Blogonomics: The End of Micropublishing?

I don’t fully understand Nick Denton’s decision to fold Valleywag into Gawker. Gawker’s readers don’t care about Silicon Valley gossip, and Valleywag’s readers don’t care who was spotted having lunch at Michael’s yesterday. What’s more, Gawker’s clearly having difficulty selling out its inventory already — hence the end of pay-per-pageview. So readers won’t benefit, and although will get a traffic boost from this, it’s not going to be easy to monetize that.

But I do think this is pretty much the end of the micropublishing business model, at least for the time being.

Denton’s original idea was to sell narrowly-targeted blogs at high-end advertisers; that never worked, for him, and for a few years now he’s cared much more about the quantity of his readers than he has about their quality. More recently, Denton has been repurposing blog entries across his network, with some but not all Valleywag posts appearing on Gawker, Gawker posts appearing on Defamer, that kind of thing. That’s good for traffic, and for getting readers of one site to read the others — and Henry Blodget, for one, has been following a very similar strategy with his network of sites.

This latest decision is yet another step in the more-is-more direction — one of the key drivers of HuffPo’s success. And it’s a sign that blogs are much more likely to work as mass media than they are as niche publishers. I think the key line from Denton’s bearish blog entry on Tuesday is this one:

Marketers and their agencies can track engagement and clicks in great detail online; but it’s still only television advertising that can demonstrate a correlation between spending and a boost to a marketer’s sales.

Why is that? Simple: television is a mass medium, which can reliably reach tens of millions of people. The dream of internet publishers was that media buyers would flock to a more niche medium, where they could target people much more accurately. But the problem is that media buyers, and ad sales people, get paid a lot of money: it’s just not worth their while to collaborate on a campaign which only reaches a relative handful of readers. To be successful in publishing, you need economies of scale, and that means big websites with a mass audience rather than niche blogs which need to be sold separately by expensive sales teams.

To be sure, there are exceptions: I think the Brownstoner business model, for instance, is absolute genius, although it remains to be seen how it will perform during a real-estate bust. But there’s a reason why Google has made so much more money than anybody else by selling targeted ads: Google is the only company with the scale to be able to deliver narrowly-targeted ads to millions of readers every day.

The consequence is that sites like Gawker are going to become increasingly all-things-to-all-people: as Brad Stone puts it, it’s becoming "a more nationally oriented gossip site". Clearly, those of us who like less-frequently-updated blogs with more of an individual voice aren’t numerous enough to provide the audience that media buyers demand. That doesn’t bother me too much: there are more than enough blogs out there without an advertising-driven business model to keep me happy, and I’m happy for other people to read Gawker and HuffPo.

But if you think you can make real money from your small-time blog startup’s advertising revenues, think again. It’s never been easy, and now it’s going to be harder than ever.

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