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September 27, 2004

Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Blogging I Learned From the New York Times

The New York Times Magazine's cover story this week is on political bloggers (it features Wonkette's Ana Marie Cox looking Jodie Foster creamy and dreamy in front of a keyboard while R.W. Apple and and Jack Germond look clueless and old behind her), and now having read it, I have a few comments:

1. While I suppose it's just the nature of an election year, I still find it remarkable that when the mainstream media thinks of "bloggers," it's almost exclusively political bloggers. I can't help think of sites like, say, Penny Arcade, whose daily visitorship is higher than all but four or five of the top political sites, and which I would argue is at least as influential in the video game industry as Kos is in politics (if not more so; both sites have raised hundreds of thousands for their respective causes -- Kos for political candidates, and Penny Arcade for its Child's Play charity, but PA was able to create its own successful gaming conference (PAX) to boot, with an attendance, I think, of over 1,500 (Update: A couple of people (including at least one attendee) tell me the actual number was closer to 3,000. Which just makes the point more relevant)). It's not that political bloggers aren't important or interesting, but they're definitely not the only blogging game in town. If the mainstream media is going to cover blogging, I wish the coverage was more varied and included sites that aren't all about getting the White House for their side.

2. This was the first article I've seen that actually discussed how much some of the paid bloggers were making -- it notes that Wonkette's base salary is $18,000 (although apparently she gets performance bonuses based on visits), and that Josh Marshall's advertising income can be as much $10K a month. Speaking as a paid blogger, I find this sort of thing very interesting -- now I know where my own blogging income fits into the grand scheme of things (higher than some, apparently lower than others). I think it would be interesting to have someone do a survey to find out what paid bloggers actually make -- the number of bloggers who are supporting themselves and/or have a sizable percentage of their income from blogging is still small enough that it's doable. I would suspect that that overall, it's still not something that you'll be doing to get, you know, rich, or (for the most part) even comfortably middle class.

3. By and large, I think the relationship between political bloggers and legitimate media is pretty much the relationship between a taxi driver in the Middle East and the United States: They'll bitch and moan about it and go on about how evil it is, but when push comes to shove, they'd probably give a testicle to get in. The Times story shows the higher-end bloggers clearly conflicted as to what their relationship is with the more established forms of media -- and the New York Times writer who put the story together seems more than happy to note that even the high-end bloggers have mid-level profiles at best in terms of the traditional media. For whatever gains bloggers have made in the last few years, there's still definitely a major league-minor league dichotomy between it and and traditional media.

Which is ironic, because many newspaper writers I know look longingly at the "freedom" of blogging, in which one is not confined by piddling annoyances like newshole or editors. The grass is always greener, and so on.

I'm ambivalent about either side. On the issue of the personal economics and fulfillment, at this point in the game, I don't see much advantage at looking longingly at the grass on either side of the fence since the fence isn't really there; i.e., there's no reason writing in on medium excludes you from the other. I make more money as a blogger than I do as a novelist or a magazine columnist; I make more money writing Books of the Dumb than I do as a blogger. A little here, a little there, and eventually you're talking real money. Sometimes I make more from online writing, sometimes I make more from traditional publication. It all depends on what day you get me. Print offers some advantages to me as a writer, online writing offers others. Ultimately, I don't feel allegiance either to bloggers or to the ink-stained wretches; I feel allegiance to my mortgage and to my own sense of curiosity as a writer.

Having said that, traditional media does have a distinct institutional advantage -- it's got a lot more money and influence. This is why blogging to this day largely triangulates off traditional media; traditional media has the resources to set the news agenda. And this is probably why most of the most ambitious bloggers still wouldn't mind "graduating" to traditional media -- they want a chance to set the agenda too, not just react to it, or (in the recent case of the CBS screw-up) throw a well-deserved spanner into the works. And this is why traditional journalists can still feel safe feeling smug toward bloggers; by and large they're still back benchers -- it still takes hundreds of them to bring down a single Dan Rather. The fact bloggers glory in "fact-checking" the media in itself describes who is dominant in that relationship.

I think it's doubtful that overall this relationship is going to change much over time, unless the economics of blogging somehow get a heck of a lot better, or the economics of traditional media somehow get a lot worse -- or the open-source distributed model of journalism the blogosphere can provide (lots of people, each contributing one small bit of the puzzle) can somehow be made to be as consistent efficient as the proprietary, exclusive model of investigation the media can provide (one or a few experienced people doing most of the work). I suppose either is possible, but I'm not betting on either as likely.

Thoughts?

Posted by john at September 27, 2004 02:23 PM

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Comments

Bowler | September 27, 2004 06:41 PM

I'm wondering if the traditional media will hold as much dominance in ten years.

Kurtz over at PvP is about to turn the Comics Syndicate on their ears through his new plan to distribute his 4 year of backlogged netcomics for free. The guys at PA (as you mentioned) are doing fine without print.

I can't tell you the last time I watched the news or even picked up a newspaper. I know it's anecdotal, but as technology grows and the big media chains fail to adapt, we might see blogs coming into their own. Heck, Drudge is now seen as more influential than some major online news outlets. I'm not betting on this outcome being dominant either, but the trend towards independant online journalism sure seems to be growing faster than the big guys are adapting.

Ken | September 27, 2004 06:43 PM

For all its sophistication -- or at least pretense thereto -- the NYT has a knack for bringing a charmingly clueless gawker vibe to any article looking at a new social phenomemon. The look at blogging was no different -- I kept expecting them to lapse into a discussion of what the internet is.

It's even more fun when the cluelessness reveals their own entrenched worldview, as in the occasional article in which the NYT takes a sort of Aunt-Agnes-meets-the-Crocodile-Hunter look at social tends that are mundane to everyone else but curious and alien to them --- such as conservatism. "Wooaaaaahhhw! Thaaaat's a bayOOOtiful consarvative there! And it lives in NUUUU YAAAAWWWWKK! Can you belEEEEEve it?

I also always get a kick out of their unique combination of hubris and tin ear on cultural issues, captured for me in the lead to a story on the death of Dale Earnhardt that started something like "There was a silence at Wal-Mart."

Scott | September 27, 2004 07:03 PM

The Penny Arcade expo actually had something like 3000 attendees. 1337 people signed up -in-advance- and then a whole crapload more showed up on the spot.

See, I'm fact-checking a blogger... does that make me a blog-blogger-ger? or does that make me "big Media"?

John Scalzi | September 27, 2004 07:06 PM

Scott Sez:

"See, I'm fact-checking a blogger."

Nonsense! 3,000 is certainly "more than 1,500." All my facts are in very vague order.

Kevin Q | September 27, 2004 07:57 PM

Please forgive what is a very rude question, but I have to know: how do you make money blogging? I'm not curious _how_much_ money you make, merely curious _how_ you make it. I know that some sites can support themselves off of advertising, but you don't even have those ubiquitous Google ads on your site. Is it those "I hate your politics" mugs?

K

Maggie | September 27, 2004 07:57 PM

For my (brief) paid blogging stint, I was paid $500/month to write about parenting. I quickly found, however, that:

1) It was NOT enough money for what my corporate masters wanted me to do (namely, write 10 - 12 articles a day, 7 days a week)

2) I HATED being told by a single, childless man what parents want to read about, as if he had any clue (I've been a mother for nigh on 13 years, I think I'm more attuned to the subject than he is)

3) I had co-bloggers, which did nothing but piss me off because I had to try to make sure not to step on their pwecious feewings when it came to my subject material

4) I HATED writing to a cookie cutter spec. (One picture, one link, and no more than 200 words, preferably about some new! shiny! product! Blech.)

I quit after 3 months. I recently started my own parenting blog. It pays nothing at the moment, health problems have kept me from updating, but I'm hoping to get a good move on this week, now that I'm well again. With traffic, who knows? Really, though, I don't care about the money, I'm just happy to be able to write what *I* want to write in regards to the adventure of parenting.

John Scalzi | September 27, 2004 08:06 PM

Kevin Q asks:

"Please forgive what is a very rude question, but I have to know: how do you make money blogging?"

AOL pays me to do my "By The Way" blog and to act as a community leader for AOL Journals.

As for the Whatever: I occassionally will sell a re-print of an entry, and of course, I sold a novel after serializing it here. But I don't generally consider the Whatever to be a revenue generator. I suppose if I wanted to run BlogAds, I could do reasonably well, but at the moment I'm not interested in that at all.

Ian Mathers | September 27, 2004 09:02 PM

I do think one important aspect of blogging that's been touched on here but not really explicitly mentioned is the time commitment. Yes, it's nice to get paid for writing (I hope to do that at some point), but the fact that you can for free grab a digital soapbox and provide a pretty good stream of content to the world while still working the ol' 9-5 is very exciting to many of us.

Spencer Bernard | September 27, 2004 10:04 PM

Correct me if I'm wrong here but the most common relationship between reporters and bloggers is that reporters break news stories and bloggers comment on the stories. It's much the same relationship as that between a performer and a critic. While I will pay money to go see a movie or Broadway show, I'm not paying money to read what a critic thought of it. Even critics I like to read are one of the last reasons for me to buy a newspaper.

Until this dymanic changes and it's the bloggers who are routinely providing the entertainment, I don't see much money in it.

Brian Greenberg | September 27, 2004 11:04 PM

I also feel the need to point out that, at least during the Democratic convention, most of the political bloggers downshifted into variations on the "this is SOOOOOOO boring" theme by mid-week. By the end, almost all of them were doing it. It struck me at the time that the "big media" writers don't have that luxury, which sometimes leads to bullsh*t writing to fill column inches, but sometimes motivates them to *find* the story in the apparent boredom.

In either case, as a consumer, I can tell you it did have an effect: I didn't bother reading the political blogs during the Republican convention.

One other point: I don't watch the news or read newspapers either, but that doesn't mean my only other choice is blogs. My preferred medium for news is the online wire services (delivered via MyYahoo! and the like). I find the wire stories tend to present the facts as best they can, and leave the "spin" to the papers that pick them up. By reading the wires, I get my bets chance to a) understand what happened (if anything), and b) form my own opinion before the media spins it for me.

Kai Jones | September 28, 2004 12:22 AM

Mr. Greenberg, if you think you're getting stories without spin from the wire services, you need to read blogs. For example, Maryl Yourish (yourish.com) often points out bias in stories from Reuters and AP.

Kevin Q | September 28, 2004 06:54 AM

Like Brian Greenberg, I also get a lot of my news from the Reuters and AP newsfeeds. And I read both in order to help mitigate any bias that one or the other has. No news source is without bias. But if you're familiar with the source, then sometimes you can filter it out.

K

Chrysostom | September 28, 2004 10:36 AM

Actually, it's Apple and Jack Germond behind Cox.

John Scalzi | September 28, 2004 11:05 AM

Thanks -- fixed.

Kai Jones | September 28, 2004 12:37 PM

Mr. Kevin Q, what if they have the same bias? (For example, they're both virulently anti-Israel.)

Shawn Struck | September 28, 2004 06:06 PM

***"I'm wondering if the traditional media will hold as much dominance in ten years.

Kurtz over at PvP is about to turn the Comics Syndicate on their ears through his new plan to distribute his 4 year of backlogged netcomics for free. The guys at PA (as you mentioned) are doing fine without print."***

I don't know if you want to be holding up Kurtz and PVP as examples of someone turing the system on its head, because, most likely, he won't.

Kurtz wants to do this because he disapproves, if I got it right, of the syndicates' demands to have control over the artist's work, ownership of characters, merchandise rights, etc. Kurtz's offer entails that the newspaper prints his strip- nothing more, nothing less.

So let me explain why Scott Kurtz is a bit unfair in this statement: because he's Scott Kurtz.

I like PVP; I read it every day and I have no animosity or jealousy or malice or anything like that towards him. Just so we're clear on that. However, the key element of Kurtz's "turning the syndicates on thier ear": he already has hundreds of thousands of readers.

Kurtz's offer is INCREDIBLY easy for one who has already made it as a professional and doesn't really need to earn more money out of it.

Kurtz is a bit misguided as far as his "keep your rights" stuff goes because there are many cartoonists in papers who do this: they're called alternative cartoonists. Small press cartoonists. Comics can get in the paper without syndication (Tom Tomorrow prints in 150 papers and magazines and has never been with a syndicate), and some cartoonists like Ted Rall and Ruben Bolling ARE syndicated and still own their own strip. Kurtz didn't get an offer that let him keep the rights to his strip, so his response evokes the mentality "Well screw you, syndicate! I'm popular on the web, so I can just give out the comics for free!"

You know who can't do that yet? About eleventysix thousand other people. I love the webcomics, PVP included. But, to be honest, the constant philosophising from the six or seven web cartoonists on the surface of the entire planet who "made it" taking about how great and wonderful it would be to shift paradigms because they're comfortable gets to me sometimes.

Kurtz misses the fact that syndicates are what put a single strip in hundreds of papers, reaching out to contacts in a way a single person can't do alone. "Great plans" can't involve "pre-existing audience of thousands" and actually be feasible.

Kurtz is challenging a structure in very infeasible ways: syndicates like McMeel/Universal and Tribune Media Services don't just own the rights to strips, they own the papers that print them. They get a cut of merhandise that they share with the cartoonist. Why, if they control many of the publications that fuel this merchandising machine, would they accept a free strip that equally profits them nothing, when they can put a property they own in that space?

Imagine, if you will, that you make beer in your basement. You'd like it to promote it. You decide to go to your local bar, tell the bartender you know a lot of people who like the beer, and you'll give away all your beer to patrons for free. Oh, but you own the rights to the beer. He can't make or sell the beer himself. And any donations of sales of merhandise related to the beer go to you, not him. Explain to me why he'll do that for you when he's got a hundred customers in the back happily paying two bucks a bottle of Budweiser, with him getting a profit from the sales. Because that's basically the logic that Kurtz just dished out, and I guess I'm just really confused.

Kurtz updated his site a little later to say:

***Make no mistake, whatever the syndicated cartoonists say, this IS possible. It's already been done before I came along. You can get your strip into papers. You can convince editors to drop Alley-Oop and put your strip in it's place.

The only differnece, and what puts me in a unique position, is that no one has offered PvP to the papers before. No one has ever offered a strip that has an established readership and has the book and toy deals already in play. Usually the papers come first and all that comes second.

The bottom line is that I've heard from all these guys before. In fact, it was six years ago when I was first posting my strips to the web and suggested I could make a living from an internet comic. They called me crazy then, and now that I've come back to tell them it worked, they're still calling me crazy.

Sh'yeah...crazy like a FOX!***

And yet he once again doesn't explain why a syndicate, or a newspaper, should care about a fan base, and especially the merchandising deals already in place, when they see none of it.

Kurtz, popular as his strip his, is very naive as far as his "power" over a syndicate is. PVP, which is probably in the top five webcomics, gets about 100,000 readers. A syndicate can distribute one strip to 500 papers, each of which have a readership of anywhere from 10,000 to 1.2 million people. Factor this in with the fact that many syndicates, such as Knight-Ridder and Universal/McMeel, actually own many of their own newspaper chains. There is no competition. There is no threat.

What he can, and will do, however, is beat the newspapers in terms of profit ratio - that is, a higher amount of money offered per consumer. Kurtz likely takes in from one average fan what a syndicated cartoonist needs from ten times that, because of the cut going to the syndicate and legal people and all that.

I met Jon Rosenberg of Goats fame and the rest of the Dumbrella crew at a comics show, and I'm amazed at the potential Dumbrella has to profit almost entirely through merchandise. That's, frankly, something the published cartoonists rightfully should be drooling at the prospect of. That's the model I'd love- I think seeing someone wearing a shirt with one of my characters on it beats someone telling me they loved this week's strip any day.

The problem is that this model is very selective- for example, most political cartoonists can't make huge merchandising deals. Kurtz's method establishes the premise that comics shouldn't be considered worth paying for... simply because he offers his for free and profits. But the ratio of that success is up there with most local lotteries. Syndicates and publishers take a cut, and can be unfair. But they also get the artist money and recognition. The problem, as noted with Garfield, is how few of those strips actually deserve the money and recognition. In a perfect world Jim Davis would be a greeting card artist and Jon Rosenberg would be lighting stogies with twenties.

What is needed is an alternative, not an opposition. Instead of expressing a fantasy of "destroying" the syndicates, Kurtz could easily set up another great idea: make his own. A combination of Keenspace-style promotion and actual hands-on print-media PR staff could easily let the "popular" webcomic crowd handle press awareness for a distribution model for print media. Kurtz's problem doesn't seem to be as much with the concept of syndication itself as he is with the idea of controlling rights when syndicated. So why not make a new syndicate with its own rules?

But Kurtz doesn't want to do this. He wants to use PVP's pre-existing success to "shut down" the stranglehold the syndicates seem to have. I can't really do that. Kurtz seems to rely on this model:

1. Become internationally famous online cartoonist with a readership in the hundreds of thousands and profits from merchandising.
2. Offer your comic for free to promote your admittedly already-established-as-successful comic.
3. Profit!

Which is all fine and good- for Scott Kurtz. Penny Arcade chipped in yesterday as well:

*** Some people just say the same thing over and over again - how will Scott make money giving away his strip for free? How will he do it? They await his failure with delectation. I have news for those people, these lampreys fucking latched on to the ground down bones of an old order: Scott Kurtz is already a success. Idiots. He has a monthly book through Image, and characters millions of people love. He can't fail. All he can do is remain Awesome. I know you're looking forward to seeing another young buck go down. You go ahead, you ride your fucking corpse to the bottom of the sea. You can say hi to all the other outmoded exiles from modern life. ***

Outmoded exiles like, say, all those internet animation sites that based their model on offering free content without a pre-existing fan base. But I'm sure that's different.

I love Penny Arcade, and Tycho is a verbal genius, but Jesus, these guys are starting to sound like the Ralph Nader of the cartoon world. The answer to "well, how will you complete in the face of this?" can't be "we're the wave of the future and we're here to stay! Those syndicates won't know what hit them!" Ummm... great. That explains how this will work... how?

Tycho has missed, as has Kurtz, the glaring fallacy of his business model- because they are successful. Of course that goes against a syndicate, the purpose of a syndicate is to make a comic successful. Their properties are investments. Whether you agree with their practices or not (and like Kurtz, I don't) to say that your plan is better when your base model is the requirement to be successful in advance- something 99.9% of the people who would like this model to work aren't- then it's really grating to be offered invective when you point out the glaringly obvious fact that this new business model makes no sense whatsoever.

I don't dismiss Kurtz's plan- I would- and let me make this clear- LOVE for it to work. But in three weeks, no one has ratioanly answered this non-yet-successful cartoonist his simple question- how does this plan work when you're not successful? How does the Scott Kurtz plan work for people who aren't Scott Kurtz?

mythago | October 10, 2004 10:27 PM

Great post, Shawn.

1337 people signed up -in-advance-

Of course they're leet people. :)

But yes, it's anecdotal. You or I or all of Silicon Valley reading blogs is a blip. 3000 people? That's what percentage of the audience of NPR or Rush Limbaugh or Fox News or CNN or the New York Times, exactly?

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