Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Weblog Business Strategies 2003 XIII

Ali, Crosbie, Jarvis, Shnaider, and Spiers: Weblogs -- New Syndication Models Or Uncontrolled Platforms?

Rafat Ali is editor and publisher of PaidContent.org, Vin Crosbie is managing partner of Digital Deliverance, Jeff Jarvis is president and creative director of Advance.net, David Shnaider is former president of ZDNet and founder of Prodigy, and Elizabeth Spiers is editor of Gawker.com. Here is a rough transcript of their discussion:

David Shnaider: I think that I'm like the donkey on Animal Farm, who says we live a very long time; have you ever seen a dead donkey? What effects are Weblogs having on traditional media? We got into this a little bit last night when we talked about is a blogger a journalist? No one can tell me that what's happening here in terms of people reporting isn't journalism. I, for one, am fed up with bad, fuzzy writing that leaves out information I want to know. I'm sick of egos. I'm absolutely fed up with people opining on subjects that they know nothing about. That is why I am no longer going to watch the 10 o'clock news on my local Fox affiliate, because that's what you get.

A piece came out 35 years ago called "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved" written by Hunter Thompson. People then said this isn't representative journalism. But if you read it today, it's representative of a blog. Then there was a newsletter editor in Washington named I.M. Stone. No one would have said that he wasn't a journalist. With that background we're going to talk a little bit about what Weblogs mean to traditional media.

Are they just a passing fad? Are they a new model? Are we looking at a new market for creating content? Like Doc Searls, I bristle at calling it content, but that's what we're going to look at. First we'll hear from Jeff Jarvis, who represents Big Media. But he's also very smart and he was out ahead in terms of Weblogs. Does anyone else in the whole Newhouse publishing empire get it? Do they even need to? Next we'll hear from Elizabeth Spiers, who in just a few months has created a must-read publication in New York media. As much as we can decry traditional media, who can't feel a little pride to be covered by mainstream media? Then we'll hear from Rafat Ali, who's created what I regard as an essential daily experience for people in this business, more so than some of the traditional vertical publications. Do you represent the leading edge of a movement that could threaten the empire? Then we'll hear from Vin Crosbie, who's an extremely well-read consultant and commentator. Is there really a business here?

Jeff Jarvis: I'm a journalist. Don't shoot me. I'm a newspaper guy, a magazine guy, I've been in TV, but I've been online for nine years. I work for a guy who really understands it, and we look at the Internet as a new media. The Internet is the first medium owned by the audience. It's not us and them, It's all us. For us, it all started with forums. In wrestling season, high school wrestling, one topic, one market, you can get 25,000 page views a day. We value that. That's a third of my traffic. It's the audience reporting news. The audience gives scores of the little league teams, stuff we can't afford to cover.

Blogs to me represent the highest form of audience content. A Weblog is not like a forum. A forum is like Saturday night at the bar. A blog is crap in your neighbor's yard. You own it. It's your yard. Through linking, the cream rises to the top. Are Weblogs making a difference? I'm going to do just one thing, Iran. Here was somebody who was arrested and thrown into an Iranian prison for doing something we do every day casually on our couches. Weblogs could make a difference in Iraq. They're making a difference there. They're making a difference here.

Elizabeth is making a difference here. She's being quoted in the New York Post. What makes Weblogs better? Speed. What I write tonight is meant to be read tomorrow. The variety. Thanks to the Internet, the fact that we can go anywhere in the world to get what we want is new. The voices. They're wonderful to hear. The tools that we use. Technorati. Blogdex. These are tremendous tools that will get much much richer. Finally, interactivity. I love my comments. We've been involved in forums a long time, but in my comments, I've only had to kill one post.

But Weblogs are nothing magical. It's just a tool. They're cheap publishing tools with the widest distribution ever. Still, they do different things. If you look at Livejournal, it's a community. There's nanomedia like Gizmodo and Gawker. Advertising, and lastly, personal. People will post my photos, my movies, my shopping list. Then there's video. I'm Andy Rooney. Video adds a lot. If I were MSNBC, I'd be looking for the next stars online.

Who should give a damn from a business perspective? Have a business reason to blog. Don't blog just for the sake of blogging. You've got to have a business reason. Let's talk about us in big media and why we're doing Weblogs. My boss was into Weblogs, and he was on my butt. I couldn't even figure it out. Frankly, it was after Sept. 11 that I had something to say. I had a reason to blog. I learned a tremendous amount. I had to learn that first hand. That allowed me to become a coach to others in the company.

We've started a series of blogs within the company. Some are good. Some are not so good. But they're learning. During the war I did a blog about the war that we syndicated across all the sites. There's not a lot of money to be made. There's no money to be made for me. It's traffic. The reason we're doing it is because it's so darn cheap.

Marketers. Dr. Pepper didn't make a mistake by sending the drink to bloggers. The mistake was lying about it and keeping it secret. Bloggers have influence. And marketers should treat bloggers with the respect that you all have an audience. Treat them as you treat media. Starting your own cow Weblog is dumb. Trying to keep it secret is dumb. But if people who do Weblogs see your movie early, that is good. It will create buzz.

We see small businesses like restaurants using blogs. They can update their specials every day. Companies that sell expertise. Nanomedia I think will work. Gawker will be a big and important success. Big defined relatively. What's that other site that calls itself a Weblog? AlwaysOn. It's just a guy who couldn't afford paper. It's not a Weblog. It shows the lower ambition of media. Weblogs can become media properties. Is anyone here from AOL or Yahoo? That's a mistake. Consumers are interested in Weblogs. They'll start to do that.

Elizabeth Spiers: I'm the editor of Gawker. Editor's a bit of a misnomer as I write everything and edit little. My publisher Nick Denton is editing Gawker today and tomorrow. You should email him and tell him how much worse it is when I'm not doing it.

Gawker has gotten quite a bit of response from media. I talk a lot about media, and it being a narcissistic industry, when you talk about media, they tend to listen. The first example is [a major New York daily with a popular gossip column]. Gawker is kind of a gossip site. I read the local gossip rags and do a digest. I started to realize that the [paper] would have nine items up and five would be items I'd put in Gawker the day before. I met several of the [gossip columnists] a few days ago and teased them, and one said, "Yeah, it makes my job so much easier."

The second example is [a somewhat snooty New York-based newspaper published on non-white paper that has a sizable media focus]. I've had four or five reporters come up to me and say that they want to do an article on Gawker, but their editor won't let them. The resistance is that they're afraid of you. The big guys are sitting up and taking notice. A lot of them are pretty smart about it and figuring out how to co-opt what we're doing. A lot of them just want in on the joke. I have editors sending me gossip about each other. I think that's really funny.

I had a little experience with Tony Perkins. I don't get a lot of press releases, but I've read few press releases that 30 seconds later I didn't wish I had those 30 seconds back. The exception is that the editor of Stuff got fired, and he wrote a press release saying that he'd been promoted. He's a prankster. I excerpted that. When Tony Perkins launched AlwaysOn, he hired a PR firm to pitch blogs, positioning AlwaysOn as this grassroots phenomenon. I thought that was funny. If it's such a grassroots thing, why hire a PR firm? Do it the blog way and publish content that's worth reading. If you can't do that, your blog is probably not going to be worth reading anyway.

Another anecdote. The [aforementioned tabloid newspaper] guys. We don't get censored. I have a filthy mouth. I say fuck. The [gossip column] guys said that they can't say fuck. They can't even quote it.

Rafat Ali: My name is Michael Moore. I want to thank the Academy for this award. I have 100% of bloggers in solidarity when I say this: AlwaysOn sucks.

I run a site called PaidContent.org. This is my one-year anniversary or whatever. I started at Silicon Alley Reporter, and I just started throwing stuff I couldn't use onto the site. The site is about digital media and how to do things beyond advertising. I'm a journalist, so I started to break stories. That got bigger and bigger. Then I started getting emails from vendors about whether I wanted to put an ad on it. I didn't because I was a full-time journalist and I didn't want my boss to call me on it.

Since November, this is my job. I blog for a living. It's been going well. As an adjunct to the site, I have an email newsletter. They're extremely complimentary. As a trade media, it's an important thing. Trade people may not be so technologically savvy to always go to your Web site. That's the main site. I live off it, basically.

Then I launched MobileContent two weeks ago. And two days ago I launched DigitalMusic. I have other sites, but I'm too scared to launch them. I need to hire someone. I'm dead.

My whole theory is that trade Weblogs are going to replace trade Web sites. As an expert in the field, you break news, have commentary, and offer original content. How many of you have ever read an official publication on wireless media? How many read blogs on wireless? Point proven. MarketingFix is better at attracting media coverage than AdWeek and AdAge. SmallTimes is a trade site on nanotech. They just started SmallTechAdvantage, which is kind of a blog intelligence service.

Why would trade Web sites work? Relevance and timeliness. Leanness of operations. Saturation o fcoverage. You just have to link to it. Saturate the market as much as you can. In branding terms, there's what they call a flanking strategy. Weblogs can do that effectively. When you combine Weblogs and original stories, you have a killer app.

The non-obvious advantage is that the profit motive for a formal operation is too high. Journalists have always been underpaid and underfed. All I want is enough to live. For me to have some sort of a Weblog trade thing is not that profit funded. Trade Weblogs also have the whole open source ethic. After awhile, if you're a journalist, people start asking you if you want to consult. I don't because you get into issues I don't want to get into. Understand what you're not: a consultant.

Vin Crosbie: I get paid to tell publishers things that would get me fired if I were an employee, particularly about their business models. Lately, they're asking me about blogs. They're really scared or dismissive of blogs right now. It's really, really pervasive. They don't think this is journalism. I have to remind them what business they're in. There were people like Henry David Thoreau, Lewis & Clarke, James Boswell, and Charles Darwin who kept journals and published the stuff. If these guys had blogs back then, you can bet your ass that they'd be online.

Basically, there's a natural human nature to keep a journal. It's also part of the basic human nature to publish journals. Nowadays people are publishing them online. This isn't something that's going to go away. People will use the cheapest and easiest technology to do it.

If you think about whether this is journalism, what is journalism? Keeping a journal., That's what it is. There are more people keeping blogs than there are professional journalists who get paid. There's no conflict between what bloggers do and what journalists do as long as you're honest and accurate about it. Sure, there are going to be bloggers who are opinionated and untruthful. But then we've got Jayson Blair.

Can media organizations use blogs? Dan Gillmore keeps a blog. The Guardian's blog is a blog. Some people will say that the Drudge Report is a blog. He says, "Don't call me a blogger." I don't think he's a blogger, but he's gotten great play and publicity by putting his voice out there.

Can a blog be edited? Yeah, it can be. Large media companies are probably going to edit stuff to make sure it's not libelous. But it's primarily edited for proofreading. I don't know any journalists who do blogs have anything yanked.

My advice is not to assign them. These things should be done spontaneously and enthusiastically. Can you imagine Maureen Dowd doing a blog on politics? It's a great thing to do. You're providing a service to your readers. And as Rafat mentioned, they should also be doing this as a defensive measure. I know people who don't read Editor & Publisher's Web site because they're reading Rafat's blog. If they don't do this, who's going to look at their own stuff?

The question of whether there's a profit in it comes down to whether the publication is business-to-business or business-to-consumer. In business-to-business, you could come up with a paid blog. I don't like the paid model, but it could be done. In business-to-consumer, it's more difficult to do. They're not making much money on the Web site any way. It has to do with the Web as an advertising medium, not with blogs.

Media will start using blogs when they understand blogs. They should do it not for profitability but because it's a strategic necessity and a service to their readers. The smart media companies have already begun.

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