Andrew Sullivan: Has this blogger just proved that a lone voice can make big money online?

He is changing the culture of the blogosphere by asking his readers to provide the funding. In the first 24 hours, he had made $330,000

Ian Burrell
Friday 04 January 2013 20:27 GMT
Andrew Sullivan: His decision to seek reader subscriptions is a revolutionary concept in the blogosphere
Andrew Sullivan: His decision to seek reader subscriptions is a revolutionary concept in the blogosphere (Getty Images)

The blogosphere is an unregulated world where an estimated 175 million writers labour at their keyboards for love and not for money. But one blogger stands apart from all others as an American media institution in his own right. And this week he shattered the accepted wisdom that surrounds blogosphere economics.

The bearded and muscular figure of Andrew Sullivan, 49, author of the influential blog The Dish, has become familiar to millions of American television viewers as a social and political pundit. Yet his former classmates from Reigate Grammar School might struggle to recognise someone they would remember as a slight and lonely boy with an unnerving obsession with Margaret Thatcher.

Sullivan's English accent is almost gone. He is courted by Barack Obama and is friends with Donald Rumsfeld and The Dish has been wooed as a digital media partner by many of America's greatest news brands.

Instead, Sullivan has gone it alone this week, changing the culture of the blogosphere by asking his readers to provide the funding. In the first 24 hours, he had made $330,000.

In the free exchange of ideas that is the blogosphere, the very notion of charging money is anathema. But Sullivan has always been a contrarian and a pioneer. He is one of America's most powerful conservative writers and yet an outspoken supporter of the Democrat President and the scourge of the Republican right. A former Catholic altar boy from East Grinstead, he hungers to take on the religious fundamentalists of his adopted nation, despite his own avowed Christian faith.

Sullivan is also gay (and HIV positive) and was championing the cause of same-sex marriage as long as 20 years ago. But his stance enraged gay rights activists. He was suspected of being the enemy within, encouraging assimilation by "urging gay men not to act like fags", as one critic put it.

In Britain, he is best known as a columnist on The Sunday Times, where his words bring a measured transatlantic perspective to life inside the beltway of the American political establishment. But in the milieu of American media, the place that he regards as his natural home, he often finds himself the centre of the controversy. That appears to suit him fine.

Perhaps because of this unpredictability, The Dish is hugely popular. Through a combination of Sullivan's finely turned paragraphs, some well-tuned editorial antennae and a prolific output of about 240 posts a week, the blog had an audience of 1.3 million by 2011, when it was bought by Tina Brown's news website The Daily Beast. But a year and a half later, Sullivan has opted to go solo in the hope that his venture will be supported by readers paying $19.99 for a year's subscription, or "about a nickel a day", as he marketed the deal to his followers in a blog post last week.

He doesn't just have himself to support – the blog has an editorial team of seven. Daringly, he plans a future without any revenue from "distractive and intrusive" advertising. "We're increasingly struck by how advertising is dominated online by huge entities," he told readers. "We're also mindful of how online ads have created incentives for page views over quality content."

This is a revolutionary concept, although Sullivan has been at pains to stress that he is not going so far as to introduce the kind of "paywall" behind which Rupert Murdoch hides Sullivan's Sunday Times columns. Readers will be allowed a limited number of free blogs but frequent visitors will be asked to pay in order to activate the "Read On" button. "There is no paywall. Just a freemium-based meter," he argues. In reality, the blogger is trying something similar to Murdoch's NewsCorp in charging for online content.

He admits that "no one really knows" if such a model is sustainable in the long term, but as a pioneer of web journalism, The Dish "felt we almost had a duty to try and see if we could break some new ground".

So far responses, some posted on the blog itself, have been mixed. The Dish published a map of America yesterday showing the locations of its first wave of subscribers. California and New York state each already had more than 1,500 such "Dishheads", but rural North Dakota had contributed just five donors to the new revenue stream.

Sullivan also included reaction from the web, including a sneering tweet from Piers Morgan who asked: "Why on earth would anyone pay $19.99 to read the bitchy whines of @sullydish? Hilariously deluded vanity flight into obscurity." Sullivan tweeted back that if his target was $900,000 funding a year, he was "a third of the way there" within 24 hours.

Like Morgan, Sullivan's rise to prominence in America was rapid. After graduating from Oxford with a first, he won a Harkness Fellowship to Harvard and returned to that university in 1989 to write a doctoral thesis on his favourite philosopher, the Englishman Michael Oakeshott. Two years later, at the age of 26, he was editing The New Republic, the leading liberal magazine in America.

Instead of writing about "Intimations Pursued: The Voice of Practice in the Conversation of Michael Oakeshott", he was hanging out with Barbra Streisand and members of the Kennedy clan and being photographed by Annie Leibovitz for a Gap advert, as he later remarked to Intelligent Life magazine.

His conservatism goes back to his childhood in small-town Sussex, the son of a rugby-playing insurance company worker father and a mother who suffered with her mental health. Sullivan's Catholicism derives from Irish grandparents and he has emphasised those Celtic roots in shaping his identity in America.

He became a Thatcherite when his sense of pride at passing the 11-plus was replaced with "disgust" at Labour's plans to merge his new grammar school into a comprehensive. The school went private and helped the history swot Sullivan to Oxford where he befriended fellow right-winger Niall Ferguson.

In the era of the television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, Sullivan founded the popular "Pooh-Sticks Society", dropping twigs under Magdalen Bridge, took the lead role in the play Another Country, rose to become president of the Oxford Union, and was outed as gay by the student paper Cherwell.

Despite this, he remained discreet about his sexuality and retained an ambition to become a Tory MP. But when he reached America, his life changed. He wrote to his parents to tell them that, strangely, he felt at "home".

His editorship of The New Republic was stormy and left scars at the magazine. He got the title noticed but pushed the staff to the verge of open rebellion by publishing excerpts from The Bell Curve, a book which attempted to measure differences in IQ between ethnic groups.

In his early thirties, he lost his editor's job and almost everything else. Being diagnosed with HIV was then close to a death sentence, but it helped to focus Sullivan on his best work. He published a philosophical book, Virtually Normal: An Argument about Homosexuality, in which he made the case for integration, developing ideas that dated back over a decade to a piece in The Advocate identifying the priorities for gay rights as "the two Ms" – marriage and the military.

His views have taken another generation to be accepted. "When I first started talking about gay marriage, most people in the gay community looked at me as if I was insane or possibly a fascist reactionary."

Sullivan is married to the actor Aaron Tone and recently moved to New York from a loft apartment in Washington, where he liked to work in a velvet-curtained "blog cave", tapping at a Mac laptop while sitting in an armchair. The couple have pet beagles, Dusty and Eddy, who are frequently pictured on The Dish.

Sullivan recalled this week how thrilled he had been, 12 years ago, to discover the new literary form of blogging and the "dialogue" it offers with readers.

The Daily Dish, as the blog was originally called, allowed him to publish at will, correcting and shaping his views. His retraction of his previous support for the war in Iraq and recent attacks on what he now regards as a "truly cynical" Republican party led to accusations of flip-flopping. Many on the right no longer regard him as conservative at all.

But one constant in Sullivan's career has been an appetite for his writing. It's why The Dish was hosted by such American media brands as Time, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast and Newsweek. And why he feels he can afford to go it alone.

A Life In Brief

Born: 10 August 1963, South Godstone, Surrey.

Family: Married husband Aaron Tone in Massachusetts in 2007.

Education: Reigate Grammar School; modern history and languages at Magdalen College, Oxford. PhD on government from Harvard University.

Career: Began his career with The New Republic magazine, serving as editor from 1991-1996. From 1998-2002, he wrote for The New York Times Magazine. In 2000, he began his blog, The Daily Dish, before taking it from Time to The Atlantic Monthly. Joined The Daily Beast in 2011, and will relaunch The Daily Dish as a subscription-based site.

He says: "We have no marketing, no ads, no corporation behind us now. We only have you."

They say: "Sullivan is incapable of holding his tongue when he feels passionate about something, whether it's trailblazing gay marriage advocacy, crucial anti-torture polemics, or absurd Sarah Palin conspiracy theories." Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic

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