The Dish Model, Ctd

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In the spirit of transparency that we promised for the new independent Dish, above is a screenshot from the first month of affiliate revenue generated by the occasional Amazon links we insert for books mentioned in Dish posts. For years, under The Atlantic and Daily Beast, the Dish has linked to Amazon, so this isn’t a new practice by any means. Now that we are an independent site and have to meet our own uncertain budget, we might as well collect the pennies on the dollar for the items purchased on the site. As you can see, the first month brought in $1,253.91 – hardly a windfall. At that rate, if we end up making in the neighborhood of $15,000 for the year, it would just about cover our health insurance costs for both interns ($6,396 a year each).

We recently aired a debate that Hairpin fostered over whether blogs should link to Amazon. Here’s our reasoning:

The vast majority of Dish readers already use Amazon to purchase books online, so we see it as a convenience to provide a link. And in line with our long campaign against dead-tree publishing, we only link to the e-book versions of the titles we mention, despite them being cheaper and thus generating less revenue for the Dish. Also, only one staffer is in charge of inserting the Amazon links after posts and their book mentions are already drafted, as to not incentivize anyone to add mentions for the sake of generating affiliate revenue. Maria Popova of Brain Pickings has a similar view on the subject, as conveyed through Felix Salmon:

[Popova] doesn’t consider her affiliate links to be advertising, and she still says on her tip jar and on her donations page that the site is ad-free. Here’s how Popova sees the difference:

I’d be writing about the books I read anyway, whether or not they “generate a sale,” and that’s not true of an ad, which simply wouldn’t exist then.

There is a certain logic to this. It’s even reasonable to say that she’d be linking to the Amazon page for each book anyway; I, for instance, link to Amazon most of the time that I write about a book, without any affiliate link. In that sense, even the link to Amazon is a natural part of what one expects from a blog, and is not intrusive advertising which is only there because it generates revenue for the advertiser.

On the other hand, the fundamental property of advertising is that it advertises, not that it’s intrusive or gratuitous. (In glossy luxury magazines, for instance, the advertising is a necessary and fundamental part of the editorial product, just as much as it is the main source of income for the publisher.) So it’s understandable that many people, including Amazon, consider affiliate links to be advertising (as opposed to, say, some kind of biz-dev relationship). What’s more, many such links — especially when they’re accompanied by photographs of the product in question, and live permanently in the right rail of a website — are unambiguously advertisements.

It’s easy to overstate the importance of this point. The question here is just whether Popova can or should continue to describe her site as “ad-free” if she uses Amazon affiliate links: it’s not some kind of existential threat to her dual-income model.

I think it’s ad-free if it doesn’t have any advertisements or advertorials. So I consider us ad-free as well, even though we get a fraction of the money from Amazon than Maria. A much more craven approach can be found at Instapundit. He writes whole posts entirely for Amazon revenue purposes, and there’s absolutely no distinction between them and other posts. Check this post from today. Or this.

The Dish Experiment, Ctd

Amanda Palmer gives a really smart talk on funding the arts and on the intimacy between creators and fans:

Felix Salmon uses the talk to discuss the Dish’s [tinypass_offer text=”economic model”] and paywalls more generally (fresh Dish data after the jump):

[T]he more formidable the paywall, the more money you might generate in the short term, but the less likely it is that new readers are going to discover your content and want to subscribe to you in the future.

Amazing offline resources like the Oxford English Dictionary and the Encylopedia Britannica are facing existential threats not only because their paywalls are too high for people to feel that they’re worth subscribing to, but also because their audiences are not being replaced at nearly the rate at which they’re dying off. The FT, for instance, has discovered that its current subscriber base is pretty price-insensitive, and has taken the opportunity to raise its subscription prices aggressively. That makes perfect sense if Pearson, the FT’s parent, is looking to maximize short term cashflows, especially if it’s going to sell off the FT sooner rather than later anyway. But if you’re trying to build a brand which will flourish over the long term, it’s important to make that brand as discoverable as possible.

I’ve found Felix’s analysis of the question of how to get content paid for has been extremely clarifying. One small point. He writes:

If you look at the $611,000 that Sullivan has raised to date, essentially none of it has come from people who feel forced to cough up $20 per year in order to be able to read his website. To a first approximation, all of that money has come from supporters: people who want Sullivan, and the Dish, to continue.

That’s not entirely accurate. We started selling pre-subscriptions without the meter running because of time constraints between announcing our shift (early January) and implementing it (early February). But in the last 30 days, with the meter running for only 28 of them, we raised just over $100K. That’s one fifth of what might be called the kickstarter period.

Here are the sales of subs for the past 30 days:

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Of course, we don’t know what will happen in the next thirty days. But the weekly waves of new subscribers does show the meter working at the margins. If it were to keep up this pace – which, of course, I doubt because I am a pessimist – we’d bring in $1.2 million a year from the meter alone. As for the meter, we now have 14,500 readers at their maximum 6 or 7 clicks and about to hit the meter request. If they all decided to sign up, we’d instantly have close to $300,000 more and hit our target for the year in keeping the Dish viable within its previous budget.

We have eleven more months to get there. You can help us – and help pioneer the simplest, clearest model for supporting online journalism – by subscribing [tinypass_offer text=”here”].

The Dish Experiment

The NYT’s Brian Stelter interviewed yours truly about it:

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If you want to be a part of this, and maybe help kickstart a new, clearer, sustainable model for new media, you can subscribe [tinypass_offer text=”here”]. We need you to make this work, because only you can make this work. My original manifesto for the entire project is here.

Is The Dish A “Community”?

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A reader writes:

I’ve known since the day you announced the change that I was going to [tinypass_offer text=”subscribe”], because there is no single thing on the Internet that has enriched my life more than The Dish in the past six years. But because I’m extremely broke, and saving up for an engagement ring to boot, I’ve been waiting to subscribe, thinking that at some point it would become inevitable because of the meter and then I’d be able to justify my spending to my inner voice of frugality.  But after reading the obnoxiously condescending dissent you aired, claiming that I must be a really sad person to feel a sense of community around the Dish, I can’t help but subscribe right this minute.

I’m really surprised that this reader has never felt any sense of kinship with someone merely because they share some intellectual interests. I won’t stoop to his level and call him sad, but I do pity him for never experiencing, for example, the fun of being in an elevator with someone carrying a copy of your favorite book, and exchanging knowing glances about the cliffhanger at the end. We are all part of many, many wordless communities. Has he really never seen someone else wearing a jersey from his favorite sports team on game day and shared a brief but powerful connection because of it? Has he never chuckled at an inside joke on a stranger’s bumper sticker or vanity plate?

But there’s an even more important reason I want to subscribe: yours ISN’T a wordless community at all, and your airing of his dissent (and other reader responses) proves that. I’ve never encountered any media outlet or quasi-public figure who so often acknowledged criticism and attacks on him and on his ideas. I hope some day to be half as comfortable as you hearing people say that I’m an idiot.

You get used to it after a while. And sometimes they’re right. Another reader is on the same page:

I consider myself American, that is a member of the community called “America.”  Does that identity become invalid simply because I don’t interact with the overwhelming majority of them?  I also don’t happen to interact with almost anyone in my neighborhood beyond my roommates, but I’m still considered part of that “community.” On the Dish, I’ve had e-mails posted, read threads that have led to many interesting conversations with others, and been exposed to the experiences and viewpoints of a diverse array of individuals I couldn’t hope to replicate myself.  In my opinion, the VFYW contest alone invalidates their point.

On that note, another writes:

I don’t bother joining in on the View From Your Window contests, preferring to read the guesses of others who have more time than I to figure those things out. But I was surprised when I read one of this week’s entries from the woman who sent in the picture taken by her fiancé of her looking out the window of the Puerto Rican fort. I’m not sure I would have recognized her from the back, but her description of being in San Juan in December and traveling on to Vieques to celebrate their engagement made me gasp. I received a note from a former student of mine in early January telling me that he and his wife-to-be were vacationing in Vieques over the holidays. And this young couple will be coming up to visit us on Thursday. We consider them dear friends, but we didn’t know until I wrote them a few minutes ago that we both follow your blog. Small world in more ways than one!

More small-world moments from our contest here and here. Another reader dissents:

You asked, “Why else would so many people send us links or write emails like yours or send in their window views or vote for awards and so on if they were not part of a community?” I will never regard the Dish as a community while you insist on running reader contributions anonymously. As far as I know, none of the media outlets you worked at prior (and during) your time at the Dish remove the attribution of the people who contribute letters and other forms of feedback. I don’t begrudge your newly independent site its success, but I would never pay for it while that policy is in place. It seems like an attempt to downplay the fact that a lot of what makes the Dish interesting is written by people who are not named Andrew Sullivan.

There are reasons for that. First, if we identified every reader by name, we would feel obliged to run our edit of their emails for their permission first. The time that would take back and forth would be enormous, and the conversation would have moved on by then. The second is that this blogazine has a single voice and it is a mixture of individual – me – and collective – my colleagues and you. Keeping that intact and integrating the readers into the product in the same voice keeps the place coherent, and doesn’t separate us from you. Third, we want the arguments to count, not the egos. And we want to create a safe space for people to say things they might feel uncomfortable saying under their own name. I do not think we would have been able to collect the breadth and depth of our testimonials on the “Cannabis Closet”or the extraordinary stories in our thread on late-term abortion without providing a safe space as free of ego and comments-section-bile as possible.

Another dissenter:

“Because we are a community.” No we’re not. We are something, but not a community. Who is gonna give me a job? Or be a really nice person and give me $1,000 dollars to get me through the next month and fix the car along with it? Or drive me to the doctor since the car isn’t running?  None of you come over and hang out on my back porch. And I don’t run into any of you in the supermarket, even though two of us might be in the supermarket at the same time.

I don’t have time to read all of the sources. You and the rest of you are a great bunch of editors. Someday, when I have a job, it’s worth 20 bucks a year to have you around.

Several more readers share their thoughts on the Dish community:

I’m a new father of a baby daughter, who just moved his family into an apartment, and the money is extremely tight right now. But once I get the extra scratch I am going to 1) subscribe to The Dish and 2) donate to my local NPR station. Both of which I heavily rely on for news, information and intelligent discourse. What I get from these sources is well worth my money and, when the time comes, I expect to feel a little ping of pride in being a subscriber to The Dish.

The thing is, even without giving dollar one, I still feel a sense of community. The vast and diverse segment of the population that are Dish readers is constantly astounding to me. Whether or not I agree with a reader whose email you showcase, I know that at the very least they put some thought into it and are sincere. Thinking and sincerity isn’t something you would normally find in a comments section.

Another:

I probably send more emails to the Dish than to any one person I know outside of work, other than my close relatives and girlfriend. To the extent that “community” and “communication” have a shared root (which they do),qm The Dish is a community to me. And in any community, there are those who get a thrill up their leg being an active member (your “dorky” subscriber), and those who keep their distance from any displays of affection (your dissenter). And there are those who simply appreciate the stimulation the community provides and find it occasional cathartic to throw in their two cents (or pence in my case) by shooting of an email.

The Dish is not Oprah. It is that rare thing on the Internet: a place for intelligent discussion that wears itself lightly. Most of the web communities I’ve seen are populated by either emotion-infused screeds or dispassionate analyses that betray nothing of the writer’s bias. The Dish is the only place I find commentary that doesn’t pander to either extreme. In part because reader feedback is moderated. But largely because, while biased, the editing is, as you claim, remarkably balanced.  The attitude that led you to publish dissents of the day is I think the most compelling reason for the blog’s enduring success.

Another:

On whether the Dish is a community, I never gave it much thought but that’s besides the point. My main draw is that there are no comments. I see real discussions, not the mutated form that passes for “debate” these days, saturated with ad hominem and strawman attacks. I want to read comments to see what people think and use those thoughts to build, strength or reconsider my own ideas, but it’s disheartening (and time consuming) when the vast majority of comments I see on news-related sites contribute so little, and all they do is get my stress up.

I think part of this is not the inherent nature of comments itself, but our failure to teach people about real discussions. I admit there was an aspect of The Dish that made me uncomfortable, which was this very fact that we are at the mercy of you and your staff to judge which of our emails are worthy. It took some time to build that trust but now I now trust your abilities as our filter and to present a range of informed opinions. I don’t agree with everything I read, but I think it’s a mark of a good discussion when I can disagree without feeling like I was personally insulted.

In typing this email, it made me realize how much I’ve come to love The Dish, so I just subscribed.

You can join him and 21,387 other founding members [tinypass_offer text=”here”].

The Dish Model, Ctd

Readers follow up on our health insurance post:

My son had what I think is a great idea for companies/merchants: they should have a sticker or something that identifies that they provide health insurance for their employees.  I did some investigating when my dry cleaning went up and found a cheaper service but they didn’t provide health insurance for their workers, so instead of switching solely on price, I stayed with the old service and paid the extra 34c per shirt.  I’m sure others would like to know who provides and who doesn’t.  It would impact our patronage.

Another:

I am curious as to whether you provide health insurance for your employees’ families as well.  I run a similarly sized business as yours and currently do not, but I am reconsidering.

Dish Publishing LLC provides healthcare for our staffers’ spouses. We would also cover employees’ children but no one on staff has kids. Another quotes me:

One thing I’ve learned from a foray into business is that you really do have to make some moral calls. I realize that I’m not such a capitalist, after all, since my goal, I realized, was not really to be rich (I’m doing fine) but to do what I love in as efficient and as fair a way as possible – and to work with people I respect and love.

I’m quite certain you are full of shit with this sentence. Why slur the “capitalists”?

Take your blinders off and rid your thinking of these strawman stereotypes. The vast vast majority of “capitalists” don’t really set off with the goal of “being rich” but in reality are just like you. “Capitalists” want to do what they love, work with people they like, and make a meaningful contribution to society. Capitalists are people like Ray Kroc, Steve Jobs, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Sylvester Stallone, Henry Ford. Capitalists are simply people who have a passion for serving others and meeting people’s unmet needs and wants. If they do it well and enough other people appreciate what they do, the end result may just be that they become Rich. But it’s almost never the goal at the outset!

Another agrees:

You don’t have to be greedy, amoral, or Milton Friedman to be a capitalist! You are an entrepreneur innovating a new business model to support a unique product. Society values that product enough to pay for it, and you (and your staff and interns) prosper. Moreover, you are making choices along the way designed to make this model sustainable over the long term, which turns out to be in the best interest of all stakeholders (because your incentives are aligned with theirs).

In other words, you are the BEST kind of capitalist. Please don’t shrug off the label or else we’ll lose it forever to the Ayn Rand crowd!

Another circles back to healthcare:

Regarding the following quote from a reader: “Should I ever leave this position, I could possibly be forced into the open market where, as an otherwise healthy 43-year-old man, a minor heart attack three years ago would likely prevent me from EVER being covered outside a group policy offered by an employer.” Could you please tell your reader that, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, “EVER” means “for the next 11 months”? As of 1/1/2014, your reader (assuming that he is not an illegal immigrant) will be able to get non-group coverage through the exchanges, without his premiums being impacted by his prior heart condition. As someone who works in health insurance, I recognize I’m way too close to this subject to understand the average man-on-the-street’s perception of the ACA, but I’m flabbergasted that your reader was unaware of this.

Another reader on the subject:

I’m an avid Dishhead for a few years now and happy to be a new subscriber. Your reader inquired about your relationship to the Affordable Care Act in regards to paying your employees’ health care. I wanted to note that there is a current option for small business owners to apply for a tax credit of up to 35%, raising to 50% in 2014. An eligible small business in this case is under 25 employees with an average salary of $50K or less that provides at least half of the employees with health care. Perhaps that doesn’t apply to The Dish but it sounds like some readers (specifically one you featured who described their business of 9 employees) might benefit from looking into it. Here’s the IRS application page with more info.

Good luck on your new adventure. I’m eager to see where it leads.

The Dish Model, Ctd

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mnCcoq-BNS4]

Mathew Ingram sees a new trend among disparate artists and writers:

In many ways, conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan and alternative musician Amanda Palmer couldn’t be more different: the former writes about the Obama administration and the intricacies of U.S. foreign policy, while the latter is the former lead singer of a punk band called The Dresden Dolls and sports hand-painted eyebrows, among other things. Their approach to their respective businesses, however — in both cases a very personal form of publishing — are similar in one crucial way: they succeed or fail based on how well they connect with and serve their fans. Is this the future of media? … Fans don’t want content, they want a relationship.

When I read this, the first thing that came to mind was the “pay what you want” music experiments of bands like Radiohead and Girl Talk, both of whom asked their fans to pay for songs that they could have easily downloaded for free, and got millions of dollars in response. Why did fans do this? Because they wanted to support those artists, not because they wanted music for free — just as readers who want to support Sullivan probably don’t care that they can get the content free via an RSS reader (Note: Sullivan will be discussing his new approach at our paidContent Live conference on April 17 in New York).

The Kickstarter campaign that Amanda Palmer ran last year to raise funds for a new album and a national tour falls into the same category (as does comedian Louis CK’s method of going direct to his fans to sell a concert tour): after quitting a deal with a traditional record label, Palmer initially wanted to raise $100,000 to fund her recording. Instead, she collected 10 times that amount, or more than $1 million. And the reason why her fans wanted to donate all of that money has very little to do with their desire to get an album, or even to see her perform.

The Dish Model, Ctd

Eric Zorn makes a key observation about our ad-free, subscription-supported site:

[The second big test for Sullivan after he makes his initial fundraising nut will be whether he can sustain his operation without incessant pledge drives. After consulting with several journalists who cover online media I could identify only one other significant ad-free media site, Reader Supported News, an aggregator of liberal commentary that for at least two weeks every month bombards subscribers to its email newsletter with urgent appeals for money (21 such entreaties from Jan. 12 to Jan. 28 of this year, for example, with such subject headers as “Pick Up the Donation Pace, We Implore You”).

The site, a spinoff of the similarly themed but advertiser-backed TruthOut, has survived since the fall of 2009 purely by banging the cyber tin cup. Founder Marc Ash told me via email that he raises $65,000 a month this way and supports a staff of 14, though he declined to answer my questions about what this large staff does, given that nearly everything on his site simply links elsewhere, or to allay my suspicions that it’s far smaller or even nonexistent given that he posts no staff directory.

Sullivan, in contrast, has been striving for transparency, updating his readers frequently on his plans and progress, and avoiding the piteous hard sell that can make funding appeals more irritating than a thousand pop-up ads.

The Dish Model, Ctd

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A reader writes:

I just subscribed. I planned on doing it soon, but hearing that you provide health insurance to your interns made me do it immediately. Even if I never read your blog again, I wanted to at least provided a tiny bit towards your efforts to provide health insurance.

In fact, of course, you are providing health insurance, since the independent Dish launching on Monday is completely funded by reader subscriptions. Another writes:

6a00d83451c45669e2017ee7e947ce970d-200wiMy husband and I own a small business that has 9 employees, so we know how much it costs (in dollars) to provide them health insurance. But to not do so would be, in my estimation, a moral failure on our part.

They are our family, those we trust and rely on to help make our dreams a reality. If we have the resources to free them from the fear of losing work, time, and money due to illness, I firmly believe it is our moral and civic duty to do so. People always come before Money.

One thing I’ve learned from a foray into business is that you really do have to make some moral calls. I realize that I’m not such a capitalist, after all, since my goal, I realized, was not really to be rich (I’m doing fine) but to do what I love in as efficient and as fair a way as possible – and to work with people I respect and love. I realized that I could not employ someone I respect and love if he or she didn’t have access to a doctor if he or she got sick. This was not a hard call. It’s reflexive. But it was not really an entirely business call either – unless you are smart enough to realize that treating interns well is about as sensible thing a start-up media company can do. Chris and Patrick and Zoe all started as interns. They’re now pillars of the enterprise, and two are co-owners of the company. Another sends the above photo:

Just saw the post about how you pay your interns – which is wonderful, by the way – and I wanted to direct your attention to the Pay Your Interns tote bag. I saw someone sporting the bag in Brooklyn a few days ago and I had to order one for myself. The OWS-affiliated Intern Labor Rights sells the bags for a very reasonable $10 at internlaborrights. wordpress.com. Mine arrived in the mail yesterday, and I think you’ll agree it’s rather fetching.

Not quite as fetching as this classic tote, however:

Continue reading The Dish Model, Ctd