The Dish Model, Ctd


A reader writes:

I just read that you pay your interns.  I applaud that! In the ’90s I did a couple of unpaid internships that paved the way for gainful employment, so I have benefitted from the system.  I was lucky because my parents could help me out while I was working for free.  I agree with the idea of people paying dues, learning the ropes, starting in the mail room, etc.  But why not for minimum wage at least?  The poor cannot afford to audition for jobs for months the way I could. The rise of unpaid internships as a prerequisite for interesting work is just unfair and perpetuates the class system. Thanks. I’m gonna subscribe now.

We actually pay Dishterns one-and-a-half times the minimum wage and include health insurance. That’s the deal they had with us under the Daily Beast, so that’s the deal we are determined to continue under the new independent Dish. You can help keep our Dishternship a paid one by subscribing here.

(Clockwise from top-left: Maisie Allison (now at The American Conservative), Zack Beauchamp (now at Think Progress), Gwynn Guilford (now at Quartz), Chas Danner (who will serve as the Dish’s tech manager after we go independent), Doug Allen and Tela (current Dishtern and beagle bait, respectively), Brendan James (current Dishtern).

The Dish’s Core Strength, Ctd

Nat Worden gets our readers:

The complex but natural reporting process that is generated by [online journalism] has a certain organic authenticity that is rarely found on TV or radio or in newspapers Personal or magazines. More expertise and perspective is typically brought to bear. The pretense of objectivity is abandoned, making for a more honest forum, and everything is generally much more transparent.

Online journalists like Sullivan invite their audience into the reporting process and bring them along for the ride, while many traditional journalists keep the reporting process between them and their sources, leaving their audience in the dark about how they came upon the information they're reporting. Naturally then, traditional journalists often put the interests of their sources above their audience — a major problem in the corporate media — whereas the new breed of online journalist is reestablishing a genuine connection with readers and earning their trust in an age where distrust of the media is probably more rampant than distrust of government.

One of the best examples of reverse-reporting on the Dish was our "It's So Personal" series, a spontaneous outpouring of first-hand accounts from readers confronting late-term abortions, triggered by the murder of abortion doctor George Tiller. My impression at the time:

I've never seen the power of this medium so clearly and up-close: one personal account caused a stream of others. How could old-school reporting have found all these women? How could any third-person account compete with the rawness and honesty and pain of these testimonials? It was a revelation to me about what this medium could do. 

Coincidentally, a reader wrote in yesterday to praise the series:

I first became a regular reader of your blog in 2008-9, in the lead up and aftermath of Obama's first victory, during the financial crisis, and as you covered the Green Rebellion in Iran.  I became particularly taken with the Dish, however, when you started posting letters you were receiving following the murder of George Tiller. 

I am a philosophy professor and often teach bioethics.  For the past few years, when I've been introducing the topic of abortion by reviewing the different methods of abortion (on the premise that getting the empirical facts right is the obvious starting point for philosophical progress), and mentioned late-term abortions ("intact dilation and extraction" aka "partial birth abortion"), I've ended up talking about the "It's so Personal" posts.  I've then posted a link on my course website for the students to read themselves.  So thank you for offering my students a resource for understanding one of life's most complex moral decisions.

P.S. I haven't yet subscribed to the Dish, but that's just because I'm a procrastinator, and probably will wait until I'm forced to subscribe before getting myself officially signed up!

Previous commentary about our readership here. The full discussion thread on the Dish model and its new independence here.

The Dish Meter’s Mechanics

Jonathan Glick wonders about them:

I suspect the longer pieces that trigger the pay-us reminder will need to be original just because writers being aggregated will get pissed if they use long quotes from their stuff to drive subscription sales.

We've been contemplating the best way to use "read-ons" going forward, since the read-on clicks are what will trigger the meter and the please-pay message. We could set the meter lower and only have read-ons on longer original commentary and on reader threads. Or we could set the meter higher and use read-ons essentially as we do now. Or we could just play it by ear, experiment a bit and see what works best. What do you think?

How Much Is A Penny Worth In Business? Ctd

Readers expand the discussion on whether the Dish should just bump up its $19.99 subscription price to 20 bucks:

Apparently it's is also effective to drop the $ sign on prices.

Another reader:

According to at least one study on the penny (pdf), the true purpose of having prices end in .99 is not to "trick" consumers into believing that an item costs less than it really does.  Rather, stores use these prices to deter theft by employees.  If something is priced with an even amount, say $20, the consumer is likely to pay with exact change.  It's fairly easy for a cashier to just pocket the $20 bill without ever ringing up the purchase.  If an item is priced at $19.99, the cashier will probably have to make change.  It'll be pretty obvious if she takes a penny out of her pocket, so she will have to enter the purchase into the register.

Thought this theory might be of interest to you.  And, if true, it implies that it is pretty pointless to price something at $19.99 over the Internet.


Steven Landsburg offered this explanation of 99-cent pricing in his 1993 book, The Armchair Economist: Economics and Everyday Life:  

The phenomenon of "99-cent pricing" seems to have first become common in the nineteenth century, shortly after the invention of the cash register. The cash register was a remarkable innovation; not only did it do simple arithmetic, it also kept a record of every sale. That’s important if you think your employees might be stealing from you. You can examine the tape at the end of the day and know how much money should be in the drawer.

There is one small problem with cash registers: They don’t actually record every sale; they record only those sales that are rung up. If a customer buys an item for $1 and hands the clerk a dollar bill, the clerk can neglect to record the sale, slip the bill in his pocket, and leave no one the wiser.

On the other hand, when a customer buys an item for 99 cents and hands the clerk a dollar bill, the clerk has to make change. This requires him to open the cash drawer, which he cannot do without ringing up the sale. Ninety-ninecent pricing forces clerks to ring up sales and keeps them honest." (

It's a cute theory, but even Landsburg notes some holes. What about states with sales tax, where an item priced in whole dollars would still require change? And why has it persisted, even after the advent of scanners and electronic registers that record sales even when no change is required?

The question seems particularly troubling to economists, because a strong consumer preference for $19.99 over $20 would seem to wreak havoc with the notion of consumers as rational actors. Nevertheless, over the last twenty years, a growing number of empirical studies and experiments have confirmed that 99-cent pricing actually works.

One explanation is for that success is that 99-cent pricing signals to consumers that the item is a bargain, because it's most often used on bargain goods. Consumers aren't buying these items because they mistakenly think that missing penny makes them meaningfully cheaper, the theory suggests, but because they've been flagged as discounts.

A second is that consumers – or at least, some significant subset of consumers – process prices in two discrete units, before and after the decimal. Some people, perhaps don't find it worthwhile to invest the time and effort necessary to pay close attention to prices, and merchants calibrate their pricing to take advantage of their inattention.

You've actually been running your own experiment, with interesting results. There is, practically speaking, no real difference between those sums. At the moment, all contributions are voluntary – even the leaky paywall hasn't yet been put in place – and it's hard to believe that readers who will voluntarily hand over $19.99 would begrudge you the additional penny. And although subscribers are prompted with the $19.99 minimum, they have to manually enter the amount, and it's easier to just put down $20.

Indeed, that's exactly what nearly two thousand of them did. The only catch? Twice as many took the trouble to type out $19.99. I'd say that's fairly solid data in support of the theory that $20 just feels like more money – and that many readers are more likely to take the plunge and invest in the site if that threshold isn't crossed.

Previous parts of this thread here and here.

Why Online Advertising Need Not Die (And Could Just Get Better)

While explaining why, as of February 1st, the Dish won't be taking advertising, I wrote how "distracting and intrusive" online ads can be and "how online ads have created incentives for pageviews over quality content." Mike Masnick pushes back:

[I]t's absolutely true that an awful lot of advertising sucks in exactly the manner described above. But that doesn't mean it needs to be that way. There's a growing recognition in the industry that intrusive and annoying advertising is not the way to go for exactly the reasons that Sullivan explains above. But as we've discussed, when you do advertising right, it's simply good content itself that people want. That's why a month from now, the most popular thing on Superbowl Sunday won't be the football game, but the commercials. There are times that peopleseek out advertising and are happy to see it. And compelling ad/sponsorship campaigns need to be about that. 

Now, it's reasonable to admit that many marketers haven't full grasped this concept, and dragging them, kicking and screaming, into this new era is not something that Sullivan and his team wants to take on. And that's a reasonable argument (and, as someone who's spent way too much time trying to convince marketers of this thing, only to see them default back to silly, pointless, misleading ad metrics, I can completely respect such a decision). But, it seems wrong to slam "all advertising" into a single bucket, just because some (or even a lot of) advertising is done really poorly. 

Agreed. And we have emphatically not ruled out advertizing for ever. It's just that, right now, it's more trouble for a site like ours than it's worth. But if the industry begins to smarten up and find a way to bring creative advertizing that does not impede but enriches the reader experience, we have no philosophical objections to it. Just not yet. In the same vein, Derek Thompson assesses Buzzfeed's business model:

It's probable that the Dish can live a year on subs alone. It's plausible that the Dish can live for two years on subs alone, or three, or 30. But practically everything else — the vast majority of journalism, from the New York Times to the pop culture blogs that specialize in bikini shots — cannot survive on the good will and generosity of their readership, and there is no expectation that they will. Advertising is what makes news and entertainment — first in 19th-century newspapers, then on early 20th-century radio, then on late-20th-century television, and now on early-21st-century Web and mobile — affordable at a mass scale. The news needs successful advertising to breathe.

That's why BuzzFeed's story matters. It's commonly understood that Web advertising stinks, quarantined as it is in miserable banners and squares around article pages. BuzzFeed's approach is different: It designs ads for companies that aim to be as funny and sharable as their other stories. Jonah Peretti, the CEO of BuzzFeed, told the Guardian's Heidi Moore that he attributed nearly all the company's revenues to this sort of "social" advertising. "We work with brands to help them speak the language of the web," Peretti said. "I think there's an opportunity to create a golden age of advertising, like another Mad Men age of advertising, where people are really creative and take it seriously."

How Much Is A Penny Worth In Business? Ctd

Screen shot 2013-01-06 at 5.14.30 PM TP2

A handful of readers differ from the previous ones who protested the .99 pricing:

I'll tell you right now, it works for me.  And I like it. Even at the dollar level: I feel better paying $199 for something than I do $200. I'm not tricked into thinking I'm somehow paying less than I am, but at some emotional level I mind parting with the money less when it's presented to me in that way. So perhaps I *am* being tricked, but I like it.


I, for one, think the $19.99 pricing was sheer genius. I mean, look at all of the folks who have paid more for a Dish subscription. That kind of pricing just begs someone to throw in a bit more. I paid $25. (I think that's what I gave Obama – multiple times.)


To all those who want to pay $20 rather than $19.99:

Shortly before my mother died in 2006 at the age of 83, I witnessed her arguing with a checkout person about two pennies' difference in the price of a single item. I remember becoming somewhat embarrassed for holding up the rather long line. In the end, my mother prevailed. On reflection now, isn’t that how the Depression-era kids built a strong country? And we boomers are squandering the whole thing, penny by penny. I think you should stick with the 99 cents meme.


You'll notice that most really high end restaurants are priced with round dollars (in fact, if they want to look even more premium and their menu designer is worth his salt, they'll drop the .00 ending altogether), while value restaurants like diners are more likely to use the .99. This concept applies across most industries. So I guess you gotta choose how you want people to perceive your product. Is your product a bang for your buck? Or are you a premium brand?

One more:

For me, the psychological difference between $19.99 and $20 is all about the relationship between the buyer and seller. If I'm giving money to a real person that I know, I'm going to give $20. $19.99 is more like some sort of "easy payment" I send to some faceless company. As a reader of your blog, I feel like I know you, so it'd be awkward to do $19.99. Louis CK is also someone I feel that I know through his work, so paying $5 instead of $4.99 for his latest album makes sense, and in some way makes the transaction feel a bit more personal.

The link to pay $19.99, 20 bucks, or more for an independent, ad-free Dish is here. The whole staff is working overtime to roll out the new site by February 1st.

(Chart from TinyPass. Statistics current as of 5 pm Sunday.)

How Much Is A Penny Worth In Business?

A reader writes:

You seem to be soliciting opinions, so I’d get rid of the .99 if I were you and just make it $20. I think the .99 makes the whole thing seem sorta cheap. Your audience is much better than that (although I did appreciate humor in the $9,999.99 donation).

Another is more blunt:

The .99 cents business has always struck me as plain and simple bullshit that I always round it out to the dollar amount.  Anyone who is taken in by $19.99 rather than $20.00 is a fool.


Myself, I dislike the .99 pricing (and the 9/10 cent on gasoline is the most stupid variant) and I suspect you would not see a significant variation.  The place where .99 pricing comes into play is when you have direct competition to whom you haver to price match.  That's not the case with The Dish … yet. 


99-cent pricing for smaller ticket items can work, because people look at the left numbers of the price more than the right. But this effect can backfire by making items seem cheap.  Nice things are usually priced in whole dollars. In other words, it's gimmicky, may increase sales among value shoppers, but may make your product seem cheap to non-value shoppers. (I looked to see if I could find something backing up my memory, and found this article in Science Daily.) So I'd change your asking price to $20 if I were you. Your product is not cheap and you're not marketing to people who need to you to use a psychological trick to get them to pony up!  (I subscribed yesterday!)

More reader feedback and empirical evidence on pricing below:

I'm a new reader of The Dish (which I found out about from stories about your new subscription model), and I don't see how to comment on a Dish post directly on the website, or I would have done that. But in response to your post about "that .99 stuff", Wikipedia calls it "psychological pricing" and references some research on it. It's hard to get a sense for the research from the Wikpedia article, but it sounds like one of the studies found that psychological pricing is effective. 

But personally I adhor it; and if I subscribe to your new site, which I am strongly considering, I will donate an extra penny just to be able to pay $20!

Another with first-hand experience elaborates on "psychological pricing":

I have been in the marketing and advertising field since 1996 and before that studied microeconomics which leads me to this perspective. Most consumers will ignore the .99 part of the price and round down to $19 subconsciously. This means for the cost of charging $0.01 less than $20, you are gaining $0.99 – a 99:1 return on investment one penny at a time! This is why you typically see pricing always end with 95 or 99 – especially in tight margin businesses.

This type of approach plays on the psychology of the consumer and works best when you know the exact price at when a consumer is no longer willing to purchase. In this scenario, your $19.99 price assumes that $20 is too high for your consumer and therefore you need to send the signal to the consumer that the price is not $20. 

If $20 is the efficient threshold at which consumers will not pay for a subscription, charging $19 vs. $19.99 will probably lead to statistically insignificant differences in signup levels; whereas the $0.01 difference between $20 vs. $19.99 would. If this was academic, and not your livelihood, we could run an experiment where consumers who go to the signup page see either $20, $19.99 or $19 as the price and then measure if there is a statistically significant difference in signup rate. Many ecommerce sites are now using this type of testing to ensure that they are charging the most efficient pricing at any given point. 


Anecdotally, I consulted for one wine retailer in particular whose owner swore by the .99, so much so that when he overheard me tell a prospective buyer "It's $25 per bottle," he blew a gasket and upbraided me right then & there. Thankfully, a regular was nearby, walked over and said to the owner, "Come on, man. Nobody actually believes they're getting a deal because of a penny." And that's why I gave you $25 even!

Another points to this piece in Business Insider:

The illusion, Schindler says, isn't the last number on the price tag. It's the first number. "People focus more on the left-most digit," says Schindler, who reviewed about 100 different studies in performing his meta-analysis. "Just-below pricing certainly makes it seem like the price is less than it actually is. It gives an image of being a bargain or a discount."

Another cites a countertuitive finding we've noted before:

At least one study published in 2003 by two economists from MIT and University of Chicago showing that not only does an item priced at $39 sell much more than the same item priced at $40 (and by much more than needed to offset the extra dollar not made), but that the same item priced at $39 actually sells more than if priced at $34, because we're psychologically disposed to think the one ending in 9 is a better deal.


Of course .99 works.  We all know that.  Even companies such as Saturn ("A different kind of car company") with its one-price-for-everyone model, and Apple ("Think different") could not bring themselves to drop the .99 from their pricing. 

The next trend, I fear:  My local "99 cents" store (I'm in Berkeley, CA) prices everything at "99.99 cents".  Yes, you read that correctly.  They know their name gives them an edge over the abundance of "dollar stores" out there, but they still charge you a dollar (rounded up)!  You would need to buy 100 items ($99.99) in order to get a penny back in change.   Does the Dish really want to join this crass, deceptive culture?  Make the Dish an even 20.

Another suggests:

Personally, I prefer the straightforward $20 to the sneaky $19.99, but perhaps you could set up your own experiment: randomly display either a $19.99 price or a $20 price when visitors load this page and record what percentage of visitors actually donate.

By the way, your map of purchases by location brought to mind a recent comment (which I would attribute to its author if I could remember where I read it) that most heat maps (the technical term for this type of graphical display) are really just population density maps. In other words,it's no wonder that NY and CA are the most darkly shaded states. Perhaps shading according to donations per capita might reveal more salient information.

To close, let me thank you for going to a metered model rather than throwing up a paywall. I resent paywalls enough that I would not have subscribed under that model. But given that your model feels more like a donation or a tip jar, I'll be sending in $20.00 the next time I have a positive PayPal balance.

If you are interested in joining that reader in subscribing to the independent, ad-free Dish, go here. And thanks to everyone for the great feedback, please keep it coming.

The Dish Model, Ctd

Noah Millman, who wishes us well on our new venture, contemplates the economics of the web:

[N]one of Sullivan’s revenue will downstream to the content-creators on whom he depends. And that remains the essential business-model problem of the written word in the age of the internet. Newspapers were vertically-integrated: the same organization produced the content, aggregated it, and delivered it. But in the age of the internet, the delivery mechanism and editorial function have been disaggregated from content-production. You get access to the internet from a utility company like Verizon that does not own and is not responsible for providing content. And you find what you want using an advertising-supported search engine like Google that similarly does not own and is not responsible for producing content. Or through a reliable aggregator like Andrew Sullivan, who also does not own or pay for most of the content he steers people towards. These business models depend on content-generation for their own viability, but they aren’t primarily responsible for content-generation.

It’s easy to see how things could be structured differently. Aggregators could downstream a fraction of their advertising or subscription revenue to producers of content that was clicked through to. But it’s not obvious what would motivate these entities to adopt such a model, there being no actual shortage of content. And there will never be a shortage of content, because there is a large enough group of people who will do this for fun, whether or not it is profitable.

All questions we are closely considering as we go along. More on this soon. Freddie DeBoer, for his part, focuses on the Dish’s endless search for new online voices:

I literally started this blog at a public library, here on Blogger’s free platform using Blogger’s free server space, with no connections in media or journalism or commentary, no published work, and seemingly no entrance into the Byzantine and cliquish world of professional media. I had little thought of anyone reading this blog. But within two weeks or so of starting it, Andrew Sullivan had linked to one of my pieces, and from their came far more clicks, links, and attention. My readership is small, but it is committed, and while I am terrible at communicating with people who thank me for my work, their support means everything.

This is still an amateur blog, one for which I have never received a dime, although I have had people buy me books from my Amazon wish list, for which I’m immensely grateful. That amateur status suits me fine, both pragmatically and theoretically. But to be in the conversation, to have the ability to weigh in and be listened to– that’s a blessing, and I owe it to Andrew and his deep commitment to equality on the level of ideas. Whatever disagreements I may have with Andrew or with the Dish as an entity, his fierce commitment to looking anywhere and everywhere for fresh voices, quality writing, and provocative opinions is a profound credit to him. When it comes to writing, he is truly an egalitarian. More than anything, that commitment, and the workload it requires, will be his enduring legacy. I can only thank him and his staff and wish them all the best.

You can read Freddie on a regular basis at L’Hôte, his excellent little blog. Update via email from Patrick O’Connor, whose tweet is embedded above:

FWIW that tweet was made within moments of reading about the plan at Huff Puff before they corrected their story saying the rate would be $19.95 a month, not $19.99 a year. So I retweeted “never mind” soon after. After learning the correct (and very reasonable) amount to be charged, I regretted the flippancy of tweet’s “huh?” I have great admiration for what you all do.

O’Connor adds:

By the way, I don’t know if any of you are Californians, but a dear member of the California Public Broadcast community passed away today at 67. His name was Huell Howser. Everyone I know is very upset at his passing. He was like Fred Rogers for grown ups. His programs on every facet of California life are treasures. His format was simple. No crew for his shoots. There was a hand-held cameraman. Huell was his own sound man, holding a microphone. He would travel thoughout the state, stopping wherever appealed to his fancy to interview the locals. It was as close to blogging as you could do on television. For example, did you know that the world’s biggest wisteria vine was just east of Pasadena in Sierra Madre?

New Year, New Dish, New Media, New Update

We promised to keep you informed about progress. Over the weekend, we passed the critical, symbolic figure of $420,000. At last count this afternoon, we're at $440,000 in pre-subscriptions. That's a staggering number in less than a week.

It has died down, of course, after an initial rush. But we know there are serious Dish-lovers out there reading this who have not yet subscribed. We're only half-way up our fiscal cliff for the year – so we still badly need your support. If you want to keep this blog alive and well and making trouble for the indefinite future, you can get your pre-subscription here. My post explaining the whole ad-free, reader-based model is here.

Become a member for only a nickel a day in under two minutes here.

The Dish’s Core Strength


Conor Friedersdorf, a Dish alum, understands that strength is you:

I finally saw the reader inbox in all its glory while guest blogging for Sullivan as he vacationed. It's a gig I did several times, all of them while The Dish was hosted here at The Atlantic. I've never received so much delightful correspondence. The Dish readership is massive, highly educated, ideologically diverse, employed in a stunning array of fields, and spread out across the world. Of course, those same attributes characterize the readership here at The Atlantic, and I've gotten tons of wonderful emails in the course of my current job, but something about the blogger's personal, informal tone inspires correspondence of a different character. Compare the comments on the average item here at The Atlantic with the loyal readers Ta-Nehisi Coates has cultivated in the comments section of his blog, where it's more like an intimate community.

Alex Massie, who has also guest-blogged on the Dish, bets that "many bloggers could perhaps raise more money from an annual 'pledge week' than they suspect":

Not enough to compensate them for all their time but enough to make a difference. I think – actually, I just hope – that some goodly proportion of readers (at whatever "level" you’re at) appreciate that, at some point, not everything can be free and that even "amateurs" catering to small or specialist audiences merit some compensation for the enjoyment they provide.

(Photos from Dish readers' Gmail profiles, used with permission. Become a founding member of an independent, ad-free Dish here.)