Blogging's Bright Future

Andrew Sullivan1 is, as undoubtedly you’ve heard, leaving his eponymous blog:

I am saturated in digital life and I want to return to the actual world again. I’m a human being before I am a writer; and a writer before I am a blogger, and although it’s been a joy and a privilege to have helped pioneer a genuinely new form of writing, I yearn for other, older forms. I want to read again, slowly, carefully. I want to absorb a difficult book and walk around in my own thoughts with it for a while. I want to have an idea and let it slowly take shape, rather than be instantly blogged. I want to write long essays that can answer more deeply and subtly the many questions that the Dish years have presented to me. I want to write a book.

In the hours and days after that post, it became a meme to say that “blogging is dead” (BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith has led the charge for a while now). You’ll be unsurprised to know that I disagree, but it seems Sullivan anyways wouldn’t understand why this rebuttal has taken four full days to appear. After all, according to Sullivan’s definition of blogging – “daily, hourly, always-on-deadline stress” consisting of “idea[s]…instantly blogged” – my having first enjoyed a weekend with my family while I turned over this debate in my head, and only then written what I hope is a thoughtful reply, means I’m doing it wrong.

Unbundling the Blog

The truth, though, is that blogging has evolved. It is absolutely true that the old Sullivan-style – tens of posts a day, mostly excerpts and links, with regular essays in immediate response to ongoing news – is mostly over. No one said it better than blogger extraordinaire Jason Kottke:

Sometime in the past few years, the blog died. In 2014, people will finally notice. Sure, blogs still exist, many of them are excellent, and they will go on existing and being excellent for many years to come. But the function of the blog, the nebulous informational task we all agreed the blog was fulfilling for the past decade, is increasingly being handled by a growing number of disparate media forms that are blog-like but also decidedly not blogs.

Instead of blogging, people are posting to Tumblr, tweeting, pinning things to their board, posting to Reddit, Snapchatting, updating Facebook statuses, Instagramming, and publishing on Medium…

A month prior to Kottke’s piece I created the Social/Communications Map:2

image-23

In many respects, this map – indeed, the entire history of social media, particularly the public-facing services – is a story of unbundling the old-school blog. Twitter has replaced link-posts and comments, Instagram has replaced pictures, and Facebook has replaced albums and blogrolls; now Medium is seeking to replace the essay. None of this is a bad thing: literally billions more people now have a much simpler way to express themselves online thanks to the ease-of-use that is characteristic of any service that seeks to focus on one particularly aspect of communication, a big contrast to a blog’s ability to do anything and everything relatively poorly. It’s fair to ask just what a blog is good for anyway.

Defining “Blog”

A big problem with this entire discussion is that there really isn’t a widely agreed-upon definition of what a blog is, thanks in part to the rise of sites like TechCrunch that ran on WordPress and presented posts in reverse-chronological order and so, at least in the beginning, were called “blogs”; add to that the thinly-disguised PR-channels known as “company blogs” and it’s easy to get confused.

And so, to be clear, when I speak of the “blog” I am referring to a regularly-updated site that is owned-and-operated by an individual (there is, of course, the “group blog,” but it too has a clearly-defined set of authors). And there, in that definition, is the reason why, despite the great unbundling, the blog has not and will not die: it is the only communications tool, in contrast to every other social service, that is owned by the author; to say someone follows a blog is to say someone follows a person (This applies both for amateur and professional bloggers; most of the rest of this post is concerned with the latter).

Blogging and Business Models

This is more than a semantic point; Ezra Klein, one of the first journalists to truly build his career through blogging, and now the editor-in-chief of Vox, wrote in What Andrew Sullivan’s exit says about the future of blogging:

I think we’re getting better at serving a huge audience even as we’re getting worse at serving a loyal one.

That, though, is good for Vox, given their dependence on advertising. As I’ve noted previously while writing about newspapers, your business model is your destiny, and an advertising business model demands huge amounts of inventory served to a large number of readers targeted with a massive amount of data.3 Note carefully those words: “huge,” “large”, and “massive” are antithetical to my definition of a blog – something defined by a single individual.

It turns out, though, that there are more business models than simply advertising, as Sullivan himself sought to show. Sullivan was, for the last two years, supported by reader subscriptions to the tune of nearly one million dollars a year, and while many were skeptical of Sullivan’s efforts when he started, his ability to raise money shouldn’t have been a surprise: his is a singular voice – to put it in economic terms, Sullivan’s writing had a low elasticity of substitution – so people were happy to pay for something they couldn’t get anywhere else.4 Right there was the exact loyalty that Klein fears has been lost.

Scale Versus Reach

Moreover, Klein is wrong about blogging and scale:

Sullivan was the closest we had to someone trying to run a blog with real scale. He was trying to make his blog — and its sizable audience — into a business. But blogging, for better or worse, is proving resistant to scale.

But Sullivan did have a viable business, and it scaled wonderfully: it cost him the same amount of both time and money to serve 1,000 subscribers as it would have to serve 100,000, or 1 million,5 and he didn’t need to change a thing about himself or his content to do it. No, it’s not scale that is the problem, but rather reach.

I am, of course, acutely aware that there is a tradeoff when it comes to the subscription business model: by making something scarce, and worth paying for, you are by definition limiting your number of readers.6 Stratechery, though, serves a niche, and niches are best served by making more from customers who really care than from milking pennies from everyone.

Here’s the thing, though: the upside of my business model is that Stratechery has all of the things that Klein claims are being lost:

  • An assumption my readers (especially my subscribers) read everything I write7
  • A single voice
  • Loyalty

It’s this last part that is the most rewarding: Vox, in its desire for reach, asks nothing of its readers beyond tolerance for posts they don’t care about, which means no one should be surprised the user experience of the site is increasingly-annoying. I, on the other hand, ask for money and am heavily motivated to deliver value in return – the relationship is reciprocal. That means not wasting my readers’ time; it means focusing on quality over quantity; indeed, it means waiting four days to write something thoughtful (hopefully!) instead of simply trying to be first.8

That Would Be Fine For Ezra

Whenever I write about Stratechery’s business model I constantly hear objections along the lines of “That’s fine for Ben,” the insinuation being that what I do is not replicable. And, to be sure, I am by no means arguing that you can make money from a blog just because you want to. At the risk of humblebragging, you need to offer something unique, and at least 2,000 people believe I do.9

Klein, though, is unique, and he has 732k Twitter followers and a history of success to show for it. That, more than anything, is why I found his piece in particular so frustrating to read: blogs are not dead, but Klein’s is, and while I don’t begrudge him his choice, I question the degree to which he knows he made one.10

Moreover, there are reasons to be optimistic beyond Sullivan’s success, or my own:

  • While WordPress has long been an effective free option for managing the content-side of blogging, only recently are there useful tools for managing the business-side. First and foremost amongst these is Stripe which, for the first time makes managing subscription-payments simple and straight-forward. However, there are still holes, particularly when it comes to actually managing membership lists and communities
  • Klein is right that social media drives a huge amount of traffic; the key for the independent blogger, then, is not to treat social media as the primary source of traffic, but as a marketing channel for their free content.11 In my case, Twitter is to my marketing needs what WordPress is to my content-management needs: essential, incredibly powerful, and completely free
  • Perhaps most importantly, I believe that more and more consumers are coming to grips with the reality of online media: when everything is free, you too often end up getting exactly what you paid for. If you consider the time wasted reading clickbait, a few bucks a month for content you trust isn’t such a bad deal

Forgive me if this article read a bit too much like an advertisement for Stratechery; the honest truth is my fervent belief in the individual blog not only as a product but also as a business is what led to my founding this site, not the other way around. And, after this past weekend’s “blogging-is-dead” overdose, I almost feel compelled to note that my conclusion – and experience – is the exact opposite of Klein’s and all the others’: I believe that Sullivan’s The Daily Dish will in the long run be remembered not as the last of a dying breed but as the pioneer of a new, sustainable journalism that strikes an essential balance to the corporate-backed advertising-based “scale” businesses that Klein (and the afore-linked Smith) is pursuing.12

  1. This post is about blogging, not Andrew Sullivan’s politics. Whatever your opinion on the latter, there is no denying his influence on the genre []
  2. This is the most-current version, last updated for this Daily Update (members-only); SnapChat – and all the chat services – are expanding into the broadcast space, and I need to add Medium []
  3. This last point is why Vox’s – and all the other new media sites’ – valuation is relatively modest []
  4. In fact, I would argue Sullivan earned far less from his blog than he could have; his paywall was quite leaky (you needed to read a relatively high number of full-length articles before you were cut off, and even then only for the rest of the month) and his rate ($19/year) quite low. []
  5. Hosting costs are an exception of course, but the marginal cost of one more subscriber is infinitesimal []
  6. In the case of Stratechery, surely my audience would be significantly larger were my Daily Updates broken up into their 8~10 component pieces and posted for free. More importantly, though, they would not exist because I would not reach nearly a large enough audience to pay for that attention through advertising, which means Stratechery wouldn’t be my job. []
  7. The Daily Update has a nearly 80% open rate, over triple the industry average []
  8. There is a third business model, as well, best personified by John Gruber and Daring Fireball. This entails being dominant within a niche such that you attract sponsors seeking to reach a highly targeted market. It works very well, both for Gruber and for sponsors, although it takes a much larger audience than a subscription-based model []
  9. After passing 1,000 late last year I passed 2,000 late last month. I didn’t plan on another numbers update, but my passion for this argument outweighs my Midwestern reticence []
  10. For what it’s worth, I bet Klein probably wouldn’t change a thing; reach is useful if you’re seeking to change the course of national politics. Personal ambition, though, isn’t grounds for saying blogs aren’t a viable business model []
  11. I post at least one free item a week and four members-only Daily Updates []
  12. As I noted, I’m optimistic about Vox (and especially BuzzFeed), poop posts notwithstanding. Sustainable, broad-based publications are important; in fact, that’s why I blog about them regularly (members-only) []