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December 10, 2002
The Pledgey Enthusiast

Jeff Jarvis was pretty quick to criticize Andrew Sullivan's fund-raising effort, and in doing so, declare that "blogs are no way to make a living."

But it appears that Sullivan's "pledge drive" has been wildly successful so far. "[The] rough estimate puts the current tally - as of this posting - at payments from around 1,800 people," Sullivan reports. "After a mere 14 hours, we're close to the halfway point, which is real encouraging."

Initially, Sullivan described his fund-raising effort as "begging," and so maybe that's why Jarvis wrote the following: "This is why I prefer capitalism. When a magazine or newspaper dies, it just dies. It doesn't wimper and beg and moan and whine and try to make you feel guilty for its pain. It just dies, quickly and quietly."

But unless Sullivan has turned himself into a non-profit organization, why are voluntary contributions not capitalism, and not viable? Sullivan has encouraged donors to give $20 - if they've been following his request, that means he's collected $36,000 in 14 hours. Not bad. And if it's only, say, $10,000? Also not bad.

While Jarvis says magazines and newspapers don't whimper, beg, moan, and whine, they certainly hire telemarketers to bug me every couple weeks or so (at least the San Francisco Chronicle does). And they spend lots of money on many other forms of marketing and advertising, and also on subscription processing and retention. It's a 24-hour, year-round, extremely costly effort that's no doubt rife with inefficiencies.

And Sullivan forsakes all that for a few hours of very efficient groveling - if you ask me, that's capitalism at its finest.

Of course, it'd be nice if Sullivan were a little more forthcoming with his numbers.

His hope is that 5000 readers will donate $20 each. That $100,000, he suggests, will go toward salaries for himself, his tech/business partner, and an assistant.

What he doesn't say, however, is how much it actually costs him to operate his site - how much he pays in hosting fees, bandwidth charges, etc. He also doesn't say how much he actually earns from advertising and affiliate marketing fees from his book club.

In his first post on the subject, he wrote: "I hope this experiment isn't entirely for this site either. If we can prove with this pledge week that there's a place for reader-supported Internet journalism, then we'll also help nudge the blogosphere one step further to financial stability. We'll show that this medium can not only spawn new forms of journalism, but also provide a direct revenue stream from readers themselves - without ads, without big sponsors, without any intermediaries. Other blogs could follow - putting the next big dent in the monopoly of big media."

I agree with this completely - as more and more thin media websites start generating revenues, the idea that it's worthwhile to help fund such efforts will grow more commonplace. And I think that can only help the blogosphere.

I also think it'd be helpful if Sullivan divulged exactly what his revenues and expenses are. He's probably avoiding this because he thinks if people see he's making a decent amount of money already, they'll decide not to pay after all. But full disclosure certainly didn't hurt - she explained exactly to what ends she'd apply the money she collected, and she published a running total of what she collected. The result: she met her $20,000 goal. Such transparency almost always pays off on the web, and it'd certainly be interesting (and inspiring) to see what Sullivan hopes to pay himself for his efforts.

Will his success spread to other bloggers? Well, to some degree it already has. Jarvis writes as if Matt Drudge's website doesn't make him any money, but that's not necessarily the case: Drudge's ad rep, Intermarkets Network, says that banner ads go for $2 per thousand impressions, a daily sponsorship is $3900, a weekly one is $24,000, and a minimum purchase of $1000 is required. Elsewhere on its site, IN explains that "Every month, the Intermarkets Network delivers more than 350 million ad impressions, reaching millions of users everyday, while achieving sold-out or near sold-out status each month for our publishers." Are ads on the Drudge Report really selling at these rates? Maybe not, but if they're selling for anything at all, then Drudge is still probably making a fair amount of money from his site.

And there are numerous other DIY publishers like Phillip Kaplan, Harry Knowles, Rusty Foster, and Drew Curtis, to name just a few, who generate revenues one way or another.

The common denominator is a lot of traffic.

Thus, for the 99.999% of bloggers who don't get as many visitors a day as Sullivan does, the economics of blogging remain just as bleak as Jarvis makes them out to be. But what Sullivan has shown is that if you attract a large, loyal audience, voluntary contributions may actually be a very viable source of revenue. I know I'd be happy with a lot less than $100,000 a year to fund

UPDATE: Sullivan reports on his site that 3000 people have now made donations. Also, Henry Copeland points out that if Sullivan actually made it easy to buy advertising on his site, he'd probably sell a lot more advertising, especially if he sold it a lot more cheaply than the NY Times or other traditional publishers.

Posted by Greg Beato at 09:19 PM
Paging Neil Shapiro

Six weeks ago, when the WSJ did its whither-MSNBC? story, I offered some suggestions for how the 3rd-place cable news network could reinvent itself.

Yesterday, the NY Times did its whither-MSNBC? story.

"[NBC News President Neil Shapiro] is the central figure in a debate over whether the network should pursue a Fox-style programming strategy or one that resembles the more staid CNN," the Times reports. "Executives said in interviews that the best option would be for MSNBC to go its own way and come up with a new twist on the genre. But the problem with that option, they acknowledged, is that new ideas are hard to come by in news."

My guess is that that last sentence got truncated somehow. It should have read: "But the problem with that option, they acknowledged, is that new ideas are hard to come by in news, especially if you're so dumb and unoriginal the best idea you can muster is to hire Bill Maher."

Which is apparently the best idea the network's big thinkers have come up with so far. Fortunately for them, however, Maher was already negotiating with HBO to do a new show. Which is not to say that Maher isn't great at what he does; it's just that hiring one talented host, or even a few, is unlikely to change MSNBC's fortunes.

Indeed, MSNBC keeps betting on personalities (Phil Donahue, Jerry Nachman, Ashleigh Banfield) without creating a compelling context for them to operate in. It's as if they think Bill O'Reilly is so successful simply because he's Bill O'Reilly, when, in fact, he's so successful because Roger Ailes created a compelling personality for the entire network that O'Reilly could then embody.

So while MSNBC probably could be picking better hosts, that's not the real problem. The real problem is that "America's News Channel" is just a slogan and a logo, rather than a philosophy that conveys what it is MSNBC presumes it's delivering to TV viewers. Until MSNBC figures out what distinguishes it as a news source, no host is going to save it.

On the other hand, does it really need to be "saved"? What I still find most interesting about this story is that MSNBC is, according to the WSJ, profitable. (Which shows you how big a gulf exists between TV and the Web still; on the former, even the also-rans make money.) (This Cableworld article says MSNBC is losing money, but it's unclear whether or not it's counting the $30 million a year licensing fee that Microsoft pays to NBC under the terms of their 99-year contract.)

In any case, bad buzz eventually begets bad news: with each new whither-MSNBC? story, it must get harder and harder to attract new talent and advertisers. Drudge is predicting an imminent demise, and the network's own website seems to want an arm's-length relationship with its TV sibling: a link to the page promoting MSNBC's TV shows gets a lower placement than links to The Today Show, NBC Nightly News, and Dateline NBC.

But that's not even the worst news. The worst news is that, with Bill Maher unavailable, MSNBC appears to think its best bet is Jesse Ventura. That's right, the same Jesse Ventura who couldn't even make scantily clad cheerleaders and a guy named "He Hate Me" entertaining. If he couldn't deliver a 2.0 Nielsen rating on NBC, how's he going to deliver a 2.0 rating on MSNBC? Locker-room cams for Jerry Nachman? Uh, no thanks.

On second thought, the Nack Cam, which appears to be a special camera that makes Jerry Nachman look even balder and fatter than he really is, is a step in the right direction. With persons of scalp and girth so rare on TV these days, Nachman could actually be a proprietary why not emphasize what distinguishes him from everybody else?

It's not the most ambitious step MSNBC can take, but until they're ready to do something really bold, it's a start.

And when they're ready to do something really bold? Well, there's the suggestions I came up with six weeks ago.

Or, if not those, how about these?

1. Make MSNBC the Celebrity News Network. No, not 24-hour news about celebrities (though that might work too), but rather, 24-hour news delivered by celebrities. Conservatives can't stand that rich liberals like Alec Baldwin and Barbra Streisand are allowed to express their political opinions just like rich conservative CEOs are, so why not capitalize on that fact by turning them into full-time pundits and newscasters? And at the same time, why limit make it ideologically monogamous? Bo Derek gets her own show too.

2. Go Fox News one better, and become the Conservative News Network that's boldly proclaims itself as "Biased, but right." Hire Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and other conservative pundits who proudly identify themselves as such and battle Fox News head on. While MSNBC's main problem may simply be that not that many people want to watch news analysis during prime-time, it's quite clear that at least 2 million of them want to watch Fox News. Produce an even more conservative version of what it already delivers, and you could steal half its audience.

Posted by Greg Beato at 01:16 PM
December 08, 2002
A Religion of Appeasement

Citizen Goldberg argues that "peace-loving Muslims aren't doing enough about" the "Muslims who are killing us."

So what exactly does he want the peace-loving Muslims to do? Denounce killer Muslims, of course...

In the course of his column, Goldberg recycles the obvious blue-chip analogy (Good Muslims are to bad Muslims as Good Germans were to Nazis), segues into a dramatic recitation of the history of Islam, then moves on to some plain-talkin' tough-logic to show that he's the very fount of stern-but-fair reason: "Look: I take law-abiding, tolerant, and peaceful Muslims at their word when they say to me that they believe Islam means peace. Further, I take them at their word that they live by that interpretation. But the fact remains that other Muslims surely believe that Islam means death." (Italics his.)

If I were a high-school debate teacher, I'd give him a solid B.

Still, there's one thing the forensic firebrand forgets to include in his essay that might would actually give it a purpose: a convincing elucidation of what the denunciation of killer Muslims by peaceful Muslims might accomplish.

Will such denunciations persuade killer Muslims that they're wrong, and thus transform killer Muslims into peaceful Muslims?

Will such denunciations persuade on-the-fence Muslims not to become killer Muslims?

Will such denunciations persuade non-Muslims that all Muslims are not potentially killer Muslims?

The latter possibility appears to be the one that interests Goldberg most. By denouncing killer Muslims, he suggests, peaceful Muslims can prevent killer Muslims from defining what Islam means to non-Muslims.

And the utility of that is what exactly?

When it comes to airplane hijackers and suicide bombers, I'm not particularly interested in theological politicking: I'd simply like to thwart airplane hijackers and suicide bombers.

Thus, if the denunciation of killer Muslims by peaceful Muslims could induce the former to change their ways, then I'd be right alongside Goldberg, championing the idea.

But Goldberg doesn't even suggest this possibility, probably because he's smart enough to realize how ludicrous it is. Debate, much less diplomacy or compromise, doesn't appear to be a part of the moral framework of Islamist fanatics: no virgins are awarded for sitting down, discussing the finer points of Islam and global harmony, and deciding that, hey, maybe we can all live together after all. The killer Muslims are already past the point of no return, and denunciations by peaceful Muslims aren't going to bring them back.

And the on-the-fence Muslims? Well, Goldberg doesn't mention them either: perhaps he believes that any condemnations made by peaceful Muslims will dissuade potential terrorists at the same rate that anti-drug commercials dissuade potential crackheads.

And thus there's really only one reason that peaceful Muslims should denounce killer Muslims: doing so will appease Citizen Goldberg.

Except, of course, that it won't: "CAIR had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the business of denouncing terrorists," Goldberg reveals, apparently party to some Muslim-torturing sessions that somehow flew under the radar of the liberal media. "They do it now from time to time, but it sure doesn't sound like their heart is in it."

And what would it actually take to pass a Citizen Goldberg sincerity test?

Goldberg doesn't offer any guidelines - and my guess is that it's ultimately a test without any right answers. If peaceful Muslims aren't heartfelt enough, they're insincere. And if they're too heartfelt, well, wouldn't it be just like a sneaky terrorist to emphatically profess his allegiance to our cause while secretly plotting our demise?

But let's say some peaceful Muslims did manage to strike the right note of convincing compliance - how often would they be required to sing it? Currently, the religion of peace and the religion of peace-keeping are in similar binds: millions of responsible gun owners insist that firearms are legitimate tools that help make society better, but at the same time, a very tiny minority of rogue gun owners have consistently murdered around 10,000 or more people a year in the U.S. alone for the last 25 years.

So does Goldberg, or anyone else besides, say, Handgun Control Inc. or Michael Moore, think that gun owners, or even prominent figures of gun organizations like the NRA, should explicitly condemn every gun murder, or even just every incidence of gun-related mass murder, that occurs? Of course not - we simply assume that their condemnation is implicit, and that they prove the sincerity of their beliefs by not going out and murdering people too.

Is there a reason this same standard shouldn't apply to peaceful Muslims too? And especially to peaceful American Muslims? Just as there's nothing in the Second Amendment requiring gun owners to reassure non-gun-owners that their beliefs are just and responsible, there's nothing in the First Amendment that requires Muslims (or anyone else) to attach similar disclaimers to the practice of religion.

As nebulous a crime as thought-crime is, Goldberg is ultimately accusing peaceful Muslims of something even more nebulous than that: namely, the perception of potential thought-crime. They're not denouncing killer Muslims enough, so maybe that means they approve of their actions. These are scary, ambiguous times, of course, and it's easy to lose sight of things like freedom and the Bill of Rights. But as we battle greater evils like Al Qaeda and theological imperialism, that doesn't mean we should encourage lesser evils like loyalty oaths, witch-hunts, and compulsory concurrence with armchair inquisitors.

Posted by Greg Beato at 06:00 PM
Hit and Run's new blog, Hit and Run, has gone public. fans will recognize the name from the good old days; that was the name for the Thursday columns.

Here's former Suckster Tim Cavanaugh commenting on someone's essay about the subject of Muslim apology. Coincidentally, I was planning to write about the same subject tonight, so a hit-and-rerun may follow...

Posted by Greg Beato at 05:29 PM