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September 06, 2002

Blogging Network

People have asked me when I thought that blogging would finally "pay off" -- that is, that it will finally become a viable way for a writer to make money. This question comes coincidentally close to the debut of the Blogging Network, a sort of "United Artists"-model concern in which a number of bloggers have offered up content on a "premium" model. From what I understand, the reader pays $3 a month for access to every blog on the Blogging Network. Half of the money collected goes to support the network itself, and half is distributed to writers, the percentage based on their popularity. Probably the highest-profile blogger to put material up behind the subscription firewall is Bill Quick, who is also a prolific science-fiction writer, and an Internet acquaintance of mine for several years. Former San Jose Mercury News writer and columnist Joanne Jacobs is also on hand and is putting up adaptations of her book in progress. So overall, it's a good time to be thinking about blogging and money.

Let me start with the Blogging Network economic model first before I get to the general concept of bloggers making money. Simply put, I'd be very surprised if the Blogging Network worked to any financially useful extent for the bloggers involved.

Content subscriptions are a risky model online. Bill Quick holds up Salon's 40,000 premium subscribers as proof that people will pay for good content online. However, it's worth remembering that those subscribers comprise between 1% and 2% of Salon's total readership -- meaning that more than 98% of Salon's readership didn't want to pony up the cash. Considering a "successful" blog is one with a few thousand readers (not the couple million Salon has), a similar paid conversion rate would come out to 50 subscribers or so.

This seems consistent with the number of subscribers the network appears to have so far. Blogging Network posts its "annual run rate" -- a public announcement of how much they grossed so far, which at the moment is $1255.80. This is their first month, so running the math, that's 420 subscribers (one of them, in the interest of disclosure, being me). There are 16 bloggers currently participating, so presuming I've run the numbers correctly, if each of them brought an equal number of their readers to the Blogging Network, each of them has managed to convince 26 or 27 readers to convert to the paid model. It's still early, so they'll probably grab a few more. However, the payment for the site is month-to-month, so after the first month, it'll be a matter of keeping the old subscribers as well as gaining new ones.

This is where things will begin to get tricky. Existing bloggers can only convert readers they already have; once they're behind the subscription firewall, the only people who will see their new material are those who have already signed up. Potential readers will have no access to material to see if they like it enough to sign up -- unlike a paper magazine, you can't just thumb through a subscription site (at the very least, you can't thumb through the Blogger Network site, so far as I can see). Readers probably won't sign up for things they can't read. One solution to this is for the blogger to continue his or her free site as a loss leader to convince people to sign up for the premium material -- again, a trick from the Salon playbook. The problem with this is, look where's it's gotten Salon: a 1 to 2 percent conversion rate.

Blogs are by and large a solitary pursuit, so the blogger has increased his or her workload considerably: He or she has to create a free blog which is of sufficiently high frequency and quality to convince readers to convert to the premium material, and then a premium blog of similar frequency and higher content quality to justify a continual $3/month purchase. I would imagine a counter-argument to this might be that the $3/month buys access to several blogs, not just one, so it's not accurate to put all the weight on a particular premium blog.

But as a practical matter I don't see how you can avoid it. If you advertise your product as premium (which you do implicitly by charging for what has been essentially a free resource up to that point), all the content has to meet that higher standard. If a reader perceives that one or two of these "premium" blogs are good stuff but the rest are slack, they're reasonably likely to believe they're not getting their $3 worth. There's also the matter that as far as I understand it, the Blogging Network rewards high page views, which -- presumably -- would be generated by high quality content. Coming or going, the blogger has cut out more work for himself or herself.

There's also the problem with the format of blogs, in terms of justifying their status as paid content. Most blogs are essentially agglomerations of links with short, functional commentary added; one reads the commentary, but it's usually dependent on the link for context; if you don't link, you're missing half (or more) of the story. In this way, blogs represent a new kind of content: Conduit Content, in which the primary idea of the content is to lead to you somewhere else. This is opposed to Destination Content, the much more traditional brand of content, in which the primary idea of the content is to keep you engaged with the material at hand (This site, incidentally, deals primarily in destination content, which is one of the reasons I'm deeply ambivalent about it being called a blog, or me a blogger).

Conduit content is a truly fascinating concept and probably worth study academically, but it doesn't make a compelling case for being paid for. It's fundamentally about the link, not the writing surrounding it, and any idiot can make a link. The very best examples of conduit content, as writing, are not terribly far removed, in terms of utility, from mediocre examples. Many of the best-regarded bloggers (Glenn Reynolds being one, and Bill Quick himself being another) will frequently simply air a link with minimal commentary at best, making that link indistinguishable (as writing) from that of the dittohead blogger who feeds off better-written sites for links in the first place. Indeed, blog indexing sites like Blogdex and Daypop are frequently more compelling as functional blogs than the blogs they track and chart -- not at all unlike how the S&P 500 Index outperforms 90% of living, breathing fund managers. In short, if an automated indexing tool can create a blog that is functionally competitive to a human-created blog, why would one want to pay for a human-created blog?

One way to answer this would be to make the premium blogs destination content, which computers can't yet create (at least, not very well) -- Joanne Jacobs could be thought of as an example of this, since she's offering up adaptations of her book in progress in her Blogging Network blog, and I think it's a fine idea. But here's the catch on that: How many bloggers -- even the good ones -- are actually good writers? And of those, how many are so good that you'd actually want to pay for their work? For the former of these categories, the answer is few, and for the latter the answer is even fewer.

It's not at all a coincidence that many of the most popular bloggers write professionally; despite the egalitarian nature of the Blogoverse, very good writing needs to be developed over time and usually in the presence of an editor or two (writers hate that fact, but there it is). There are indeed "non-pro" bloggers who can and do write compelling and consistent (important when you're thinking of charging) destination content. I'm fond of citing Steven Den Beste, who was an engineer by trade, as an example of this (although he shows no interest in blogging for dollars). But they are thin on the ground relative to the number of bloggers who can't.

This is true even on the Blogging Network, which outside of Bill Quick and Joanne Jacobs appears to be populated by writers whose level of writing quality is no better than the large majority of blogs and online diaries that are available for free. In one sense, this is fine news for Bill and Joanne, since I suspect the lion's share of net proceeds of the Blogger Network will be going to them. But it's not so fine in the sense that the average quality of material on the Network doesn't justify the cost. It certainly doesn't justify $35.88 a year, which is five dollars more than what Salon charges on an annual basis, and more than what I pay for my combined subscriptions to Esquire, Rolling Stone and Mother Jones (which I got as a premium for my Salon subscription). And I don't think the potential financial return will at all justify the amount of effort Quick, Jacobs and others will have to put in to make the Blogging Network function at even a modest level.

In a larger sense I'm not optimistic that blogging will ever be a profitable endeavor in itself. I think it's instructive that the vast majority of professional writers who blog are realistic enough to understand that the value of a blog lies in its promotional value. My high school classmate Josh Marshall is a fine example of this: He's parlayed Talking Points Memo into a reputable advertising platform for himself -- his work there is frequently referenced in the Washington Post and the New York Times -- which he can then use to logroll into a higher profile in the world of political writing. James Lileks has wrung two books out of his Web site and his sizable online audience no doubt appeals to his publisher as a potential book audience.

As a professional writer, I've certainly used this site to build professional relationships: A fair chunk of my income comes from people who found out about me through material on this site. But it's not at all worth the effort to make the site a profit center in itself, if for no other reason than the cost of lost opportunities is substantially higher than the potential income the site could produce. Andrew Sullivan is reputed to have made somewhere in the area of $30,000 off his Web site last year, which is boggling for a personal site offering nothing but writing and links to an Amazon store, so good on him. But relative to the amount a writer of his reputation could have made otherwise, 30 grand is less. Sullivan has his reasons, I'm sure, for choosing the less remunerative route, and bless him for it. But most writers prefer to take the path of least financial resistance.

I also don't think it's a bad thing if blogging, in itself, never becomes a profitable enterprise. The act of blogging (or of writing online in other forms) offers some tremendous advantages for writers and readers that are fundamentally based in its "we're doing it because we love to" nature. Amateur -- in the classical sense of someone who does something out of love -- is not at all a dirty word, and financial success is almost certainly the wrong metric by which to judge the success of blogging as a medium. Blogging may never be profitable, but it is already useful, to some extent it is influential (not as much as bloggers like to think, but more than mainstream media gives it credit for), and in any event it is usually pretty fun. It's worth doing, even if from a dollars-and-cents point of view, it's not worth much.

Posted by john at September 6, 2002 09:23 PM

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