Andrew Sullivan, Nate Silver and the shifting balance of power for media brands

Balance of power

It’s still a week before Andrew Sullivan’s new independent site goes live with the subscription-based model he announced earlier this month, and the star political blogger says he has already raised close to $500,000 from readers. Sullivan’s move was like a shot across the bow of traditional media, one that is no doubt being watched closely by many high-profile writers and journalists — such as New York Times statistics blogger Nate Silver, whose contract with the newspaper is coming up for renewal soon. Where will the continents lie after this tectonic shift is over?

The reality is that individual brands like Sullivan and Silver now arguably have as much or more power as the traditional brands they used to align themselves with. The big question is how outlets like the Times and others will handle that re-balancing of power, and whether they will ultimately win or lose — and with the ongoing decline of print revenue, the stakes for traditional outlets are higher than they have ever been. (Note: We’re going to be discussing this with Sullivan and several other star bloggers at our paidContent Live media conference on April 17 in New York).

What does the NYT have to offer Nate Silver?

After announcing his split from The Daily Beast on January 2, Sullivan raised more than $300,000 for his new site in a matter of days, and was widely hailed as the harbinger of a new movement towards reader-supported independent writing. The pace of subscriptions has fallen off sharply (not surprisingly), but he is still signing up readers for his $20-per-year plan, with the latest total being $489,000 according to a recent update:

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Silver hasn’t said much about his plans for the future since his emergence as a blogging superstar during the recent U.S. federal election, when his statistics-based blog — called Five Thirty Eight, after the number of members in the U.S. electoral college — got so much traffic that at one point it accounted for more than 20 percent of all the visits to the entire New York Times website. But he has hinted that he is considering whether to remain with the NYT or strike out on his own.

And why wouldn’t he consider it? With a book just published to some acclaim, Silver arguably has the kind of personal brand that could be successful as a standalone property like the one Andrew Sullivan is trying to build. And despite the attention the New York Times got from his content during the election, there has been some tension between the newspaper and Silver — including a reprimand from the paper’s public editor over a humorous wager that the blogger wanted to offer to MSNBC host Joe Scarborough on the outcome of the election (a bet that the NYT said was unseemly for a journalist).

Silver said this incident wasn’t a big deal, and that he appreciates being part of the New York Times. But how much does he really need the NYT, and how much does the NYT need him and others like him? That’s the question at the core of the Sullivan model: at what point does it become more of a hindrance than a benefit to be associated with a traditional media brand?

If Sullivan can do it, who else might be able to?

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There are a number of other bloggers and columnists who could arguably pull off a standalone, Sullivan-style model: New York Times foreign correspondent Nick Kristof, for example, has a huge following through social media like Twitter and Facebook and is a popular author — although whether he would get access to the people and places he needs to access if he were independent is a question mark. Other columnists at the NYT and similar mainstream outlets like Tom Friedman or Ezra Klein could probably make a go of it, as could some writers such as Felix Salmon at Reuters.

New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson told a media panel on Friday that the newspaper wants to work closely with high-powered writers like Silver, and in the past has used DealBook blogger Andrew Ross Sorkin as a model for what the paper wants to do by building events and other value-added offerings around individuals with star power. But at some point, writers like Sorkin and others are going to ask whether they wouldn’t be better off running such businesses on their own.

In a sense, this is just the latest evolution of a tension that has existed between traditional media and the web since blogging was invented — writers like our own Om Malik gain a profile in traditional media and then go off to start their own media entities, and some high-profile bloggers like Josh Marshall or Mike Masnick manage to turn their blogs into standalone businesses like Talking Points Memo and Techdirt. It’s a little like the music industry: labels try to nurture star talent, knowing full well that in some cases that talent will leave and go independent.

And as the music industry has discovered, there is even less incentive for talent to stick around now than there ever has been, and the barriers to entry for those who decide to leave are lower. Sullivan may have been the first over the wall in this latest iteration, but he is unlikely to be the last.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / ollyy and Shutterstock / Allies Interactive

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