One to Watch: The digital fortunes of The Dish

Report by Alex Klaushofer.

This month saw the launch of a start-up which is being eagerly watched by observers of the media landscape. The Dish – not to be confused with a dreadful Australian film on which I wasted several hours of my life – is the latest venture by Andrew Sullivan, the political blogger who has been dominating the US scene for more than a decade.

An online magazine covering anything from politics to religion and the arts, The Dish is subscription-based, and entirely ad-free. It has already impressed media-watchers with its early success, securing nearly $500 000 before it even officially launched – enough to keep Sullivan’s seven-strong team going for a year.

Sullivan’s journey in getting to this point – a tale he tells in this piece in The Australian – is instructive. A political blogger since 2000, he wrote unpaid for some six years, building an online readership of around a million a month. Then, seeing the appeal of his readership to advertisers, he cut deals with Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Publishing his blog on their websites helped them to build their digital readership, and gave him a share of the healthy advertising revenues.

As the digital revolution spread and advertisers became pickier, revenues fell. Sullivan’s little blog-craft – by now he had acquired business partners – looked in danger of running aground. Yet the period of financial success had clearly demonstrated the readers’ appetite for quality journalism. So he decided to cut out the advertising man and ask readers to pay for the content they loved directly.

The Dish is based on the freemium model, with the blog acting as the taster, while access to more in-depth material requires a subscription of $19.99. But is the model sustainable? Writing on the media startup Pandodaily, Hamish McKenzie raises doubts, pointing out that following the initial burst of enthusiasm Sullivan’s subscriptions have already slowed considerably. ‘If his rate for converting unique visitors to paid subscribers is the same as the New York Times’ – about 1 percent – then revenue from readers alone simply won’t be enough,’ he says.

As McKenzie points out, the bigger media players in the US are watching the Sullivan experiment with interest because its ‘leaky meter’ model so closely resembles their own. But the future fortunes of The Dish have a wider importance. Inspired by a clear vision about the value and purposes of journalism, it embodies much of which has always characterised good journalism: ‘I wrote a blog every day purely out of fascination with the idea of reaching readers without any editor or proprietor interfering,’ writes Sullivan of his early blogging years. ‘I did it free – because the editorial freedom was worth it.’

Now he is hoping that readers, too, will recognise the value of editorial independence to the extent that they are prepared to pay for it regularly. ‘There was something honest and real about asking readers to pay me to write,’ says Sullivan of his decision to The Dish. ‘No agent will take a cut; no editor can complain.’

It’s a purity of aspiration echoed by the editor of Canadian start-up Best Story Warren Perley, who resolutely insists that the future of quality journalism is reader-funded and advertising-free. And there are many other media pioneers out there who share the same high-minded approach which blends old-fashioned journalistic ideals with the realities of the digital age.

The Dish has the other ingredients – the distinct editorial vision, a personality, if you like – that have always characterised the most successful publications, and have more recently been redefined as the elusive ‘relationship’ with readers by digital development guys in big media organisations. The key question, as for many other online experiments, remains: will the readers buy it?

Alex is no longer blogging here, but tweets about media and publishing matters @alexklaushofer.

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