Blogonomics: Paying for Content

I do wish that Mark Gimein will start blogging: he’s a natural. He’s provocative,

and interesting, and – at least until the final

entry of his guest-blogging stint at Time – unafraid to write long.

(This is your own place, Mark! If you want to write long, feel free!) But he

has a vision of "online journalism bifurcat[ing] into reporting and commentary",

with blogging in the latter category and serious journalism in the former. What

he misses is the hugely important fact that most bloggers are not journalists,

and have no desire to be journalists. And that as a result, the quality of public

discourse, certainly in the finance and economics space, has improved immeasurably.

I defy Mark to find a single journalist in the next month who will write as

lucidly and as comprehensively about this year’s Nobel

Prize winners in economics as Tyler and Alex over at Marginal Revolution

did in the space of a couple of hours. There aren’t any newspaper or magazine

journalists who are better on international capital flows than Brad

Setser, or the housing market than Capital Calculated

Risk, or urbanism than Streetsblog

– the list is almost endless. If you have a quick look at my econoblogsphere,

you’ll find that journalists are definitely in the minority – and that’s

a very good thing indeed.

These bloggers aren’t in it for the money. Every once in a while a blog like

Marginal Revolution

will really take off, and start bringing in non-negligible amounts of cash for

its founders. But Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok are both tenured professors,

and they didn’t found the blog for the money. If you look at Mark Thoma’s hugely

successful Economists’

View blog, you’ll see that it carries no advertising whatsoever. Mark undoubtedly

gets a lot of benefit from it, but not in the form of cashflow.

Which brings me to Jeff Bercovici’s idea that the founders of the Huffington

Post shouldn’t

profit from their writers’ efforts. I disagree: Arianna Huffington and Ken

Lerer are performing a very valuable service, which was funded largely with

venture capital, and there’s no reason why their hard work and vision shouldn’t

be profitable for them and their investors. Jeff seems to think that HuffPo


its bloggers jealously:

The real test of Arianna Huffington’s commitment to digital democracy and

online community and all that jazz is what happens when some no-name HuffPo

blogger breaks out, acquires a following, and decides he wants to migrate

his blog elsewhere on the web so he can own his own traffic and brand. Will

she wish him a gracious fare-thee-well when he goes from serf to neighboring


I haven’t asked Arianna about this personally, but yes, of course

she would wish such a blogger a gracious fare-thee-well. If HuffPo can really

help create new bloggy celebrities, then that only serves to emphasize the value

which her site is capable of adding. Of course her bloggers could all host their

own blogs on Typepad or Blogger or WordPress, and the famous ones would probably

get a decent readership in the form of fans. But they get orders of magnitude

more readers on HuffPo – and if there’s one thing that bloggers want,

it’s readers. Mark Thoma’s not blogging for money, but I can guarantee he wouldn’t

blog as assiduously as he does if his only readers were a handful of friends

and family.

The genius of HuffPo is that it’s a real positive-sum game. The bloggers get

much more in the way of readership on HuffPo than they ever would on their own.

That means the "no-name" bloggers have a much greater chance of breaking

out and becoming "name" bloggers if they can get HuffPo to publish

their thoughts. And as those bloggers increase the volume of content on the

HuffPo site, the site itself becomes inceasingly popular and valuable.

The HuffPo business model actually makes more sense than, say, the Gawker Media

business model, where you increase your amount of content by paying people to

work incredibly hard. Vanessa

Grigoriadis reports that even Gawker Media might be moving towards more

of a user-generated-content model:

The success of the comments has even made Denton rethink the compensation

he pays his bloggers, the cows he has to pay for milk. Gawker as an automated

message board, with commenters generating exponentially greater numbers of

page views as they click all over the site to see reactions to their comments,

could be the dream. There would then be no editors to pay, even at the rates

he has to shell out.

For all that blogs are becoming increasingly mainstream, the number of people

who get a regular and predictable paycheck for blogging is still tiny. That

number will rise, but it will never come close to the number of people who get

a regular and predictable paycheck for old-fashioned reporting. In most of the

blogosphere, the incentives and the rewards for generating content are very,

very different from what is found in old-media companies.

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