Up until recently, there were two “new economy” blogging models. The first was the independent blog (such as this one and the thousands of others that have populated our lives over the last decade). The second was the blog mixed in with traditional media. The latter started to grow with the Huffington Post to Forbes to the New York Times. In actuality, these latter blogs were like columnists who could set their own pace at the sacrifice of editorial input. We know many who started off as bloggers and ‘quit their day job’ to move to the media model. To the reader, it was nice to have more content but occasionally there was a sense we were missing something.
A new model is emerging. Not surprisingly, it started with technology including the techblog, The Verge, launch a while back and my favourite tech blog but since then it has spread. To be sure, some bloggers such as Andrew Sullivan have rejected the media model and have launched their own sites with an apparently successful paid, subscription model. But in many respects, those are the heavily labor-light capital models that all blogs — independent and media — have relied on. (I am guessing with the latter but my impression is that there is still an artisan model — the blogger does the work — to the media model).
The Verge model is different. Behind it is Vox Media, a start-up with $61 million in funding. All that money has been attracted to make technology the core of the company and to build media sites on top of that. This sounds strange until you recognise that traditional media companies are all built on technology themselves. These define the workflow and the resources that are allocated to projects. In most cases, that is to keep to a technology print or broadcast print schedule. The essence of blogging is that there are no schedules. But I suspect that because of that bloggers within media companies could never procure the right resources. Sure, they can get editorial help. But what about research, a travel budget etc. Vox Media appears to be based on cleaning the slate and, therefore, allowing resource competitions to be placed on a more level playing field than traditional media. Thus, while up until now, bloggers took on the resource challenge by working to claim no resources, for Vox Media, they get a chance to compete.
In a way, I anticipated this at last year’s Kauffman economics weblogging conference where I spoke about the impact of technology on blogging and its future. Here is the video in case you want to watch it:
I argued that bloggers need tools to do their job properly and that we have only scratched the surface with content management systems. My experience at Forbes taught me that this was just WordPress with a few plugins to help drive you to other Forbes articles and to not break copyright in using pictures. Medium has offered a much better set of tools that allow you to produce pieces that are easy to write, edit and then look nice. But surely there is more that can be done. What about something that embedded the ability to produce analysis including tables, graphs and, wait for it, statistical analysis? What about something that made it easy to curate useful infographics of the sort the New York Times sometimes does with an arsenal of designers behind it?
The reason this is important is that it seemed to me that the general blogging site was not something that would work in the evolving information economy. As users had better tools to curate the vast amount of content on the web, so too were there incentives to specialise (not just on economics, say, but the digital economy …) and also to provide more analytical rigour behind the posts. Nate Silver is, of course, the pioneer here but so to is Asymco. The problem, of course, is that the tools to do the latter were missing and the organisation to do the former was stuck.
This week, Ezra Klein announced that he was leaving the Washington Post where he had founded the Wonkblog site that had the quality of being better than most. He was going to be launching, with other traditional media refugees, a new site on the Vox Media platform. As Klein wrote:
Reimagining the way we explain the news means reinventing newsroom technology. Vox is already home to modern media brands — SB Nation, The Verge, Eater, Curbed, Racked, and Polygon — that are loved by tens of millions of people, including us. The engine of those sites is a world-class technology platform, Chorus, that blows apart many of the old limitations. And behind Chorus is a world-class design and engineering team that is already helping us rethink the way we power newsrooms and present information.
So what drove the move? It was the technology. The Washington Post couldn’t do this. It would have had to start from scratch. My guess is that it will take Klein some time to work out how to use the technology and also that he will likely need to add to his team people with skills he has yet to appreciate. But it will be fun to watch.
In the meantime, one might wonder whether the independent blog might be finally overcome with this technological change. Last week, Wil Wilkinson who is now one of those traditional media bloggers, reflected on “old school” blogging in a post I cannot recommend highly enough. Here is a taste:
Expectation, reputation, obligation–these are what make the self coalesce, and the more locked in those expectation and obligations become, the more solid the self feels. There’s nothing wrong with blogging for money, but the terms of social exchange are queered a little by the cash nexus. A personal blog, a blog that is really your own, and not a channel of the The Daily Beast or Forbes or The Washington Post or what have you, is an iterated game with the purity of non-commercial social intercourse. The difference between hanging out and getting paid to hang out. Anyway, in old-school blogging, you put things out there, broadcast bits of your mind. You just give it away and in return maybe you get some attention, which is nice, and some gratitude, which is even nicer.
The reason this resonated with me was my experience blogging on Parentonomics at Forbes.com in 2012. My style had been built on my own parenting blog but I had hoped that a wider readership might spur me to do more blogging; in a good way. Also, there was no obligation to post at Forbes but if I did it weekly on average I’d be paid and I’d be paid a little bit more if there were more hits. The money was so trivial it didn’t matter. But I have to say, I didn’t like it. I felt that it wasn’t quite my own voice. There were editors looking over my shoulder. It wasn’t much loss in independence but it was enough. So when they finally fired me for not getting enough hits I was quite happy. To be sure, I don’t blog much on parenting any more but what I do is really my own. Wilkinson’s post captured that.
For this reason, I think the independent blog will remain. The new ventures, however, will likely attract attention and if all goes well will lift the quality of blogging and the media.