hire an ad sales team or pay for a printing press or rent trucks to deliver papers to newsstands. I’m not even sure that he needed to rent office space; I’m guessing most of his staff worked out of their own homes.
Paywalls can work, but…
Yes, Sullivan and a handful of other news outlets have made digital paywalls work, but it continues to be a tricky endeavor. It’s now commonly accepted that if you’re going to have a paywall, it needs to be a leaky paywall, one that allows visitors to read a certain amount of content before they need to pay up. And even with this strategy there seems to be a ceiling. The New York Times, which has one of the most successful online paywalls, has begun to plateau at around 900,000 subscribers. Yes, that’s impressive, but that means nearly everyone else is likely to see subscription numbers far south of that. Even at his most successful, Sullivan was only able to amass 30,000 or so paying subscribers.
Also, while it’s easy to get people to try out a subscription, getting them to renew is much harder. Sullivan saw about an 83 percent renewal rate. It seems paywalls are a sort of novelty where people are willing to pay up to try it out, but when it comes to renewing they’re more likely to assess whether they got their money’s worth the prior year.
Leaky paywall or not, it’s still pretty damn hard to get people to pay for text-based news content online.
An advertising model is also hard
Unless you’re willing to create the kind of clickbait content that generates millions of pageviews, achieving the kind of scale needed in order to make enough money on ads is near impossible for a small, independent outlet. Sullivan decided early on that he wasn’t interested in producing this kind of content and so chose to forgo advertising completely. Even if you do achieve web traffic scale, there’s no guarantee that you’ll have the ads to populate your site, especially if you’re not willing to hire an ad sales team (which creates additional overhead).
The content churn can be draining
Even without the viral aggregation, Sullivan’s output was draining. In his post announcing his quitting, he specifically cited the pressure of producing daily content and how this discouraged deeper thinking and longform writing. Independent news outlets typically have small staffs and there’s a lot of pressure to constantly produce new content so it’s waiting for your readers when they return every day. The fewer staffers you have, the more pressure on each one to carry his or her weight.
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Speaking of staffers, I think it’s important to address something about Andrew Sullivan’s success that may not have been immediately obvious for his more casual readers. Because of the way his site is structured — his name in the domain and an illustration of him at the top — it would be reasonable to conclude that any particular post you were reading was written by him. But starting sometime during his days at the Atlantic, Sullivan began using interns to produce unbylined content for his blog, a move that some people (including myself) found a little shady. To be fair, these days he credits his staff in the masthead and will sometimes reference them in posts, but for the most part it can be difficult to discern whether a post was written by him or someone else. The reason I bring this up is that Sullivan has created an exaggerated perception of what one person can accomplish on his own, mostly because a lot of what he accomplished wasn’t done so on his own.
Which is to say that his experiment would have likely turned out much different if he was just a lone blogger. Many of you who are perhaps thinking about quitting your journalism jobs to run your own standalone websites should keep this in mind — even one of the most popular bloggers in the world who benefited from widespread media coverage when he decided to go out on his own needed a staff in order to produce a sustainable business model. I’m not writing this to discourage your dreams of journalistic entrepreneurism, but rather to state one obvious but important truth: Not all of us can be Andrew Sullivan, so we should take any “lessons” from his experience with that in mind.
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