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The Dish Goes Indie: Big Change for Blogging, or Just for Andrew Sullivan?

Sullivan may be like Louis CK or Radiohead: an established content creator who is able to monetize a DIY effort after becoming famous in more conventional ways.

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Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan was one of the first mainstream media writers to start a blog–back when you still had to explain what a “blog” was–a decade ago. He was one of the first to turn that blog into his principal full-time writing gig. And now, he’s among the first to try to sell his blog writing directly to his readers.

Starting in February, Sullivan announced Wednesday, he’s taking his blog from The Dish away from The Daily Beast, the latest media outlet to host it, and relaunching it as an independent, ad-free site, asking readers for $19.99 a year. It would be “the purest, simplest model for online journalism,” he wrote: “you, us, and a meter. Period. No corporate ownership, no advertising demands, no pressure for pageviews.” (Sullivan describes the “metered” system at more length, but in essence some content would be free, with a charge for unfettered access.)

The buzz in the media–at least among other journalists, always fascinated by any proposition that puts “Internet writing” and “money” in the same sentence–has amounted to two questions: Will this plan work for Sullivan? And will it work for online media generally?

I have no doubt this will work for Sullivan–in that maybe this plan will succeed or it won’t or he’ll have to change it, but The Dish will survive in some form if he wants it to. The Dish has really been an independent entity for a long time: first he ran it solo, then he signed contracts with The Atlantic and The Daily Beast (and at one point TIME), essentially leasing the brand out for a fee. He might draw enough loyal paying subscribers to make it work; if not, he can shop his brand to a new patron. (Foster Kamer theorizes this is the real endgame.)

But is it a new model for blogging generally? As journalists go, Sullivan may be like Louis CK or Radiohead: established creators who have been able to monetize DIY efforts themselves after becoming famous in more conventional ways. Sullivan is a media independent but hardly a media outsider: among other jobs, he was editor of The New Republic.

So the Web may be a good way for Andrew Sullivan to monetize his audience. The question is how many Andrew Sullivans people are willing to pay for.

Even though I work for a magazine, I don’t mean that as anti-blog. (I wrote for an online site, Salon, before I worked in print.) I believe people today are more platform-agnostic—they’ll as gladly pay for a writer they love as for the New York Times, without drawing lines between “blogger” and “real media.” Though it may not be in Time Inc.’s interest for me to say it, it’s just as reasonable today for someone to pay $20 a year to read a blog they devour every day as to read a magazine once a month. The words are still words, whoever’s selling them.

But people also have budgets for media as for anything. If they’re now used to getting the work of writers they love for free, there are only so many they can afford to pay for at $20 a pop–and maybe many fewer they would actually be willing to pay for. Just as Louis CK proved that people will pay $5 for a legal comedy download–if it is from Louis CK, or maybe Aziz Ansari–a few marquee successes does not a business change make.

And it doesn’t necessarily portend a world where a journalist—or comedian, or musician, or director—can hang out a shingle online and have a thriving full-time career as an independent. Maybe bloggers with a lower profile than Sullivan could deal with this in the future by bundling their services as a package. But I would note that is not so different from the definition of a “magazine” or a “newspaper.”

Sullivan runs The Dish with a staff and is talking about expanding. At some point, that becomes a small online media company–if successful, maybe a large online media company, one mostly composed of people working for somebody else. Likewise, a site like Gawker or Grantland or The Awl might inspire the kind of passion to get readers to pay up–but those are far from one-person operations; they’re publishing outlets without printing costs.

I hope Sullivan is wildly successful: as a writer, it’s good for me any time someone finds new ways to convert prose into cash. And I’m reasonably optimistic that digital media is now a good way to make an independent living as Andrew Sullivan. But the big change will come when independent writers can use digital media to become Andrew Sullivan.