Greg Lindsay’s article in Business 2.0 on Nick Denton — an unauthorized mini-biography of sorts of blogging’s greatest living impresario — irked the object of its disaffection sufficiently into penning a barbed retort, to which born-again ethicist Felix adjoined his qualms about ratting on sources, which in turn prompted a Lindsay rebuttal (appended to Felix’s post), and fortuitously, a Young Manhattanite interview with Lindsay today. If we could just find a way to monetize these blogfights; put the ad in ad hominem, so to speakNote to self: Keep good ideas to self. And stop blogging notes to self..
Before I get to the original idea in this post, here are my two öre on Lindsay’s article. I do get the feeling that Lindsay wanted to give Denton a bit of his own snarky medicine, though I am not sure if he navigated with expertise the fine line between snark and whinge. Lindsay launches into a bloggy first-person narrative about being shut out by Denton, about no longer being mentioned by Gawker, and then about possibly being manipulated by Denton into writing about him despite every sign to the contrary. Denton must be a psychological genius, or else Lindsay is having an unrequited journalistic crush. This would explain the bitter flattery, and the outing of correspondence. Classic jilted-lover behavior. Still, that’s no excuse: reporters musn’t take a shut-out personally, especially if the subject later agrees to endure a round of questions.
But the Lindsay article does contain a nugget (which he puts in backets). It homes in on what effect I think Denton hopes the advent of negligible-cost mass publishing is having on traditional media:
[Denton] launched a company called Moreover, whose goal was to aggregate on one site all the world’s news, disintermediating most of his former profession. (This is a theme; when I first met Denton before working on this piece, he promised that Gawker would commoditize [sic] my then-job of media reporter.)
Update 2004-05-24: Doh, it’s commodify, not commoditize. And I went and titled the post wrong as well. All corrected now, both here and in the next post.If blogging commodifies reporters and disintermediates editors and publishers in traditional media — mainly by sampling, riffing on and linking to their original work exactly as this post is doing — then there is indeed a wave for Denton to ride.
The trouble is, why can’t the revolution eat its children? Why shouldn’t we bloggers in turn try to commodify Denton’s job as impresario? That’s the riddle Denton is still trying to solve. Compared to that, launching successful blogs must be easy.
Denton’s blog problem is that he is very good at creating something that is very hard to own: Buzz. His touch now guarantees a new blog 50,000 eyeball pairs on launch day. With that kind of send-off, an interesting blog — and those in Denton’s stable are certainly that — is guaranteed to ascend the blogpile. But this is where Denton’s indispensible contribution ends. The authors become niche celebrities and eclipse the brand while Denton tries to sell their readers to advertisers. And anybody can do this part of his job.
Officially, at least, Denton is banking on bloggers just wanting to be hacks:
I ask Denton what will happen to the next editor who decides he or she wants a piece. He explains that since he has no plans to take his company public, he won’t offer equity positions. “I’m a traditionalist: I believe that writing is a job and writers should get paychecks. It would be entirely bogus to offer people empty revenue-share promises or meaningless equity.”
But the evidence is that his authors quickly make their reputations, which they then cash in elsewhere: Elizabeth Spiers did so, Gizmodo’s Pete Rojas (now of Engadget) did so, and Choire Sicha is doing so (at the very least getting all manner of writing gigs on the side on the strength of his performance at Gawker).
Rival blog entrepreneur Jason Calacanis‘s approach attempts to sidestep the challenge facing Denton: Let the bloggers do their own clawing to the top, but run the stable and give them a cut of the ad profits. For those who have already made it, like Rojas, this proves to be a better deal. In his particular case, Denton’s heavy lifting is now being monetized by Calacanis.
Denton is trying to ward off these threats by strengthening the brand at the expense of the author, much in the same way Dick Wolf made the characters in Law & Order first and foremost plot devices, easily replacable and hence cheaper. His latest, Defamer, for example, is anonymous. We’ll see if it works. Otherwise, Denton will need to resign himself to a high turnover of talent that blogs for him for low pay but high exposure. Removing the personal voice from a blog is not an option.
It’s possible that as the business models adapt, we end up with the same compensatory solution as traditional media where names attract audiences: Iron-clad contracts that stipulate how long a blogger must edit a Denton-branded site, so that Denton gets his return on investment. Is it time for a dotcom era non-compete clause yet?
It’s also possible, however, that a third way develops, a better deal for bloggers than what either Denton or Calacanis can offer as their sites become popular. Calacanis asks 50% for what is essentially an advertising salesman’s job. Shouldn’t his percentage be closer to that of an agent? Why can’t several successful blog authors band together and employ the services of one advertising salesperson, working on commission? Or why can’t an advertising sales freelancer offer to sell ads for a site he’s had expressions of interest in?
Gothamist has a DIY version going, selling their own ads alongside Google ads, MarketBanker text ads, and merchandise, netting them $1,500-$2,000 a month, maybe, with a potential to double that. What they should really try to do is generate economies of scale by offering to sell ads on behalf of other, similar blogs, on a commission of, say, 25%. It would be like Google ads, but with banner ads by local companies aimed at a local market — a service Google can’t provide (yet).
Gothamist’s authors are clearly netting more than than they would under either blog entrepreneur. The disintermediation of Denton and Calacanis in this case could well become a popular model. But is this so surprising? Negligible-cost publishing was always meant to tip the balance in favor of the writing talent. Wasn’t this supposed to mean the talent would own the revenue stream?
PS. I am still curious as to why Denton does not believe in group blogs. Felix promised to ask him, but I have not heard back. Group blogs might offer several advantages over individual blogs as a marketable product: with many authors, quality is more consistent, vacations have little impact, and individual time requirements are far less, allowing for moonlighting by real professionals who actually have something to say, and who might appreciate some pocket money but are not expecting a proper salary out of it. Maybe, from Denton’s perspective, MC-ing a group blog would be too much like herding cats. That doesn’t dismiss group blogs as competitors, however.