Bloggers and Paywalls: Can It Work?


Article ImageWhile the newspaper industry has been embracing the need to charge readers for online content, bloggers have been more hesitant to take the paywall plunge-for good reason. More often than not, bloggers just don't have the audience or name recognition needed to convince readers that their content is worth paying for. But on Jan. 2, 2013, pioneering blogger Andrew Sullivan announced that his popular blog The Dish was leaving The Daily Beast to move to its own subscription-supported model. The media pounced on the news, debating the merits of Sullivan's move. While the discussion continues, it's likely that it will be a while before we know if his bold move will pay off.

Sullivan announced the mechanics of his subscription on his blog: "Our particular version will be a meter that will be counted every time you hit a ‘Read on' button to expand or contract a lengthy post. You'll have a limited number of free read-ons a month, before we hit you up for $19.99 [for a year's subscription]. Everything else on the Dish will remain free. ... There is no paywall. Just a freemium-based meter. We've tried to maximize what's freely available, while monetizing those parts of the Dish where true Dishheads reside. ..." The metering started in February.

Sullivan had been contemplating the move for a while. When his contract with The Daily Beast was up at the end of 2012, he decided to go "rogue," as one blogger put it. He is trying to "break new ground" so his operation won't be beholden to a large media company or advertisers.

The Dish has a large operation for a blog, with a paid staff of seven, and he said he needs to raise around $900,000 annually to keep The Dish independent. While the site initially won't have advertising, which he described as "distractive and intrusive," he hasn't completely ruled out ads on The Dish.

Newspapers, faced with years of declining advertising and subscription revenue, have happily discovered that metered subscriptions can be a substantial source of new revenue. "The big breakthrough, and I think everyone agrees, after years of hemming and hawing and many years of experimentation and a failed attempt in the mid 2000s, was when the New York Times uncorked its metered system in 2010," says Dean Starkman, who runs The Audit, the business section of the Columbia Journalism Review. "No one knew whether that was going to work. As it turns out, as we now know, it's worked much, much better than anyone could have hoped. The entire newspaper industry took confidence from that. The industry has adopted it, the metered digital subscription, and it's rare that a major paper doesn't have one."

The model has worked so well for The New York Times (NYT) that, for the first time ever, the company is expected to make more money from digital subscriptions than advertising, according to Bloomberg.

But will it work for The Dish? Versions of the metered subscription have been around and have been successful for several years. Maria Popova's Brain Pickings blog has a virtual tip jar instead of a paywall or meter, with a small note requesting a donation or monthly subscription. The note explains that Popova doesn't take ads and that it takes more than 450 hours a month to produce the site. She's been successful, according to Felix Salmon, the finance blogger at Reuters. "I think that Maria Popova has proved that it's possible to do something like this, to be ad free and reader supported," he says. "I think it's important to be an individual as I don't think a corporation can do it as easily. Consumer Reports is doing it, so it can be done."
In theory, anyone with the time and access to a computer can start a blog and start collecting money. But it's not that easy.
What makes Sullivan's move unique, and perhaps more likely to succeed, is his unique pedigree. He's been blogging for more than 12 years and has shown a mastery of the medium. The Dish gets 1.5 million unique visitors per month. That body of work is not easy to replicate, according to Starkman. "He's really good and it's not an accident that he built up this following," he says. "Twelve years is a long time. The mainstream of the Internet was just getting under way. There were blogs before him but not many; it was a very new form."

The larger question is whether other prominent bloggers will follow Sullivan's lead, like the newspapers that have started charging for content after NYT's successful use of the metered subscription. Starkman says no.

"Sullivan's move was sort of part of this general trend. Now people are thinking, ‘Wow, not just news organizations, now the first blogger.' Is he going to be the tip of the spear, is he going to be like the New York Times was to the newspaper industry? I don't think so, but here's hoping, right?" In other words, there are millions of bloggers, but there aren't millions of Andrew Sullivans.

If this is the future of journalism, Starkman is all in. "It's almost the ideal, hyper-democratic model," he says. "The trouble is Sullivan is an anomaly on the internet in certain important ways. Also, we're talking about a small, small shop, and one that is not even devoted to newsgathering. He's an aggregator and a commentator."

Will he succeed? "The easy answer to that is, ‘Let's find out in a few months' time,'" Salmon says. "Andrew himself has said that even he won't know if he can make this work until February or March at the earliest."

Starkman hopes Sullivan does succeed: "In the end, the Sullivan system is almost the purest expression of a good model as it's not dependent on anyone in particular but it's dependent on everyone individually and equally."

So far, he's off to a good start. Sullivan had reportedly raised $440,000 by the end of the first week of January, almost half of his goal. Perhaps the sense of community he has created at The Dish will cause readers to open their wallets.