The Subscription Cycle: Why Andrew Sullivan’s Switching to the Pay Model and Everyone Else Should Too

OFFTHEMEDIAAs a business, the journalism industry is bipolar. For basically all of its history, it’s been bouncing between two opposing revenue models.

Though many were shocked at the news last week that uber-blogger Andrew Sullivan would be leaving The Daily Beast, opting out of the endless chase for pageviews and switching his blog to a subscription model at $19.99 a year, they shouldn’t have been. It’s nothing new…at all.

Like some inexorable law of physics, journalism has long followed a cycle: For awhile tries to give the news away (or sell it cheap), generally driving the whole profession into the toilet in doing so. Then suddenly the industry rediscovers the long terms benefits and calming effect of selling the product by subscription or otherwise serving its most loyal customers.

It’s a whipsaw effect born mostly out of our impulse to embrace new technology without questioning its implications. The cycle, when you look at it, is almost comical.

Originally, the earliest newspapers (founded or connected to political parties) had solid subscription bases from party members. Then, exploiting newfound mass printing technology around the time of the Civil War, papers—actually called the Penny Press—switched to the Cash & Carry method. Think: a newsboy offering cheap papers filled with ads to busy pedestrians.

If you recall, this had tragic social consequences. One-off sales, though lucrative, often depend on sensationalism, fear-mongering and scandal, because those are the things that break through the noise. They pump up circulation. End result: yellow journalism and the Spanish American War.

Readers and writers and publishers became exhausted and disillusioned with it. When Adolph Ochs took over the New York Times in the 1890s, he came up with the slogan: “All The News That’s Fit to Print.” The runner up? “All The World’s News, but Not a School for Scandal.” Shortly thereafter, the New York Times was the first newspaper to solicit a subscription via telephone. And it was this model that dominated the industry for most of the 20th century—a daily newspaper delivered to your door.

It’s what gave us investigative journalism, Woodward and Bernstein and the Pentagon Papers. There were downsides of course, as Noam Chomsky has noted, but for the most part this system works. Why? Because publishers who deliver a product to paying customers every day need to care about quality and truth. If they don’t, subscriptions dry up.

 Flash forward to recent times and we get the same old naivete: new technology makes mass distribution cheaper and easier. The internet discards subscription and paid models to embrace the one-off visitors from search engines, social media and web surfers. The news is free, and to survive, each story must get many pageviews and earn advertising revenue. The result: celebrity slideshows, trolling, linkbait, pseudo-news, conflicts of interest and whatever will get you to click the headline.

The difference between the economic model of the Penny Press and today’s free blogs is, well, a penny. What you read online is free, but yellow newspapers basically were too—the real revenue was in advertising. The two models are otherwise identical in approach, style and shamelessness. And more important, those papers and today’s blogs sell themselves the same way: by shouting louder than their competitors. The distinction between a busy street corner or the crowded pages of Google News is not a big one.

In Los Angeles in 1921, a circulation battle between two newspapers essentially wrecked the career of international star Fatty Arbuckle with a false scandal. It was a stunning wake-up call to the industry and the public. In 2011 and 2012, we saw Julian Assange in similar crosshairs: the same blogs and papers who made him a newsworthy figure suddenly jumped on similarly unproven allegations. Adam Lanza’s brother was wrongly identified by bloggers and reporters all hoping to out-scoop each others.

Like I said, it’s a cycle.

That cycle is a little like an ugly drunken hookup: we wake up the next morning and cannot believe we let it happen. News sold cheaply is rarely news done well. News that’s given away for free to readers who click whatever headline catches their attention? Even worse. It might be more profitable in the short run, but it is not sustainable.

The bitter fight for circulation hits rock bottom somewhere, and the journalists in that system grow to hate what they have become.

Andrew Sullivan, in his announcement last week, described subscription as the “purest, simplest model for online journalism: you, us, and a meter. Period. No corporate ownership, no advertising demands, no pressure for pageviews … just a concept designed to make your reading experience as good as possible, and to lead us not into temptation.”

It’s fitting that the New York Times, roughly 100 years after making the industry-shifting bet on subscription, is the one rolling out the web’s first truly successful paywall. I like that entrepreneurs like Marco Arment are contributing with products like The Magazine. Bloggers are starting to see the undeniable truth: the one-off/ad model is inherently compromising and precipitates a race to the bottom.

The approach does real damage, whether to public figures or to our public discourse. The lean model of journalism practiced by blogs and, increasingly, by cash-bleeding legacy newspapers, is not really any cheaper; the costs are just externalized onto everyone else. You and I subsidize that crap with our time, our energy and our emotions.

Journalism requires a subscription—loyalty between producer and consumer. It’s the only model where the incentives of the publisher and the readers are aligned, where they both are committed to delivering value to each other. Of course the hybrid model* works too, because money still changes hands somewhere. Otherwise the “customer” for the news is advertisers, and advertisers just don’t give a shit. (As someone who buys millions of dollars worth each year, I can tell you the only concern is whether buy makes its money back.)

Would TechCrunch get it wrong less if it had a paying readership of young tech types?

Would Gawker be tolerable if it cared about something other than itself?

Would Huffington Post increase in quality if its customers were you and me instead of Google bots?

Yes. Yes. Yes.

So let’s not call Sullivan’s move an “innovation”. Or herald the New York Times’ for its bold leadership. Because none of this is new. It’s not an advance, it’s a retreat from a foolish venture by tech folks who didn’t bother to look at history.

Let’s stop ignoring the costly lessons of the past. There is a long precedent for the subscription model—hundreds of years of it, in fact—but whatever. These recent moves should send a message that the delusional experiment is over and the rest of the serious blogosphere can give it up.

If you’re doing celebrity gossip or self-help, whatever. Keep giving it away because it isn’t worth much. But if you want to create real, quality journalism that helps people and delivers truth, it’s time to face facts. Switching to a subscription model is not a stunt, nor should it be a negotiating technique as some writers claimed.

It is the only way that real journalism can work.

*The Observer is an interesting hybrid of a local subscription and newsstand paper with a free web presence. The subscription component, in my view, acts as a partial governor against the damaging tendencies of pageview journalism.

Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of  Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and a PR strategist for brands and writers. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanHoliday.