It was noon in Washington, D.C., when the shooting began in Tucson. Across the country, reporters and media executives rushed to cover the story of the gunman, the Congresswoman he shot at close range, and the 14 other victims. But the news couldn’t reach one of the Internet’s most important writers. For Andrew Sullivan, M.P.A. ’86, Ph.D. ’90, the editor of a blog called The Dish, the weekend is a time for rest, and having teed up on Friday afternoon a half-dozen evergreen posts for Saturday, he had turned off his communication devices and was sleeping in.
Sullivan had been lightly ill that week, so he slept unusually late, until almost two in the afternoon. Before he was quite ready to deal with the world, he checked his mailbox—and woke up fast. Along with the news of the shooting was an urgent question from readers: Andrew, where are you?
Sullivan winced. He e-mailed his four young assistants: “We have to go cable”—that is, pump out blog posts 24/7. Then he climbed four unpainted wooden steps to what anyone else would call a large windowed closet and he calls “the blog cave.” He pulled a velvet curtain shut to seal himself off from his husband and their beagles, settled into an armchair with his laptop, and began a siege of blogging that would last six days.
Sullivan and his team had worked like this before. During the 2010 protests in Iran, they had scoured Facebook messages, Twitter bleats, Al Jazeera dispatches, and Iranian blog posts. The eclectic charm of the Dish (formerly TheDailyDish)—poems, philosophical and religious speculation, photographs from the windows of readers, the latest Sarah Palin outrage, and videos by The Pet Shop Boys—disappeared. The site became all Iran, all the time, and the Dish quickly became the Web’s go-to site for news and context. In the process, the site’s traffic spiked.
The Dish’s coverage of the Tucson shootings paralleled its Iran coverage. While other bloggers ascribed blame, Sullivan filtered new reports, asked important questions, grieved for the victims—and avoided partisan speculation. Once again, his audience grew.
But this round of blogging was different. Andrew Sullivan is a lifelong asthma sufferer. He has sleep apnea, and at night wears a mask connected to a machine that regulates his breathing. And since 1993, he has been HIV-positive. Although Sullivan isn’t the only writer with HIV to have survived for almost two decades, no other HIV-positive writer publishes anything like 300 blog posts a week, year after year; he needs to monitor his health.
Shortly after the week of Tucson, the Internet’s Iron Man faltered—exhaustion and an unusually cold winter created so much bronchial distress that his doctor ordered him to take to his bed. During his unprecedented two-week silence, governments toppled in the Middle East. While his assistants did great work, friends teased Sullivan: “Andrew, you’re missing an entire revolution.”
When Sullivan returned, he had news of his own—he was leaving the Atlantic website, his home for the last four years, to join TheDailyBeast.com and Newsweek magazine, both edited by Tina Brown. In the traditional media paradigm, it’s a promotion for a writer to move from the website of a highbrow monthly magazine like the Atlantic (circulation: 400,000) and the occasional article for that publication to America’s second-largest weekly news magazine (circulation: 1.5 million) that has just become the partner of a website with five million monthly readers. But when the writer in question has a blog that’s more popular than the websites of many publications, it’s clear that Newsweek/Beast got something equally important in this deal.
“The Dish has twice as many readers as the New Republic and more than National Review,” Sullivan says. And on the Atlantic site, the Dish also ruled. Some days, according to Alexa.com, which measures site traffic on the Internet, the Daily Dish accounted for more than half of the visitors to TheAtlantic.com. In cold numbers: Andrew Sullivan—one blogger, with a small budget and a minimal staff—has presented Tina Brown with a gift of about 1.3 million Internet readers.