All the sad, young unemployed bloggers
Four of my favorite bloggers joined the ranks of the unemployed this month.
Staffers were locked out of their computers and put out on the street so fast, they didn’t even have time to steal office supplies.
These are four of the best writers on the web. So why are they lounging around in their pajamas today, begging for donations and scrambling for freelance work?
Option 1 – Duff is wrong – Intellectual honesty demands that I start with this one. Maybe these writers that I love so much are only funny to me — only funny to a misanthropic microculture that only spends money on DVDs and frozen yogurt.
Option 2 – Everybody’s broke – Entertainment sites exist on the economic fringe, supported with “luxury surplus dollars” that are now being spent on mortgage payments and CEO severance packages. By the end of the year the only growth industries will be in medicine, law and canned food.
Option 3 – Advertisers haven’t figured out the web yet – The people who run companies are age 40 to 60. The people who visit these web sites are 18 to 34. Online sales professionals aren’t just facing a technology gap; they’re also facing a generation gap, trying to explain the relevance of ads that, to the uninitiated, are just pictures on a screen.
The generation gap also affects perception of content. Cutting-edge web sites are quirky, profane, intimate and mean — operating right on the legal edge. This writing style is likely to annoy, frighten, or soar over the heads of corporate advertisers, driving them to “safer” content, even if it is from the National Enquirer.
Option 4 – Bad management – As Nick Denton admitted in the Gawker layoff announcement, “Writers on all of our sites have done exactly what we asked them to: work harder than the competition and grow the audience. It’s my commercial judgment that’s been at fault.”
It’s easy to blame management for this. A lot of people resort to freshmen-level Marxism when they hear news like this. Denton and company make great villains, but I think it’s more useful to examine the fundamental assumptions that drive their business.
The Gawker sites introduced a controversial bonus system last year that tied blogger pay to popularity — granting bonuses based on the number of pageviews that their posts generated. Writers lost a chunk from their regular salaries but became eligible for big bonuses when one of their posts struck oil.
The model worked, increasing Gawker site traffic by 69% in a year. But advertising revenue didn’t keep pace with page views, forcing Denton to cut bonuses and raise base pay.
It seems like a simple formula: talent = pageviews = $$$. But now those rules are changing. There seems to be a fundamental disconnect between popularity and revenue. Advertisers are running scared and site managers are struggling to keep up.
Option 5 – “Balk is a jerk” – Celebrity bloggers are a new phenomenon. Pop stars are manufactured by record companies and literary stars still work within a kind of guild system, but blogging isn’t a true art form yet. Bloggers have made great strides, but the Internet is still a media ghetto.
In a just world, bloggers like Balk and Sicha would be rock stars, but the powers that be don’t respect their medium yet. Mainstream pundits vacillate between contempt and hyperbole. They know the Internet is important, but they don’t understand why. Contempt for the Internet is so ingrained, even their Internet hype stories sound condescending.
This climate makes it hard for bloggers, even great ones, to charge what they’re worth.
Huffington Post vlogger Jason Linkins described Radar Online as “an island of misfit toys.” Brilliant people who didn’t really belong in traditional media found a home there. Radar picked up a handful of Gawker castoffs (alternately referred to as Gawker Exiles or Gawker Survivors) and hosted a little utopia online. And like most utopias, this one was short-lived. Ana Marie Cox calls this crew “the Typhoid Mary’s of media.”
Cox said, “We are not good employees. No one will hire us. The world is too square. We are a bunch of round things.”
Maybe these folks really are too quirky for corporate media. But I prefer to believe Option 6.
Option 6 – Superstar bloggers are ahead of their time – To paraphrase John Edwards, there are two Internets. First we have the mainstream, casual, prime-time Internet. These folks think of the Internet as a supplement to TV and radio. They get their news from CNN and the Today Show and visit web sites they see on TV.
They surf major news sites and circulate kitty pictures in email. They use Google to check movie times and look up trivial pursuit answers, but they don’t really belong to the Internet. Their tastes, their lifestyles and their media expectations froze in 1996.
The other group has adopted the Internet as a fundamental part of their lives. They host blogs, use RSS feeds and keep up with friends on Twitter. These people are connected 24/7. They send text messages while they sleep and check email before they put their pants on.
They are young, smart and upwardly-mobile, but there aren’t enough of them yet. They’re hyper-literate, hyper-critical and hyper-connected. These are true alpha consumers. They want to be first with a new gadget, first to review a great book, first to complain about a bad movie and the first to celebrate when an old brand does something new.
They’re sick of the old media paradigm and are desperate to see something new. The key to attracting this group is subversion. You can’t just sneak your commercial onto YouTube three days early and call it “viral.” You can’t just put your marketing copy on Twitter and pretend you’re 2.0.
You have to change the way you talk to them, and the quickest way to win them over is to slaughter a sacred cow. It’s not enough to put a young model in a hot new dress. You have to pan the camera over and show the ripped jeans that she changed out of.
You have to establish a context of subversion in your ads and on your web site, to prove you’re not taking yourself too seriously. The Internet generation rebels against anything that smacks of pretension or self-importance.
These people know all the standard PR tricks and are violently allergic to corporate boilerplate. That’s why sites like Gawker and Radar are so popular, even when they’re raw. Generation Y is sick of committee thinking and committee writing. Blogging is the antidote to this. In this context of subversion, sloppy links and strange word choices can actually work in your favor, adding to the raw, intimate appeal of your site.
This style goes against 50 years of advertising guidelines and a century of professional journalism.
I think these bloggers are suffering because they got it right too soon, giving Internet alpha consumers what they wanted before advertisers were ready to pay for it.
Our economy is contracting right now. Everybody is holding on to their cash, scaling back and preparing for the worst. But the downturn won’t last forever. Internet alphas may be turning to cheaper luxuries, but the fundamentals are still the same.
Maybe you’ll be selling frozen yogurt instead of iPods this year, but the cool kids still need their snark fix, and you can’t catch smart readers with lame writing.
I think this is where Denton went wrong, and where Radar is about to go wrong. Denton changed the focus of his site, alienating his core audience and casting a wider net. Gawker sites dominated the Internet alpha market and hit a ceiling. Denton’s consumers were high-loyalty and high-value, but there weren’t enough of them to keep his numbers up.
He tried to expand his appeal and bring in the TMZ crowd. It worked. Pageviews went crazy but these new visitors had no particular loyalty to Gawker or its community. They were just clicking on shiny things, killing time between Lolcats.
That’s what happens when you cast a wide net. You get more fish, but quality suffers. Gawker pageviews skyrocketed, but the quality of its product and the cachet of its brand went down.
I’m not trying to bash Denton here. Commercial blogs are not vanity projects and they are not charity. Publishers have to strike a balance between quality and quantity of users.
Focus too tight and the audience will be too small to support you. Cast the net too wide and your loyal readers will leave. It’s a delicate balance and no one has it right yet.
All I know is that a dozen of the best writers on the Internet are facing unemployment this month. The future of journalism is strung out in a series of New York apartments right now, ready to work for a fraction of what they’re worth.
What happened to all those obnoxious Internet millionaires? Does anybody have any money left?