Alas for the Broken Dish
It turns out that this Friday will be the last day for The Dish, Andrew Sullivan’s great blog. In a new letter to readers, Andrew says that he and his co-owners, Patrick Appel and Chris Bodenner, can’t figure out a way to make the Dish continue without Andrew’s participation. Excerpt:
We feel we’ve left behind a model of what an online community can truly be, what a site uncontaminated with p.r. can achieve, and how it’s possible for less than ten people to corral a million people a month and 30,000 paying subscribers into a conversation without end.
But in this very post, he admits that their model was unsustainable. He says all of them are burned out. Even if the rest of them weren’t, the loss of Andrew to the site says that this was not so much a new media venture as a blog that people were willing to pay to read (N.B., I am a charter subscriber to the blog). I certainly appreciate that Andrew’s health has suffered from living as intensely a digital life as he has done, but I don’t really understand why, instead of quitting, he couldn’t have scaled back on everybody’s work. If the Dish staff only produced half as many posts a day as they do now, they would still be doing a hell of a lot of work, and good work, too.
Why not try scaling back the prodigious output? Why not take a few ads? Was there just not enough money in this model, for all the work that it required? Did Andrew just get bored? Why not lay off staff before closing up shop, and try to make it work with a reduced schedule? This update leaves more more confused than I’ve been since the announcement. Something doesn’t seem right.
The Dish cost $20 per year to subscribe to. With 30,000 subscribers, that means gross revenue of $600,000. Whatever the net revenue was, that’s not much money when you divide it among a staff of 10, especially considering that Andrew must have (rightly) taken more than ten percent of the net. Maybe it just wasn’t worth all that work for so little financial return. There’s no shame in that. They tried to do something new, and it failed. Three cheers to them for effort. They really did accomplish something great — but as someone whose own career future had more than a little bit to do with the success or failure of The Dish, I can’t afford to let myself get misty-eyed about the hard lessons here.
What lessons might the rest of us learn from the Dish’s failure? Off the top of my head:
1. It seems to me that they were overstaffed. Did they really need ten people to put out the blog, great as it was?
2. Do not make your media property dependent on one man’s personality, or on one man, period. (See Noah Millman’s words below.)
3. Blogging exacts a serious physical toll on the blogger. I have no trouble believing that Andrew burned out, though I am jealous that he had a big staff and the ability to take long vacations without his blog suffering a falloff in readership. When you have a big readership — as this blog does, though not Sully-big — you feel a responsibility to keep giving readers what they want, but you also get some kind of charge from it. I can never turn it off. My wife once poked fun at me, saying, “You have no unblogged thoughts.” That’s not true, of course, but her broader point stands: it’s very hard to disconnect from digital life. I am constantly in react mode. I only create about one blog post for every ten ideas I have each day. Blogging rewards instant reaction, which means it’s hard to be thoughtful. It’s hard to convey how discouraging it is to put hours into a thoughtful post, and get only 20 comments on it, but to just toss up a shallow Dreherbait post about a hot topic, and watch the comments thread sprawl past 200. After a while, you get worn out with that. Lesson being, blogging is a form of journalism that is hard to sustain.
4. It is non-viable to have a blog based on subscriptions alone. It would have been interesting to see if Andrew could have made it on a subscriptions-alone blog that he owned and operated only on his own, or with one other person to act as an editor and webmaster. He would have had a dramatic falling-off of subscriptions, because the variety of posts would have been far less, but he might have been able to make it. Still, it would have been close. If someone as popular as Andrew Sullivan can’t do it on his own, then who can? A blog has to be attached to an institution or larger media company.
Here’s an alternate theory of Andrew’s End, one floated by a friend of mine: Andrew got bored with blogging because he won. That is, with the exception of fighting torture, the things that matter the most to him are now part of the cultural mainstream, in no small part because of what he did (you can blame him or credit him, but you can’t deny his influence). Gay marriage is finally more popular than unpopular, and will almost certainly be the law of the land after SCOTUS rules this summer. Marijuana is becoming ever more legal, and is thoroughly mainstream. Pornography is also mainstream. Barack Obama was elected, then re-elected. The Catholic Church has a (relatively) liberal pope, one who was named Person of the Year by the gay magazine The Advocate.
What else did Andrew Sullivan have to conquer?
I’ll end by pointing you to my colleague Noah Millman’s observations from last week about the end of The Dish, which he sees as extremely bad for professional bloggers. Excerpt:
There just aren’t very many people like Sullivan in the world, who combine his speed as a writer, his breadth of taste, his skills as an editor, his manic energy, his head for the business side – it’s just a huge conglomeration of valuable traits. And he didn’t institutionalize them the way Steve Jobs or Walt Disney or Harold Ross did in their own various ways. Even though Andrew Sullivan did only a small fraction of the writing or the curating of the Daily Dish, without him blogging full time, apparently, there is no Dish.
The only thing I quibble with here is that it’s an “insane” demand to post a minimum of three times daily. It is if you’re trying to do another job, I suppose. But Andrew had no other job, and he wasn’t writing books on the side. Maybe I have a completely unrealistic idea of what is sane when it comes to this stuff, because the only time I stop writing is when I sleep. Even when I’m away from the keyboard, I’m still writing.
UPDATE: A reader comments:
It’s kind of rough for you to say The Dish failed. Especially after Andrew promoted your work.
Well, let me clarify. The Dish succeeded at being provocative, thoughtful, infuriating, and endlessly interesting. It burned brightly, but it burned out, because Andrew burned out. I deeply regret this, not only as a Dish subscriber and a friend of Andrew’s, but as someone who labors in the same professional vineyard, though at a lower level. Andrew’s all-too-human failure to keep up that pace — something Your Stress-Induced Chronic Mono Working Boy understands — meant the death of the Dish. I would have re-upped my subscription had it just been Bodenner and Appel running it, because I love those guys’ curatorial eyes.
When I say The Dish failed, I don’t mean it failed editorially; I mean it failed as a business model. And as Noah Millman says, that’s bad news for people like me.