The vultures are circling. What was once a small trickle of layoffs at major newspapers has become a waterfall of lost jobs within the media business. One can almost picture the Poynter Institute’s widely read journalism industry blog Romenesko sauntering up to Time Inc. and Conde Nast and screaming, “Bring out your dead!”
But one advertising and blogging company is seeing opportunity in the storm of bad news, devising a method to “bail out” some of these journalists and use their skills for profit. Anil Dash, vice president of Six Apart, owner of blogging platforms Moveable Type and TypePad, has watched this ticker-tape of layoff announcements with growing concern. A few weeks ago, Dash and others within Six Apart began talking about what they could do to help fellow journalists fallen on hard times. On a lark, Dash posted a somewhat tongue-in-cheek item called, “The TypePad Journalist Bailout Program“ on the TypePad site.
“Hello, recently-laid-off or fearful-of-layoffs journalist!” he wrote. “We’re Six Apart (you know us as the nice folks who make Movable Type or TypePad, which maybe you used for blogging at your old newspaper or magazine) and we want to help you.”
The idea, essentially, was to provide a net to soften the fall as journalists leapt from burning buildings. A recently unemployed journalist could apply for the program. If accepted, he would gain access to several features, most notably a TypePad Pro account, Six Apart Media’s advertising program, and around-the-clock support and promotion from the company. Theoretically, he then could continue with his beat reporting, publishing his articles on his own blog rather than with a traditional news source.
“The idea had really been to just send it to a couple friends and they’ll think it’s clever and useful,” Dash told me. “And now we have dozens of reporters that have written in asking about how to participate; the page has gotten thousands of views. Candidly, if we thought it was going to be this widely covered we probably would have been a lot less snarky. But that’s the nature of the web.”
The theory behind the program mirrors what Web 2.0 futurists have been saying for years — chiefly that major news outlets are too weighed down by middlemen and that journalists should instead branch out and work under the umbrellas of ad networks. In this scenario, more money goes directly to the content maker rather than funding the over-staffed, bloated news outlet. Individual journalists could therefore work their beats while relying on an online advertising company to secure and place the ads. This way, the journalist is able to create and manage her own brand rather than being incorporated into a faceless company entity.
“It was a little bit like giving people tinker toys, saying ‘Assemble this yourself’,” Dash said. “And the people who had done it actually had done very well by it and had seen some success with it. And we thought that not everyone has the time to put all those pieces together, especially those who have their day job and are worried about it. They’re not going to spend company time when they’re chasing down stories to learn about this new [Web 2.0] world.”
Dash has worked as a new media developer for The Village Voice, and today dozens of major news outlets, ranging from the Washington Post to Wired, use Six Apart products for their blogging platforms. As someone with a decade of blogging experience — he was one of the earliest writers to experiment in the medium — Dash has seen journalists start mini-media empires on their own as bloggers, founding online journals that would eventually account for a portion or even all of their annual income as they rose in popularity. Josh Marshall, for instance, was an editor at The American Prospect before launching Talking Points Memo, a site that now employs nearly a dozen people.
Six Apart’s advertising program already represents more than 1,000 bloggers, and Dash said that it’s backed by a sales team that focuses on placing CPM display ads. An individual blogger’s revenue is based on various factors, including the amount of traffic coming to her site as well as her particular niche — some topics sell for higher rates than others. As with most ad programs, the blogger receives a large percentage of the money made from the ads sold on her site.
But the journalist bailout program was immediately met with skepticism from some quarters, especially working journalists. Shortly after I tweeted a link to Dash’s proposal, I received a message from Priya Ganapati — a journalist for Wired who covers hardware and emerging tech — who simply dismissed the idea as a publicity stunt to promote Six Apart’s products and advertising program. In a follow-up phone conversation, she accused Six Apart of putting the cart before the horse and said that, while she enjoys its products (Wired, after all, uses TypePad), the company should focus more on convincing journalists why its platform is superior before speaking of advertising and revenues.
“You have to a build a blog, you have to build a following, you have to have a product out there before you even begin to think about revenue and a sales team,” Ganapati said. “And what TypePad isn’t doing is focusing on the features of the product; instead it’s talking up the ad sales of it. If you’re going to start a new blog, or you’re an existing blogger and want to get into it full time, you have to concentrate on picking the best blogging platform that is offered and build a strong readership. And then you start thinking about ad sales. But if you start thinking about ad sales first, you probably will end up making an unsuitable choice for your means.”
Many of these thoughts were echoed by Henry Copeland, founder of Blogads, one of the earliest advertising companies to focus exclusively on blogs (and a competitor of Six Apart’s ad network). Though Blogads has a sales team that works to secure clients and place ads, its platform allows low budget advertisers to essentially create, pay for and place ads with little or no human involvement. Copeland told me that journalists — even good ones — often don’t adapt well to blogging. The medium requires more than good writing and reporting skills. You also have to know how to network and promote your content, something about which many journalists are clueless.
“Journalism is kind of like being a monologist, and journalists are very used to pontificating,” he said. “And I know a lot of people think that’s just what bloggers do, but bloggers are more like someone in an improv theater group. It’s just a different skill set.”
What makes a blog successful, Copeland argued, is its personality — or rather the blogger’s ability to connect that personality to his readership. Though he wouldn’t go so far as to say that these laid-off journalists weren’t cut out to be bloggers, he said at the very least they would need to understand that in the blogosphere you often have to become your own marketer.
“There’s just an awful lot of competition, which these people have not experienced recently,” Copeland said. “At a newspaper the competition is really at the corporate level, and once you’ve won your slot as the metro reporter for City Hall, you might have competition with one other reporter in the town, you might have zero competitors — either way it’s not very competitive. And for every 100 reporters that look for jobs online, only one of them is going to be paying the rent a year from now. And whether that’s with Six Apart or Blogads or Federated [Media], that’s really beside the point. The point is that only one of them will have an appreciable audience that can be monetized.
I mentioned these concerns to Dash, and he immediately asserted that “we try to be very careful to not make any promises.” He argued that the entire point of the journalist bailout program is that, although it’s targeted at those who may be blogging novices, it’s not necessarily a sink-or-swim endeavor. For instance, journalists involved in the bailout would automatically have their content displayed through blogs.com, which he said is a heavily-trafficked aggregator owned by Six Apart.
“[Blogs.com is] a great starting point and we’re actually going to get some feedback from the journalists in the program to see what they’re looking to do, because I think the answer’s going to be different depending on the journalist,” Dash said. “We don’t want to dictate what is to happen, but we have a lot of experience in promoting sites that way and I think it’ll be really interesting to look at [Blogs.com] as an aggregator of all these individual journalists. And another thing is because we’ve been doing this for so long, we know journalists in a lot of news verticals, we know a lot of bloggers in this area.”
A Grim Future For Online Ads?
Of course, the underlying business model Six Apart is touting, online advertising, could well get hit hard during the recession. In fact, Six Apart itself announced recently it would lay off close to 10% of its workforce. In a recent widely-circulated post, Gawker Media founder Nick Denton argued that the decline in online ads would be even more severe than analysts expected. And sure enough, within days of that prediction, Denton announced that he would be cutting his own staff and folding some blogs.
Given these grim warnings, would it be realistic to think that journalists-turned-bloggers will be able to sustain themselves?
“For Nick in particular, I’ve been friends with him for years, there’s nothing I wouldn’t say to his face, but I think he’s always made a very good business of being the most doom-and-gloom person in the room,” Dash said. “And also he ends up being right a lot of time; if you’re consistently negative then half the time you end up being right. But if what he’s saying is true, I think it’s better for writers if they get a bigger cut for what they’re doing … And secondly, we’re not trying to be a publisher, and though I think Nick is a successful publisher, there’s still a middle man with Gawker just like Conde Nast or any other publisher. I think that model is inherently a little harder to sustain. The web is very efficient at routing around middlemen.”
What do you think? Is the bailout program a gimmick or a real boon for laid-off journalists? Have you signed up? Share your thoughts or experience in the comments below.
Simon Owens is a former newspaper journalist and an associate editor for MediaShift. He currently works as an online analyst for New Media Strategies. You can read more of his writing at his blog or contact him at simon[.]bloggasm [at] gmail.com.