A journalism wunderkind who went on to become one of the world’s first bloggers, Sullivan holds forth passionately, eloquently, and, from time to time, contradictorily, on everything from gay marriage to the Iraq War to the Catholic Church. At the beginning of the year he took his blog independent, in a real-world experiment in the possibilities of monetizing the hard-earned loyalty of his wide reader base.
There is something humorous about interviewing you because so much of your life is on the blog.
I know. What don’t people know? They know everything but my bowel movements at this point. Essentially what happens every day is that I get up and mouth off in front of 80,000 people, something like that. If you actually think of that as a football—you know, like a major football stadium—you actually think of it as a performance, because it’s kind of live. I’ve always described blogging as the closest writing will ever come to speaking.
Do you ever think of getting involved in politics, running for office yourself?
No. That’s not my skill set. I sort of learned that pretty early. I’m just not able very easily to lie to people all the time. And I’m not good at conveying interest when I’m not interested.
You started out as an actor. Do you think that there’s something about the relationship between an actor and his audience and a blogger and his audience?
When I started blogging, which was 13 years ago now, Clinton was president. And my approach to it was, first of all, just a real kick that I could actually trash a Maureen Dowd column before anyone read it. Back in 2000 that was a bit of a thrill. I used to post everything between midnight and 2 a.m. back in the early days.
There was no way to really interact with other writers. These people were on pedestals, and you just sat down and listened. There was a whole culture of authority and institutional authority that has completely been eroded, more completely than most of these institutions have yet to fully understand. The only authority on the Web, I think, has to be earned.
When you started blogging, there weren’t a lot of other people doing it.
It was still a very small club of people, and most of our contemporaries looked at us as if we were out of our minds. If you’d had, like I’d had, a really great mainstream media job editing, like, a great little magazine, why would you fucking write for these lunatics in this weird thing called the blogosphere? I spent the first six years explaining what a blog was to people, the subsequent six years fending off various people who wanted to have my blog, and setting terms for them owning it. Or not owning it, renting it for a period of time.
Did it feel like you were writing an open letter or giving a monologue?
It felt like I was standing up on Hyde Park Corner and doing my shit, except almost immediately I was heckled. We have an army of people bored silly at work, which is really my readership—bored lawyers. We know the pattern because our peak hours are always 12 to 3. As the lunchtime break migrates across America, we’re getting waves of bored lawyers.
And the other thing that surprised me about it was that being there first actually mattered in a way that I didn’t really expect, because you would expect on the Internet the barriers to entry would be so low anybody can start something instantly and be a hit. So one would expect that a blog like mine would easily be displaced in this ecology. And I think it would have been had we not sustained it at the kind of intensity and pace that we have. And that pace has quickened over the years.
I’m living my generation’s journalism experience, which is that as you grow older, the work gets harder and the pay gets lower. Every day feels like I’ve just finished a marathon. They want me to fucking sprint.
The blog format is not that new anymore. People are tweeting. People are on Reddit. Do you think about changing?
It’s self-explanatory. A reverse-chronological blog, you know where you are. You fucking scroll down. Why do we need to fuck with this? Everyone has a blog, basically. That’s their Facebook page. They stick cool things on it.
And now this blog is your independent business, without being part of a bigger publication or a corporation. How did you get to this point?
I mean, I want to get paid, but I did it for six years for basically nothing in the beginning, because I thought it was interesting. And I had a pledge drive back then. I did two pledge drives, one before the Iraq War, one after, after I had switched positions on the Iraq War, which showed the dangers of pledge drives. Because the second one was about a fifth of the size of the first one. So anyway, you just realize that business model isn’t going to work because you’re begging.
So how has it been going as a subscription-based business? You have a metered model, and you’re asking for readers to subscribe at $19.99 [a year] in order to read more than five pieces per month.
Well, I’ll show you. I think the only way to tell you this is to show you the data, because I have it with me at all times. So we have currently 26,676 subscribers, which I’m incredibly proud of because those are real subscribers. This is like total, hard-core, basic, money-in-the-bank customers. Is that enough? The total amount that we set [as a goal] was $900,000. And we are now at $701,000, total, gross revenue.
What’s interesting to me is the conversion rates: How many people who hit that meter say, “OK, I’ll pay.” And the interesting average is—I don’t know whether you know about it—is basically 2 percent. Which was kind of sobering.
That is the industry average. So we have a month about 800,000 people reading us, and we have 27,000 of them actually [paying] to read us. That gives you a little sense of the scale of the challenge. But it also tells you, if you want to be Pollyannaish about it, the possibility of growth. The maximum number of read-ons [free stories] we let people click is five—22,500 people have clicked more than five and not paid. So they’re that deeply invested in reading The Dish, but still resisting. And that would almost double our subscriptions overnight. So it’s these people that we really want.
And I found out that the president is one of them. Because he can’t subscribe. He says that little dog keeps popping up stopping him from reading, and he can’t put in his own credit-card number. So he’s one of them.
Can you give him a special arrangement to get past the little dog on your paywall?
We’re figuring it out. We’re going to create an account and see if we can get it to him with his own password, and it’ll be totally untraceable to him, but he’ll be able to read The Dish.
For the man who has everything.
Well, he has everything, but he can’t subscribe.