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
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT