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
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2153 GMT (0553 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
Hands down, it's 'Hard Day's Night,' says Gene Seymour-- the exhilarating, anarchic and really fun big screen debut for the Beatles. It's 50 years old this weekend
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 2201 GMT (0601 HKT)
Belinda Davis says World War I plunged millions of women across the globe into "men's jobs," even as they kept home and hearth. The legacy continues into today.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1824 GMT (0224 HKT)
Pablo Alvarado says all the children trying to cross the U.S. border shows immigration is a humanitarian crisis that can't be solved with soldiers and handcuffs.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Elizabeth Mitchell says Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi dreamt up the symbolic colossus not for money, but to embody a concept--an artwork to amaze for its own sake. Would anyone do that today?
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says Jamaica sold two protected islands to China for a huge seaport, which could kill off a rare iguana and hurt ecotourism.
ADVERTISEMENT