New journalism

Bloggers and journalists are experimenting with new models of monetization and independent publishing. One of the pioneers of subscription-based independent blog-based journalism just called it quits, but we should still laud his pioneering effort, not call blogging dead (again).

Have you heard of Andrew Sullivan? He's the man behind The Dish — a blog that helped break new ground on blog monetization through membership fees.

He quit blogging, and therefore the media world declared blogging dead (again). Sullivan leaving and the posts that have come from it have caused me to think about blogging and journalism in its current and changing state. I think we're in the second act of what I'm pompously calling new journalism.

Blogging is so (not) dead

Seemingly everyone in media weighed in on Sullivan's departure, from Ben Smith at Buzzfeed to Ezra Klein at Vox. My favorite (until today) was Mathew Ingram's take at Gigaom, which mostly defended the blog.

But the best of the bunch goes to former Automattician and current independent tech journalist Ben Thompson. Ben runs Stratechery, a blog that has a very similar model to The Dish (and my own), where he makes money from subscribers who get extra members-only content.

I have followed Ben's work closely. I was quite keen to see how his model would work for him, and it has. Nevertheless, I almost fully agree with Ben's take on what Sullivan's model and departure mean:

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.

Elasticity of substitution may be my new favorite phrase. And in that concept, I think we find the important key to viability. What are we valuing in websites? For me, it's individual voices.

A bit more from Ben's post:

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, 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. Stratechery, though, serves a niche, and niches are best served by making more from customers who really care than from milking pennies from everyone.

For a writer, it is a difficult mind-shift to focus on subscribers after years of focusing on reach. But I do think a subscriber model, or more likely a hybrid subscriber model, is perhaps one of the most viable routes for sustainable journalism that we have today.

New blogging mediums

Of additional interest to all of these “blogging is dead” posts, is how the writers define blogs and the mediums for them.

Ben really narrows the definition of a 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: is 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 is probably the single argument I (partially) disagree with. I actually believe that a blog is just that: a web log. I think it's perfectly fine to consider Twitter, Facebook, & Instagram new mediums for blogging — at least in the sense of the traditional web log definition. They are just for a different form of blogging: short form, temporary, and a viable replacement for the “10 to 15” daily update style of posts many old school bloggers previously put on their primary “blogs”.

Other than someone abusing these mediums — for instance, Marc Andreessen's tweet-storms — our WordPress (or other software) blogs are still where our more permanent thoughts go. And fortunately, as Ben notes, we have these short-form mediums as free marketing channels for our actual blogs and more serious thoughts.

Ben also hesitates to consider multi-author sites as blogs. I disagree here as well. Perhaps publications aren't blogs as a whole, but within TechCrunch or The New York Times, individuals rise up with their own unique voices, and those singular feeds are, in my opinion, blogs of their own — whether or not they are fully siloed within the publication. I can follow an author on Twitter and essentially get their blog feed through their Twitter links, even if the site itself doesn't differentiate their posts from anyone else's.

So Ben has helped me establish a new mental constraint for defining a blog: a blog is a highly individual thing. I have never truly considered this before, but it makes sense. I've always been most attracted to publications where the voice behind the writing is strong — where I know who is writing a post whether I see the byline or not.

Publishing containers

The New York Times, TechCrunch, Politico and BuzzFeed: these are containers. They may have some over-arching styles that most of their writers follow, but we still get to know individuals in these publications. I know David Carr's voice at The New York Times; I know Alexia Tsotsis' voice at TechCrunch; I know Mike Allen's voice at Politico; and I know Ben Smith's voice at BuzzFeed.

One thing we've seen happen in a wake of new journalism is that a voice gets too big for the container, and the voice splits. Nate Silver left The New York Times. Ezra Klein left The Washington Post. Interestingly, I think both of these guys lost their voices a bit when they created their own containers.

Andrew Sullivan is a great example of a big voice within publishing containers. Before he went independent, he was a huge voice at The Atlantic and The Daily Beast. He was apparently responsible for up to a quarter of all traffic to The Atlantic before he left.

For a publisher, this should be both exhilarating and terrifying. The voice within your publication (Sullivan) gets outstanding results, but you also run the risk of the voice leaving; if the voice is bigger than the container, that could be really really bad.

We need new tools for a new kind of publishing container

Journalists are leaving big publishing containers and going independent for a variety of reasons, but I believe one is pretty clear: money.

A niche publisher like Ben Thompson can make well into six-figures running his own publication. Ben is a talented and knowledgeable writer, but I don't think it would be easy for him to make the kind of money he's making at Stratechery if he were writing for a traditional publication.

Ben cites the ease of use of tools like WordPress and Stripe as reasons to be optimistic that the independent subscription model can work:

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

I agree that it's easier than before, but I wouldn't say it's simple. I've spent a great deal of time to make Post Status work behind the scenes, and I don't think it's perfect by any means. Is it cheap compared to million dollar big-publisher platforms? Yes. Is it cheap for a solo-journalist? Not at all.

I think there is a tremendous opportunity here: there is room to create new publishing containers (I'm not sure if this should be a tool or a network) that lower the technical barrier to entry but also enable independent, subscription-based journalism.

Big media companies remove the need to manage the business and technical side for journalists. Meanwhile, those of us that are attempting our own thing are all reinventing the wheel a bit.

Ben and I use some of the same tools — WordPress and Stripe — but what if there was a more structured container for those seeking independence and someone to help them take care of the non-content aspects? What if that same tool had its own network effect?

Who is in position to be a new kind of container?

What existing networks are in position to offer this kind of tool? WordPress.com is one. Medium is another.

I envision a tool (publishing platform) where independent journalists can do a few things:

  • Maintain their own audience (be a part of a network, but be their own voice and publication)
  • Own their own brand (custom themes/styles, unique domain)
  • Offer subscription options to readers without managing the tech

If I were Ev Williams or Matt Mullenweg, I'd be working on a way to be the next container for great, sustainable journalism. And hosted networks have a unique advantage: they can offer discovery for new or lesser-known authors. Unless self-hosted options figure that part out.

As a publisher on the WordPress.org side of things, I don't think the perfect tool exists yet either. Fortunately I'm able to build most of what I need. But Ben is right that managing membership lists  and communities with WordPress is still hard. Syncing the membership list and the email list (delivery mechanism) is hard too.

While I don't think the perfect self-hosted tools exist quite yet, I believe it's just a matter of time. But even the best self-hosted tool will require that the journalist also manage the business elements; therefore I think there will always be room for a hosted tool.

I think this could be an excellent business vertical for a publishing tool like WordPress.com or Medium.

New journalism

I've used the words journalism and blogging synonymously throughout this post. I don't think all bloggers are journalists, but I do think all journalists are bloggers. Blogging isn't dead. I think it's just leaving adolescence.

Journalists won't need big media to back their efforts. They'll be able to use a blend of mediums (Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, etc) to funnel traffic to their main “blog” — or primary domain — where they can actually make money by attracting loyal subscribers willing to pay for high-value content.

The formula for making money will change. The key for successful independent journalism won't be about being first, or dominating search, or pageview quotas. Too many in big media have ignored that elasticity of substitution measurement Ben highlights.

Journalism is changing, and I agree with Ben Thompson that “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.”

Those journalists that can create what others cannot will have a formula for publishing success, and soon enough the tools will catch up to allow them to do what they do best: create great content.