What Andrew Sullivan's Subscription-Only Model Says About Advertising & Social Media

So the year begins with us not driving off the fiscal cliff, due to a quick left turn at the very end. Phew!

But only hours later, online advertising was effectively thrown under the bus by my favorite blogger, Andrew Sullivan -- and for online advertising, and social media types, this might end up being a cliffhanger. (Argh. Sorry. Had to go there.)

Sullivan, and the small band of editors and interns on his Daily Beast-hosted blog, The Dish, started 2013 by saying they were breaking from the Beast and going to a subscription model. More importantly for those in digital advertising, the new will be a subscription-only model, $19.99/year.  No advertising. Period.

Sullivan said in a lengthy post yesterday:  “The decision on advertising was the hardest, because obviously it provides a vital revenue stream for almost all media products. But we know from your emails how distracting and intrusive it can be; and how it often slows down the page painfully. And we're increasingly struck how advertising is dominated online by huge entities, and how compromising and time-consuming it could be for so few of us to try and lure big corporations to support us. We're also mindful how online ads have created incentives for pageviews over quality content.”



For those of you who don’t follow The Dish, a quirky mix of politics, poetry and threads on topics such as “The Weed Gender Gap” and “The Hobbit’s Unanswered Violence,” this may sound like folly. But the Dish has a devoted, large following. During the almost two years that the Dish was connected to the Daily Beast, the Beast’s overall traffic more than doubled, from 2.8 million to 5.7 million, per comScore. But the more impressive figure to me is that the average Dish reader spends 17 minutes per day on the site, a stat that advertisers will soon be unable to exploit. Readers, meanwhile, seem to be responding. In the first 24 hours, even though only 12,000 people – or roughly one percent of its monthly audience -- have bought subs, the site is closing in on a gross of $350,000.

I’m both someone who wants to see online advertising be worth the space it takes up, and an Andrew Sullivan fangirl (or Dish-head, as the site’s rabid followers are termed). But even when I put my ad-wonk hat on, I can’t argue with, well, Sullivan’s argument about eschewing advertising. I’m not as myopically focused on my own personal enjoyment of the Internet to deny that advertising usually needs to be part of the mix; but I’m also painfully aware of how lacking the model is on so many levels – particularly for consumers and for most publishers.

In the three-legged stool that is supposed to be the advertising ecosystem, two of the legs are shaky.

If you’re reading this column, you’re probably wondering when I’ll get around to discussing what this has to do with social media. Well, it’s fascinating to ponder the ramifications of unplugging from the traffic imperative, and how, suddenly, social media doesn’t matter as much if you’re no longer looking it as an essential distribution channel that leads to more pageviews that leads to more ad revenue.

Before I go on, I should point out that Sullivan is not doing a full disconnect here. The subscription-only blog really follows a Times-ian model in which outsiders can freely link to the blog and regular visitors who don’t pay up will find it’s a metered approach, which essentially means content is free -- until it’s not. Still, when ad revenue isn’t the goal, the importance of social media is still desirable, but diminished. Social-media-fed traffic may have a small, and hard-to-measure, impact on subscription revenue, but there is no direct transference, as there is with pageviews to ad dollars.  The focus moves more profoundly to pleasing the users who want to pay for the site, and expanding in a more thoughtful, and dare I say, organic, way.

It should be obvious that if Sullivan’s subscription-only model works, it won’t kill online advertising or social media. But what does it say when a subscription-only model is potentially the best way for a popular blogger to make money? Nothing very good about the industries in which so many of you spend your time, I’m afraid.

(I left one question unanswered in this column: am I going to pay my $19.99/year? You betcha! The only question is whether my husband and I will buy separate subs to support our dual Dish habit; we haven’t had time to discuss it yet.)

3 comments about "What Andrew Sullivan's Subscription-Only Model Says About Advertising & Social Media".
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  1. Benjamin Bloom from, January 3, 2013 at 5:56 p.m.

    Andrew Sullivan has an energetic following, and was doing "social" things without "social" functionality as far back as when he was at the Atlantic: like the fan-mail photos of views from his reader's windows, and allowing comments only by email. What Mr. Sullivan built is a community, with its own rules of engagement.

    It's clear that those members of his community who value his contribution and community management style have flocked to the new site. A triumph for a well-managed and engaged community, I think.

  2. David Carlick from Carlick, January 3, 2013 at 8:05 p.m.

    Publishers have long been arrayed in a spectrum from subscription only (newsletters) to half ad, half subscription (long Time Magazine's ratio) to advertising only (trade publications with controlled circulations). If it is easier to get good money out of readers than out of advertisers, then that is the way to go! And by the bye, Catherine, always enjoy your thinking.

  3. Cynthia Anderson from Post Graduate Student, January 4, 2013 at 12:29 a.m.

    I thoroughly enjoy your posts over all others from MediaPost. Can't wait to read your incites to Sullivan's messages via Dish if you become a subscriber. Best wishes for the new year to you and your family

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