The 60-second interview: Andrew Sullivan, founding editor, The Dish
CAPITAL: It's coming up on two years since you announced that you were setting off on your own to launch The Dish as a subscription-based news blog with a full-time staff and everything. What's been the best part about this venture so far? The worst?
SULLIVAN: The best is the real independence to say what I think and believe without any constraints—from publishers, advertisers and the like. The worst is producing up to 40 posts a day with a tiny staff of eight bloggers and researchers, while also having to manage the business side. The editors have to do payroll, budgets, health insurance all that stuff. We're all constantly exhausted and after 14 years of daily blogging, the stamina required to keep it up is immense.
CAPITAL: Care to share how many subscribers you now have? Revenue? Monthly traffic?
SULLIVAN: We currently have 30,200 paying auto-renewing subscribers. Our monthly traffic is between 700,000 to a million uniques, our subscription renewal rate is 83 percent. We also have a pay-what-you want model above a certain baseline. The average subscription when we launched was $34; this year it went up to $39, but with fewer subscribers.
CAPITAL: Even at the upper echelons of the legacy media, reader revenue is becoming more and more important in terms of keeping the lights on in the face of a challenging advertising climate. How do you think this is going to play out?
SULLIVAN: I think the only future for journalism is reader revenue. Without it, you are in danger of becoming a public relations or advertising company disguised as journalism, like Buzzfeed and even The Guardian. Buzzfeed is really an ad agency with some journalistic window dressing. They're not the future of journalism; they're the marginalization of it. And The New York Times, alas, is following suit with merry abandon.
CAPITAL: But wait! A lot of news outlets are getting into sponsored content and native advertising because brands love the way it engages consumers the same way journalism does. You're of the opinion that native advertising is big church/state no-no, but surely there must be some way that news organizations can do it without selling their souls?
SULLIVAN: Nope. There's really no way to disguise ads as journalism and not sell your soul. And the word brand is misleading. We're talking about corporations trying to persuade customers to like them. The only way to do this ethically is really very simple. It would be to put the word "advertisement" clearly on the top of every 'sponsored content' page. It tells you a huge amount that these alleged newspapers refuse to do that.
CAPITAL: What do you think of the mainstream media's coverage of ISIS, the so-called "Khorasan Group" and all the other scary things happening in Iraq and Syria right now?
SULLIVAN: I've been amazed that a decade after the Iraq War, the media has simply hyped the hysteria over a group that does not pose a threat to the United States. I thought we had learned to be super-skeptical about the "threats" the C.I.A. wants us to be scared of. And yet the C.I.A.—with a long history of catastrophic mistakes and war crimes—can call something the "Khorasan Group" and no one really objects to an act of war against them, even when we really have no idea who they really are. Yep, I'm pretty depressed by journalism right now.