Despite his following, however, it is far from clear that Sullivan will be able to make the transition work — yet if he does, he could become the first real success story of the post-industrial journalism era. [emphasis added]
I have a problem with this quote. I don’t mean to pick on Ingram, who I think is a good writer, but rather an overall trend I see when people write about paywalls. There’s an implicit assumption that financial solvency equals success.
The truth, I think, is more complicated. One of the great things about the Internet when it comes to journalism is that it has explicitly decoupled financial renumeration from success. There are plenty of people blogging and writing for no money whatsoever, either because they think it will further their professional career or they just plain like having a venue in which to spout off (like me).
Even if we assume that being able to make a living as a writer/journalist is the end goal, then it’s far from clear that all financial models are created equal. Presumably many writer/blogger/journalists are in the game to influence the debate. They want to have an impact, have their ideas get out there and change the world. If that’s the case, then, an ad-supported model is clearly superior, all else being equal. If you can make $100k/year from a member-supported site that reaches 10,000 readers or an ad-supported site that reaches 1,000,000 readers, doesn’t the latter have the potential to make a greater impact?
Of course, there are all sorts of caveats here. For one, it may not actually be possible to make an equal amount of revenue. Ad-supported journalism online is a really hard game to play. HuffPo does it better than most and they need millions of pageviews and lots of crappy content to make it pencil. Alternatively, those 10,000 readers could theoretically be incredibly influential policymakers and therefore have a lot more impact than a million schmucks like me reading your writing. Finally, I don’t know the particulars of Sullivan’s paywall but I imagine it will have some porousness for allowing links from social media or other sources so as to maintain some broad appeal.
All of which is to say it’s not a clear cut case one way or the other. So when we talk about “success” in journalism, there’s a lot more at work these days than whether you can pay the rent.