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    Is Six Apart’s ‘TypePad Journalist Bailout Program’ a Gimmick?

    by Simon Owens
    November 21, 2008

    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.

    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." -- Anil Dash, Six Apart

    “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.”

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    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.

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    i-ac8b78f9a4a567989f7dc50ba81891ea-anil dash.JPG
    Anil Dash

    “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.

    Skepticism

    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.

    Tagged: advertising blogosphere economic meltdown six apart
    • Garbanzo

      I’ve typically regarded 100,000 monthly uniques (or about 3,300 daily uniques) as the tipping point where a blog or site can start generating livable income comparable (if you have a commerce component, the traffic level is lower). My rule of thumb is about $10K in annual review for every 1,500 daily uniques (assuming 2 pageviews per visitor). But fewer than 1% of all websites ever make it this level. But once you do, you have to be able to monetize it somehow and ad networks are a good start in that direction.

      Given the general business cluelessness of journalists, Six Apart providing help in one area isn’t a bad thing, although people need to be realistic about the ramp up period and the ultimate chance of success. Most journalists also write on fairly narrow topics of regional geographic interest, which will naturally limit traffic. The best thing to advise is write deeply on a vertical topic that has national appeal, unless you’re a regional brand name that pull eyeballs or you’re covering a top local sports team.

    • From what I know of the Six Apart team, I can’t imagine they were sitting around trying to figure out a “scheme” to lure clueless journalists into the “Movable Type trap.” Everyone knows there are massive lay-offs occurring in every form of journalism. Nor do I see the Six Apart management contemplating a late night “you can make millions!” infomercial, or any kind of sales “gimmick.” I think most people really are shocked at the speed and numbers of lost jobs in this profession. As your conversation with Dash suggests, this “Bailout Program” probably was not all that well thought out. However, it’s nice to see a small company trying to be creative, and helpful, by offering their premium product for free. (I imagine this is more useful than the outplacement services they’ve been offered.) Yes, writing a blog is different, but I bet many of these unemployed journalists are smart enough to figure this out. At the very least Six Apart will give them a platform to pursue their craft, continue to write, and stay visible.

    • From what I know of the Six Apart team, I can’t imagine they were sitting around trying to figure out a “scheme” to lure clueless journalists into the “Movable Type trap.” Everyone knows there are massive lay-offs occurring in every form of journalism. Nor do I see the Six Apart management contemplating a late night “you can make millions!” infomercial, or any kind of sales “gimmick.” I believe most people really are shocked at the speed and numbers of lost jobs in this profession. As your conversation with Dash suggests, this “Bailout Program” probably was not all that well thought out. However, it’s nice to see a small company trying to be creative, and helpful, and offer their premium product for free. (I imagine this is more useful than the outplacement services the recently RIFed were offered.)
      Yes, writing a blog is different, but I bet many of these unemployed journalists are smart enough to figure this out. At the very least Six Apart will give them a platform to pursue their craft, continue to write, and stay visible.

    • From what I know of the Six Apart team, I can’t imagine they were sitting around trying to figure out a “scheme” to lure clueless journalists into the “Movable Type trap.” Everyone knows there are massive lay-offs occurring in every form of journalism. Nor do I see the Six Apart management contemplating a late night “you can make millions!” infomercial, or any kind of sales “gimmick.” I believe most people really are shocked at the speed and numbers of lost jobs in this profession. As your conversation with Dash suggests, this “Bailout Program” probably was not all that well thought out. However, it’s nice to see a small company trying to be creative, and helpful, and offer their premium product for free. (I imagine this is more useful than the outplacement services the recently RIFed were offered.)
      Yes, writing a blog is different, but I bet many of these unemployed journalists are smart enough to figure this out. At the very least Six Apart will give them a platform to pursue their craft, continue to write, and stay visible.

    • Simon, thanks for writing up the program, and Peter, thanks for giving us a fair shake based on the reputation we’ve built up over the years.

      To answer the question: No, this program isn’t a gimmick. I know better than to blame a writer for the headline on an article (it’s always more fun to blame editors!) but fortunately I think the rest of your article does a fair job of describing both our intentions and some of the understandable skepticism around our efforts.

      Here’s the bottom line: I would have picked a less flippant way to talk about the initial idea, if I knew that would become a distraction. But the fundamental concept of a blogging company being a resource for journalists who want to be independent and entrepreneurial on the web seems like a natural and obvious evolution to everyone I’ve talked to, both from the worlds of journalism and technology.

      I’ve tried to be very careful to present this effort as not being a panacea, but rather a set of tools that can enable an ambitious journalist to be successful on their own terms.

      I have huge respect for Henry Copeland and what he’s accomplished, and his points about the distance between the traditional journalistic skill set and that of a successful blogger are well-taken. But I do believe the skills of a working blogger can be learned by anybody who has had the temerity to be a working journalist. And I intend to be part of the large group of people who are trying to share that body of knowledge.

      Priya’s point actually gets to a less obvious error which I see most frequently from my friends in Silicon Valley or San Francisco: tech-centrism. Although I’ve been proud to help create some great publishing tools, I don’t actually believe it’s the technological feature set that will determine the success of an independent journalist who tries to succeed in blogging.

      Rather, I believe that having a community of practice where experienced journalists can learn the ropes of successful blogging is more important than all the technology and advertising infrastructure in the world. And that is precisely what I hope will be the core of the program I’m trying to create.

    • http://io9.com/5096550/superman-cannot-save-the-planet-this-time

      I’m pretty sure that Clark Kent was one of, if not THE first to sign up for TypePad’s Bailout Program. Gimmick or not, Clark now has his own cashflow problems and that offer just seemed too good to pass up. Then again, Clark is a print guy and knows nothing about blogging and “advertising programs”.

    • So what even if it was a gimmick. Please. It’s a win-win for both sides. Perhaps it was a bit vulture marketing, but they weren’t exactly pushing a platform that the journlaists couldnt’ use. It was an invite…

    • I’ve met Anil before and I’m sure that he doesn’t want this to be a “gimmick” or to come off as rude.

      I hope this comment doesn’t come off as that either: A journalist needs a hell of a lot more than a typepad professional account to make a living.

      It certainly won’t hurt though – so we should welcome it as charity… but it is NOT a bailout. This is like putting a band-aid on a broken leg.

      Still: It is nice of Typepad to offer this to a few lucky blogger/journalists – I just hope that the few who are chosen can really make something with it.

    • I’ve met Anil before and I’m sure that he doesn’t want this to be a “gimmick” or to come off as rude.

      I hope this comment doesn’t come off as that either: A journalist needs a hell of a lot more than a typepad professional account to make a living.

      It certainly won’t hurt though – so we should welcome it as charity… but it is NOT a bailout. This is like putting a band-aid on a broken leg.

      Still: It is nice of Typepad to offer this to a few lucky blogger/journalists – I just hope that the few who are chosen can really make something with it.

    • I’m coming from the TV journalism side on this, where there are layoffs, as well. I recently went from being a TV news health reporter to starting my own blog and you are right – the marketing is the hardest part, and not something most journalists have had to do before, especially in this ever-changing web 2.0 world!

    • I pay $15 a month for the top-tier Typepad account. So, what’s the big deal with this?

    • Well of course it is hard work to get your site generating livable income and it’s not done with a 15USD per month account. But this is could be a piece of the entire strategy. It’s understood that you have to invest something in order to reach your goal.

    • I think 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.

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    • Thanks for sharing this post and I need to know more about topics like this

    • Why don’t you get a .com or .info site instead of paying $15 a month? Does it sound fair?

    • I pay $15 a month for the top-tier Typepad account. So, what’s the big deal with this?

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    • Anon

      “Overstaffed, bloated” news organisation? Has this person ever been inside a real news organisation? Since, OOOh, about 1972 I mean?

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