When blogger Andrew Sullivan left the Daily Beast at the beginning of last year to launch his own standalone, subscription-driven website called The Daily Dish, no one knew what to expect — including Sullivan himself. A daily site with a team of half a dozen people financed entirely by reader donations seemed almost too good to be true, and the former Atlantic and New Republic writer upped the ante by promising he would have almost $1 million in revenue by the end of his first year.
As Sullivan noted in a recent post, the Dish didn’t hit the $900,000 mark he predicted it would — a number he chose because it was the editorial budget he had at the Beast — but came awfully close: when subscriptions and revenue from affiliate links is taken into account, the Dish pulled in about $875,000 in revenue in 2013. So how does Sullivan feel about that? Pretty good, he says:
“From the beginning I’ve never really known what to expect, because we’re sort of completely new. But we’re in profit now and we have 34,000 subscribers… so it would be crazy for me not to be proud of what we’ve done.”
Government shutdown boosts readership
In addition to the 34,000 people who have paid for a yearly subscription to the site (non-subscribers get five free “read ons” or click-throughs to the full article before they are hit with a paywall), Sullivan said the Dish also has about 28,000 readers who have hit their five free click-throughs but haven’t paid for a subscription yet — and about the same amount of readers who have clicked through four times. So he believes there is still some substantial potential for growth if even a small proportion of those two groups of readers can be convinced to become subscribers.
But while the Daily Dish founder said he is pleased with the site’s performance, it will still be a couple of months before he can breathe easily, because of the way subscriptions were handled in the first month or so after he went independent. For the most part, early sign-ups were handled as donations rather than a subscription that could be auto-renewed once the year was up — so about 25,000 subscribers will have to physically renew in February, rather than being signed up automatically.
That said, however, Sullivan noted that the Dish has “plenty of cash in the bank,” and he is hopeful that because the bulk of the site’s subscriptions came in the first month or so that it was open for donation, those people will be the most likely to want to renew. He also noted that there was a substantial uptick in sign-ups in the last three months of 2013, which also gave him reason to be optimistic:
“I kind of anticipated that the slow trickle down into August and September was permanent. I just thought, well we’ve run out of our core readership and it’s slowly trickling away, but then boom… in October, with the debt-ceiling crisis and so on, all the people who were prepared to blow it off and not pay all of a sudden felt like they needed to get all of it and wanted to pay.”
A monthly magazine, and possibly advertising
Sullivan said that if a substantial number of the 25,000 subscribers who signed up early in 2013 decide to renew, then the Dish will be able to go ahead with some of its planned ventures this year — including a monthly magazine-style offering called Deep Dish. That will likely require adding some staff, Sullivan said, because “there’s no way I can produce a 10,000-word piece every month as well as doing the blog.” The Dish currently has seven full-time staff and three interns.
The Dish founder also said that regardless of what happens with subscriber levels, he is considering new revenue models as well — including advertising to non-subscribers. Although his enmity towards sponsored content is well known, Sullivan said that he has nothing against advertising at all, and while he wants to keep the subscription product advertising free for as long as possible, he has no compunction about offering ads aimed at those who are reading without paying.
Among other things, Sullivan said that running a site based entirely on subscriptions has changed the way that he thinks about the content he is producing. Although he was never driven entirely by the pageview-pumping model that most ad-driven sites are, the Dish blogger said he still paid close attention to clicks and traffic, but now he is free to think much more long term:
“One thing I would say is that I underestimated how different it is when you work for subscriptions as opposed to pageviews. I used to think that I was bigger than all that — that I would never succumb to that kind of crass, commercial-driven, pageview thing. But writing a blog because you want to get people to renew their subscription in a year creates a very different, subtle incentive structure for journalism than if you have to get as many pageviews as possible.”
As I argued in a post late last year, even if the Daily Dish fell a little short of its $900,000 subscription-revenue mark, to raise close to a million dollars strictly through subscriptions from readers is still a tremendous accomplishment for an independent blogger — and likely helped encourage other writers such as Jessica Lessin, the former Wall Street Journal reporter who recently launched her own subscription-driven site called The Information.