Two months ago, the popular political blogger Andrew Sullivan left the comfortable world of big media and struck out on his own. His bold new plan: Ask readers to pay $19.99 a year or more to subscribe to his blog.
"It was either quit blogging, or suck it up and become a businessman," he told me.
The usual way bloggers make money (if they make money at all) is to sell advertising. But Sullivan figured he could get his devoted reader base to pay. Within the first week, he'd raised half a million dollars. By the end of about two months, the total had crept up to $625,000.
The goal, for him and his staff of about eight employees, is to raise roughly a million dollars by the end of the year.
We ran Sullivan's figures — his readership, how much time they spend on the site — by Rob Leathern, ad guy with a firm called Optimal Social. He was impressed by how engaged Sullivan's readers are — they spend an average of 17 minutes a day on the site, and 80 percent check in twice a day.
"It's definitely valuable real estate," Leathern said, and he figured Sullivan could raise about $840,000 a year if he sold ads.
For now, though, Sullivan would rather sell subscriptions than sell ads (and chase page views). "If you're all about chasing the page views, it doesn't matter what the bloody page views are in the end," he said. "The rat race just takes over."
His site is a mix of short and long posts — and his favorites as a writer tend to be the long ones. Since he switched to the subscription model, he has noticed that those long posts seem to be popular with the people who are paying to read. In other words, Andrew Sullivan the blogger now has an incentive to write posts that work for Andrew Sullivan the businessman.
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's check in now on an experiment in journalism. Two months ago, the popular blogger Andrew Sullivan left the big media companies where he'd long worked, to strike out on his own and start charging a subscription to read his writing online.
Zoe Chace of our Planet Money team has been tracking his progress.
ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: How much would you pay to read an article about dogs using weed?
ANDREW SULLIVAN: We have posts on canine cannabis.
CHACE: That's not all. Andrew Sullivan - he will throw in a little bit of political gossip.
SULLIVAN: Rupert Murdoch tweeting: Is Keystone pipeline really a good idea?
CHACE: And the serious stuff.
SULLIVAN: And then a big essay, which I called "Obama's Exquisite Balance on Marriage."
CHACE: Would you pay 19.99 a year? When I first visited Andrew Sullivan, he opened up his laptop and showed me. A lot of people were paying that, and more.
SULLIVAN: Thirty, 25, a hundred, 23, 25.
CHACE: This is all in the last...
SULLIVAN: This afternoon.
CHACE: This is a big deal because for the last 10 years, big bloggers like Sullivan have basically had patrons. Companies like the Atlantic, Time magazine, Newsweek-Daily Beast paid him a salary while giving his content away for free. But the magazines these days aren't doing so well. Sullivan decided to jump ship and figure out how to make his own writing pay - on the Internet.
SULLIVAN: It was either quit blogging, or just suck it up and become a businessman.
CHACE: The usual way to make money writing online is to sell advertising. Lots of bloggers put splashy ads on their sites. Sullivan felt there was a better way.
SULLIVAN: When we looked at our data, we saw that we had readers that spent an average of 17 minutes a day on the site. Eighty percent checked twice a day. Seventy percent of them have bookmarked it. We were like, this is the strength of the site - the readers. So why don't we go to them first?
CHACE: When I did this interview two months ago, it was clear the experiment was going well. Just by asking his readers to contribute, he got...
SULLIVAN: Four-hundred and fifty-seven thousand, three-hundred and fifty-four dollars.
CHACE: Almost half a million dollars in the first week. The goal, just under a million by the end of the year. It sounds like a lot, and it is. Sullivan will use it to pay for the site, to pay himself, to pay a handful of staffers. But how does this new media model stack up against the old model? We asked an advertising guy about Andrew Sullivan's site.
ROB LEATHERN: It's definitely valuable real estate.
CHACE: This is Rob Leathern, head of the ad firm Optimal Social. Sullivan's site gets about 300,000 visitors a day. And Leathern figures with ads, Sullivan could make 7 bucks per thousand pairs of eyeballs.
LEATHERN: Anyone who's spending - you know, more than a couple minutes on a website in any given day, is definitely engaged.
CHACE: By Leathern's math, the old media model would be earning Sullivan roughly $840,000 a year. So why make people pay for the content if he could give it away for free and still make money? I went back to ask him.
SULLIVAN: (Through intercom) Hi, Zoe. Come on up.
CHACE: This media empire of the future - his little apartment downtown.
SULLIVAN: Nice to see you.
CHACE: Good to see you again. Thanks for having me back.
SULLIVAN: Yes. I'm just terrified that every time you see me I'll look - like, 10 years older.
CHACE: Sullivan tells me the initial burst of subscriptions has trailed off ,and he's now in phase two. If you want full access to all of his content, you now have to pay.
SULLIVAN: The before, it was yay; go Andrew! Now, it's oh, all right then; if you insist.
CHACE: He pulls up the latest numbers...
SULLIVAN: So basically, the total now - as you can see - is $625,000, since January.
CHACE: At this rate, over a full year, he's golden. But he's still pretty nervous. He can see that thousands of readers are hitting the pay wall, and not subscribing.
SULLIVAN: Now you can see why I'm thrilled, and why I might be worried.
CHACE: This is the cost of charging people; you may lose readers when they hit the wall. So what about advertising? What about that 840,000 our ad guy said he could make? Well, Sullivan feels like he would write different things if he had to survive on advertising dollars and keep the traffic up.
SULLIVAN: If you're all about chasing the page views, it doesn't matter what the bloody page views are, in the end.
CHACE: Since relying on subscribers, he says, what appears on his blog is changing.
SULLIVAN: It's interesting because I found this past month, as I've been writing - that I felt my incentives shift a little.
CHACE: He's seen people click to subscribe on his long essay posts.
SULLIVAN: ...which I always thought were probably boring, long things that people would skip. Actually, they read them. And it's on those posts that they click to pay.
CHACE: If Andrew Sullivan can make it on his own, writing the kinds of stuff he always wanted to write, that should give hope to anyone who has an audience. You can make them pay.
Zoe Chace, NPR News, New York.
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