Stephen Dubner is a journalist (he has written mainly for the NYT) who is now blogging for the NYT. And so it’s interesting to me what he did when given the opportunity to break some news:
The other day, I received an e-mail that I shouldn’t have. While my name was indeed in the list of addressees, and while I knew some of the other addressees (as well as the sender), my name was plainly included by mistake. It took me about three seconds to figure this out, since the topic under discussion had nothing to do with me.
But not only did it have nothing to do with me: it was a confidential e-mail about an upcoming strategic move by a large American corporation, the news of which had the potential to move the market substantially…
In this case, the sender got lucky: I don’t plan to use the information against the company, or to profit from the confidential message.
What Dubner did, essentially, was nothing. He didn’t break the news himself, and he didn’t forward on the email to a NYT colleague working that beat.
Now, you can consider Dubner’s reaction to be an expression of basic human decency, or you can consider it to be a dereliction of journalistic duty. I see it as an attempt to maintain an arm’s-length relationship with the New York Times, which acquired the Freakonomics blog in August.
If you look at the Freakonomics home page, it’s very self-contained: it has the standard NYT navbar at the top, and I’m sure the ads are sold by the NYT’s salesforce, but clearly no one’s making an enormous attempt to drive Freakonomics readers to the rest of the nytimes.com site, and Dubner’s actions imply that he considers himself to be a Freakonomics guy much more than a NYT guy.
There’s a lesson, here, for companies looking to acquire blogs. Bloggers tend by their nature to be independent souls – and that goes even for someone like Dubner, whose long history of writing for the NYT long predates Freakonomics.
Blogs which are developed and launched in house often do a good job of linking frequently to other content on the site – that’s one of the driving forces behind the creation of blogs like Dealbook, Deal Journal, and Alphaville. But acquired blogs are unlikely to behave that way. I suspect that Andrew Sullivan’s readers tended not to click over to the rest of the Time site when he blogging there, which could well have been a contributing factor behind his move to the Atlantic.
I’d love to know, then, what the thinking was behind Condé Nast’s acquisition of Ars Techinca. If they think their Wired sales team can do a great job selling Ars Technica’s inventory, they’re probably right. If they’re dreaming of integrating Ars Technica into Wired.com, that will be harder – although not impossible, given that Ars Technica is already structured halfway between news site and blog.
But in general, the very things which make blogs attractive – their unique voice, their loyal readers – mean that when a website buys a blog, it’s a good idea to downplay hopes of getting traffic flowing from that blog to the rest of the site.