Welcome to the small leagues: On WordPress and journalism
A friend and former coworker of mine really likes the word “webmaster”. Because it’s a hilarious word. It suggests that this person has control over the web in general, which is pretty pretentious. However, traditional webmasters have long had a place in the workplace.
Today, I stumbled upon a conversation between Marc Andreesson, of the enormously influential Andreesson Horowitz, and Jake Kaldenbaugh. They were debating about how well “capital-J Journalism” can continue as the top source for “truth”.
Andreesson’s argument stems from the notion that technology behind news is generally free and the operating expenses are low, which offers a very low barrier for just about anyone to be able to do “capital-J”, or trustworthy, news.
By itself, this was interesting to me. I love reading about journalism, especially in relation to the web. If you do too, you should be following and reading from the Nieman Journalism Lab. But Andreesson also specifically noted WordPress in this debate.
Is the webmaster dead?
He states that traditional webmasters aren’t needed anymore, because WordPress “does most of it.”
It sounds ridiculous for me to speculate about the role of a job description because of someone’s tweet, and it’s true. But in the case of Marc Andreesson, or even his Twitter account, it’s nothing new. So get over it.
Andreesson has a good point. Publishing tools like WordPress have greatly lowered the barrier to “capital-J Journalism”. Granted, it is a fairly specific style of organization that has traditionally been in need of “webmasters”, but in the case of journalism, it’s an important group.
Local news and WordPress
Some of Andreesson and Kaldenbaugh’s conversation centered around Patch, AOL’s failed local news experiment. While local news itself is an important medium that’s unfortunately one of the most difficult to make it in, I never liked how Patch planned to work.
Outside of proprietary platforms like Patch, WordPress dominates local news. In a small newsroom of, say, 1-30 people, WordPress is perfect. These organizations can present a quality web portal for news, just like the big guys.
And without a big clunky CMS to deal with, which can bring down big news orgs too by the way, these organizations can focus more on journalism and less on tooling.
What’s more, WordPress allows the journalist to publish straight to the web. There isn’t a need for a technical editor. A journalist finds a story, writes it, and publishes. No in-between guy. No webmaster.
Work your way in, not up
Most advice I’ve seen for journalism seems to get it about half-right (you know, because I’m an authority on journalism jobs and all). The good advice is the “just do it” mentality. The bad advice is that you have to “work your way up from the bottom.” I disagree, assuming the bottom is defined as within a large news organization.
Now, you don’t need to work your way up in a big news organization for your dream gig. You can brute force your way in by being better than everyone else in your genre. Ask Brian Stelter.
Stelter is the dream-story of self-willed journalism jobs. He started with a blog, and it go so popular that he sold it before he finished college and had an amazing job covering media for the New York Times waiting for him when he graduated. As The New Republic highlights, “Stelter’s web-native digital facility did indeed make him stand out inside a rapidly evolving newsroom.”
This is a guy that did his legwork to get into his dream industry by way of his blog, and he hasn’t looked back since.
Nate Silver was the same way. Silver started FiveThirtyEight on Blogger, and before you knew it, everyone in politics was paying attention. And the New York Times came calling.
And these guys were ready as soon as they got to the Times. Nobody had to train them into a new workflow for journalism. They were web centric from the beginning. They cut their teeth on their own blogs, built for free or for cheap with platforms like WordPress.
Oh yeah, and at the Times, they use WordPress too. How’s that for power of the platform?
Work your way out
Another of Andreesson’s notes was on how journalists can monetize what they do with speeches and book contracts, since journalism itself doesn’t often pay well.
But even this sentiment is a bit old school. More than ever, journalists are monetizing in another way: building their brands and moving back out on their own.
Ezra Klein, Nate Silver, Kara Swisher & Walt Mossberg, Andrew Sullivan. These are people, many of whom built their brand in small publications and made it to big ones, who are now going back small again.
I’ve been reading a book called Trust Me, I’m Lying, a book in many ways cringeworthy, which makes one observation that made a lightbulb go off in my head. Author Ryan Holiday spends most of his time in the book bashing blogs and talking about how he uses them for his own advantage. But he also shows how the online media is mirroring the path of print a generation before it.
Before The New York Times and others pioneered mass-distributed subscription journalism, newspapers were sold on the streets only, and the craziest headlines would win. The number of papers sold in a day was all that mattered. Holiday goes on to describe how in the age of blogging, pageviews are all that matters, and calls it today’s yellow journalism.
But what’s notable is that online journalism is in the midst of the same transformation as print took: a move from “yellow journalism” to a subscription model. The noise on the web is insane. More and more people are looking for outlets they can trust.
Andrew Sullivan’s Dish is a great example. He doesn’t need a huge audience. He just needs those willing to pay him for his insight. The New York Times knows they produce some of the best news in the world, and they charge for it online after a certain number of views now.
Ezra Klein and Nate Silver have left their big-media mainstays for smaller forward-thinking organizations that I bet will in the future include a subscription model.
Welcome to the small leagues
And again, it’s not just these big guys that can do this. Small publishers can mirror the subscription model that better funded and more established businesses are moving to. And as people become more willing to pay for good content, it’s even more doable for small publishers.
We (I’m a perfect example of a small but empowered publisher) can’t compete with the big guys in a world where the pageview is king. We’ll never be able to pump out as much as huge, well funded organizations. But when we can start to target niche audiences, especially audiences willing to support a subscription model, or other innovative monetization methods, we have a chance to compete.
In my hometown, al.com is the big player. They are an arm of the behemoth Advanced Digital, which owns papers all over the country; they also have had many woes trying to adapt to a web first strategy.
Just yesterday, I saw that an Alabama political website, that started as a guy with a WordPress blog, passed 1 million pageviews per month for the first time.
An SEC sports blog down here called Saturday Down South is huge now, competing with the biggest sports sites in the country. Again, it started as a guy with a WordPress blog.
Even WarBlogle, a site about Auburn (my alma mater) and run by one guy, gets buckets of traffic and has almost 40,000 Twitter followers. It’s just a regular WordPress site that costs him virtually no money (trust me, I’ve tried to get him to spend some for years).
Nothing is stopping the next Nate Silver from simply starting a blog and changing the conversation again.
WordPress has been an integral part of web publishing over the last decade. The next decade looks just as promising.
Welcome to the small leagues.
Every time I’m reminded of the empowerment WordPress can give people – even small league home journalists – I feel butterflies in my stomach. Anyone can change the conversation, or share their view. It’s a beautiful thing.
Really enjoyed this article. Well done Brian. This is exactly why I’m so excited about what we’re doing over at Memberful.
Hmm. I feel the power of the average blog has diminished a bit since the bigger groups have formed. As much as I think Medium is an awesome service (as are the many other similar platforms) I think their existence, and emergence of these ‘platforms’ are continuously diminishing the possibility of what makes a blog so unique, and powerful…the independence of it all. The disconnect of this individual, or small groups of individuals, writing away on this unique website. Each person pouring their heart out to an audience that may never hear them, but then one day someone comes across a post, and next thing you know the social networks are all a buzz. Then the small website goes down from the traffic, and someone made a difference. If a Medium post goes viral…why does it matter? How is that inspirational when it’s a distributed platform? Don’t get me wrong I believe it’s great in many ways, since it provides the readership the above required a spark to find….I just think it’s this spark blogs need. Where is the magic in Medium? This is all just a personal feeling, and opinion of course. Thanks for listening. Responses are of course appreciated.
Brian, first of all, let me say that I’m sort of blown away that a casual twitter conversation can be picked up and analyzed like this – I guess this is what happens when you chat with the guy who basically invented the modern web browser. Second, I think you are correctly getting at what I was trying to say, but probably used the wrong term in “webmaster”. As sites scale from a hobby level into a larger professional level, they inevitably require at least one resource that focuses on site itself. The idea that a one-person can focus on generating great content as well as keep a site well-designed, optimized economically and running becomes more difficult the more it becomes a business. But I do agree with Marc (I assume he and I are on a first-name basis now) in that you can definitely get started this way. But lastly, I was really talking about the kind of journalism that greatly impacts our biggest institutions – investigative journalism and I still think this is very hard to do on a “prosumer” basis even with modern tools. First of all, this type of journalism tends to be anti-establishment, so running a site with ads could get sticky if someone is uncovering uncomfortable truths that expose the underbelly of our corporatist society. Additionally, I find a lot of this reporting requires deep expertise, connections and an understanding that is hard to develop without resources. Hence the points I was trying to make about the role of new funding models (public grants, kickstarter(ish), etc…). For topics that aren’t as controversial (say sports for example) I think the WordPress>Viable Self Sustaining Entity model works fine – a la Bleacher Report, et al.
Thanks for noticing the discussion and for spelling my last name correctly! Great discussion.
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