Andrew Sullivan’s Solo Gig and the Future of Premium Content

The Internet makes it easy for just about anyone to call himself, for better or worse, a writer. Just open a Blogger or WordPress account, write a few posts and you’re in business. This kind of freedom has given a diverse host of writers and bloggers the opportunity to build loyal audiences and online communities with just their wit and words—and to do so without being tethered to a particular publication or a set of sponsors.

But there’s a bit of a dark side to the quickly growing popularity of digital content: It’s laid waste to traditional print outlets and their inflexible advertising models. Newsweek saw the writing on the wall (or screen, or whatever) in late 2012, and editor-in-chief Tina Brown made the decision to discontinue the physical version of the magazine after more than 80 years in print.

And now, Newsweek and its digital sister site The Daily Beast are starting 2013 by losing one of their most popular bylines, political writer and blogger Andrew Sullivan. Shortly after the start of this year, Sullivan announced that he and his blog, The Daily Dish, are going indie:

“For the first time in human history, a writer – or group of writers and editors – can instantly reach readers – even hundreds of thousands of readers across the planet – with no intermediary at all.”

This isn’t the first time Sullivan’s left a digital home to build a new one: He left Time for The Atlantic in 2007, and moved again to join The Daily Beast in 2011. But what makes this move so remarkable is that Sullivan plans to rely solely on his online community of readers to sponsor his work. For just $19.99 a year, readers get access to the same Daily Dish they got for free at The Daily Beast. This also means that he’s accountable only to the people who read his posts every day, not to any sponsor or advertiser. By offering premium content to readers willing to pay for it, Sullivan can afford to be daring and innovative.

So, how successful might Sullivan be as an independent blogger? And what could this mean for the future of premium content—and, for that matter, the power of advertisers to determine how and where content is consumed?

The Power of a Personal Brand

The first and most important way to answer this question is to examine Sullivan’s powerful personal brand. Within 24 hours of his announcement, he and his staff received pre-launch subscriptions that totaled more than $330,000. That’s a lot of scratch, and it demonstrates the ability of a writer to cultivate a loyal audience. And with gigs as a TV pundit and a regular panel guest on shows like Bill Maher’s Real Time, he’ll maintain the traditional media visibility that could help him attract and maintain a healthy readership.

Andrew Sullivan’s personal brand is powerful, but so is his work. From his personal stories about being gay, living as an HIV-positive man and becoming an American citizen, to his detailed and sometimes overzealous posts about American politics and religion, he has maintained such a large audience by writing compelling content and delivering it consistently. If his experiment succeeds, it will be because people want to read what he writes—and if it fails, the blame will lay with him and him alone.

There are lessons to be learned from Andrew Sullivan’s decision to create content and deliver it through his own distribution model. But what his blog illustrates most clearly is that the best content, aimed at the right audience and at the right time, will always stand out.

For more content creation tips, check out our free guide: The 5 Ws of Content Creation.

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