Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Journalists, take a hint from Andrew Sullivan

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
January 10, 2013 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Howard Kurtz says Twitter accounts are one way journalists sell themselves and their work.
Howard Kurtz says Twitter accounts are one way journalists sell themselves and their work.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Blogger Andrew Sullivan switched to independence and charging a fee for content
  • Howard Kurtz: It's all about branding, turning a relationship with readers into cash
  • As papers fail, journalists advertise themselves on Twitter, cable, radio, he says
  • Kurtz: Will people buy blogs? Well, selling songs on iTunes was improbable once

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- When blogger Andrew Sullivan began urging readers to support his online venture, I could hear journalists everywhere slapping their foreheads and saying:

Hey, why don't I try that?

Lots of luck.

But all the chatter about whether Sullivan can get his followers to part with $19.99 a year to read his provocative posts on politics and life misses the larger point. He is doing what most journalists must do to survive in this digital age, and that is building a personal brand.

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

Sure, few are as well known, as prolific and as possessed of sheer writing talent -- not to mention a taste for picking fights -- as Sullivan. But in ways that are starting to look inescapable, he is determined to turn his relationship with readers into cash flow.

Watch: Does Oprah still have the cultural clout to save Lance Armstrong?

First, the back story. Sullivan, a former editor of the New Republic, was blogging's first breakout star a dozen years ago, when the term was still associated with strange people in their pajamas. I followed him closely because I was, at the time, the first blogger at the The Washington Post.

Previewing Obama's DNC speech

Sullivan has since taken his Dish site to Time, the Atlantic and, most recently, the Daily Beast, where I work. His decision to leave the Beast when his contract expired at the end of 2012 has drawn plenty of attention, especially since he says he has already raised $440,000 from his fans.

Watch: Did Brent Musburger go too far in praising Alabama quarterback's girlfriend?

"We felt more and more that getting readers to pay a small amount for content was the only truly solid future for online journalism," Sullivan writes. He plans to use the money not only for himself but also to pay his small staff.

As a British, Catholic, gay writer with HIV who has morphed from a conservative intellectual to an Obama-boosting intellectual, Sullivan crosses lots of lines and has an unusually passionate following. He isn't putting most of his content behind a pay wall, so he's essentially asking folks to pay up out of loyalty. And he doesn't plan to accept advertising.

In a very real sense, though, most journalists these days are advertising themselves (and yours truly is no exception).

When you see them on Twitter, posting thoughts and witticisms and links to their work, they are doing more than representing their employers in public. They are promoting themselves.

When they pop up in cable news segments or on radio shows, sounding off about their stories, or just sounding off, they are promoting themselves.

Watch: How mainstream media fell for Twitter hoax about Justin Bieber

We are seeing the rise of hybrid journalists, like Ezra Klein, who blogs for The Washington Post, is an MSNBC contributor and writes a column for Bloomberg News. Or Andrew Ross Sorkin, who writes a column for The New York Times, runs its DealBook blog and co-hosts CNBC's Squawk Box.

But below the level of the brightest stars, there is a survival strategy at work. Newspapers and magazines are shrinking. I've lost count of the number of reporters, columnists and critics who have been laid off or taken buyouts, only to launch blogs, join websites, churn out e-books or otherwise seek a foothold in the digital economy.

News organizations used to frown on this sort of thing; now they have bookers to get their folks on TV and social media editors to push their stars on Facebook and Twitter. The Times once discouraged its people from going on television; now, like most newspapers, it has its own studio.

If there was once a line that stopped journalists from engaging in blatant self-promotion, it long ago vanished. But here's why that's not a bad thing. Most print journalists were once viewed as remote figures engaged in one-way communication. Now they've been forced to engage in a dialogue with their readers, responding to tweets, posting pictures, sharing more of themselves with those who consume the news. The walls of the fortress have been breached.

"There's nothing tawdry about offering your wares on the street. It's how magazines and newspapers started," Sullivan told The New York Times.

Sullivan has been a trailblazer on this front. And while it's hard to imagine that many others could get people to pay for their scribblings, it was once unthinkable that millions would buy individual songs on iTunes or pay for online access to a newspaper.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1424 GMT (2224 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1354 GMT (2154 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT