On Sullivan and Snow



Andrew Sullivan is taking his talents away from The Beast.

There were two pieces of interesting news in the last couple weeks that show how exciting it is to be a content producer today—and just how much the struggle continues to determine how content producers will get paid for their efforts.

The first was the announcement by blogging giant Andrew Sullivan that he is leaving the Daily Beast to start his own ad-free site where readers will be asked to pay for the content they consume (Sullivan is quick to point out that he’s not going behind a paywall; he’s simply giving people the option to pay what they think the content is worth. In his blog about the decision, Sullivan said he and his business partners determined they would have more freedom and could more easily effect positive change in the industry by striking out on their own.

We felt more and more that getting readers to pay a small amount for content was the only truly solid future for online journalism…the only completely clear and transparent way to do this, we concluded, was to become totally independent of other media entities and rely entirely on you for our salaries, health insurance, and legal, technological and accounting expenses.

Now, Sullivan’s case is unique. He has a rabid readership and has been in high demand since taking over as the editor of The New Republic in 1991. Gigs followed at TIME, Atlantic Monthly and The Sunday Times of London, as well as his own blog, The Dish.

But the fact that Sullivan thinks he can make a go of things by asking readers to pay $19.99 per year means that people might be willing to pay for great, unique content with a strong voice and editorial bent. Plus, you’ve got to love his vision of the web:

We believe in a bottom-up Internet, which allows a thousand flowers to bloom, rather than a corporate-dominated web where the promise of a free space becomes co-opted by large and powerful institutions and intrusive advertising algorithms.

The other piece of “news” was that The New York Times late in December released Snow Fall, an exhaustive piece of investigative journalism that doubles as an object lesson in how incredible modern storytelling can be—as long as there’s money to pay for its creation.

20130107-145828.jpgThrough the full complement of current digital media—videos, photos, virtual recreations of the avalanche, even a looping gif showing the reader how skiing air bags work—Snow Fall follows the fates of 16 expert skiers caught in an avalanche in Washington’s Cascade Mountains.

It’s a dizzying and muscular display of what’s possible when a media giant goes all-in to tell a compelling human story. The credits for the story, which includes a mini-documentary with additional interviews, lists 17 names, including the author, John Branch—and that doesn’t include contributors from places like The Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research.

How did The Times pay for the piece? One way was through the use of a black-band advertisement that runs horizontally across the middle of each section about three-quarters of the way down each page.

The ads caused the usual stir among those who think free content anytime and all the time is their birthright, but I for one didn’t find it intrusive (I can’t tell you one product that was advertised—maybe I shouldn’t admit that).

I was instead glad that the article—with its slowly unfolding narrative and inventive use of technology (at one point a graphic showing the paths that various skiers took down the mountain unfurled as I read)—was mostly unencumbered by ads.

Given the success that The Times has had with its paywall I was also surprised that I wasn’t required to pay a small fee somewhere along the way to finish reading.

But this is where we are. An individual (Sullivan) strikes out on his own because he thinks it’s worth it to be unencumbered and he may be able to make more money, while one of the most successful media companies in the world—which has been very successful getting people to pay for its content—is offering an expensive multimedia extravaganza for free.

I think we’re still far away from having a single model that’s as clear and reliable as the old paid advertising model in newspapers and other print publications (in fact, if the music industry is any indication, we may never get there at all), but it’s great to see the industry trying so many ways to support development of great content and delivery methods that take advantage of the incredible digital storytelling tools at our disposal today.

For today, at least, great content is still open for business.


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