On January 2nd, Daily Beast blogger Andrew Sullivan announced he was making his popular blog, The Dish, entirely independent. Starting in February, the Dish will not be partnered with another publication and will not have any advertising. The site's maintenance, as well as the salaries for Sullivan and his staff, will be sustained entirely by reader donations.
It sounds very risky but at the moment it seems to be paying off. As of the writing of this column, the Dish has raised $440,000. Sullivan is aiming for $900,000 and they are well on the way to reaching that goal before the transition in February.
What would it take for Sullivan's success be replicated by other bloggers? He has an advantage because he has had 10 years to cultivate his audience and has done so across multiple sites, including The Atlantic and now the Daily Beast. He has managed to keep a large audience despite the moves and changes overtime.
While he is taking advantage of the fact that more people are reading news online, Sullivan's greatest asset has been not shying away from infusing the blog with his personality and niche interests.
Sullivan is fortunate to be writing at a time when more Americans are getting their news from the Internet, especially young Americans. According to a recent Winston Group survey, 41 percent of all Americans get their news from the computer. Among Americans who are 18-34 years, the computer category commands a majority: 57 percent. Within this demographic, only 33 percent get their news from television.
This is an interesting but not a sufficient explanation. If it is easier to read online news and the overwhelming amount of online content is free, why would anyone pay to sustain a blog?
The other reason for the blog's success has to be Sullivan's willingness to let his blog be a peek into the worldview of ... Andrew Sullivan, with all the eccentricities and changing opinions that come with it.
The blog may ostensibly be a political blog but many of the topics on the blog are surprisingly personal. In 2012, he used his platform to vent about why he disliked moving to New York City:
Scalding hot water comes out of the cold faucet—randomly. And the space we live in is one fifth the size of our place in DC. Just to walk a few blocks requires barging your way through a melee of noise and rudeness and madness. And a glance at your bank account shows a giant sucking sound as the city effectively robs you of all your pennies at every juncture. When you're there for a few days or a week, it can be bracing. But living with this as a daily fact of life? How does anyone manage it?
Even his political posts are emotional. The blog was back in the spotlight after Sullivan gave a dramatic and strongly negative reaction to Obama's performance in the first presidential debate in Colorado:
This is a rolling calamity for Obama. He's boring, abstract, and less human-seeming than Romney! I can't even follow [him] half the time. Either exhausted, over-briefed ... or just flailing. He is throwing this debate away.
I'm trying to see a silver lining. But when a president self-immolates on live TV, and his opponent shines with lies and smiles, and a record number of people watch, it's hard to see how a president and his party recover.
After 10 years of blogging Sullivan has shown a willingness to reinvent his blog on a whim, and occasionally start a new quixotic crusade. He has tried to get Sarah Palin to release medical records related to the birth of her son Trig (while also questioning her parentage). He turned the blog into a platform for the Green Revolution in Iran, giving revolutionaries a forum to communicate and disseminate information and videos. In the midst of this, he still issues daily "awards" for controversial or insightful comments made by public figures, regularly posts his favorite YouTube videos, and has his readers send in views from their windows.
I don't agree with many of Sullivan's views but I have to credit to his mastery of the blogging platform. It is easy to go online on and read anything on the Internet for free. It is much harder to keep an audience and build a following.
Sullivan's strategy of treating the blog as an outlet for his own personal interests has proven itself to be a successful way to stand out. Only he could create the blog's eclectic content, and that is something people will pay for.
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