||A Blogger Manifesto
Why online weblogs are one future for journalism.
A couple of years ago, friends of mine persuaded me I should get a website. It seemed like a nice idea - very 1999 - but I wasn't quite sure what to do with it. I didn't even have a clue how technically to write for it. A good friend helped design the thing - and very snazzy it looked too. But, as with so much electronic media, a certain question was never quite answered in my mind. I liked the vanity of a site devoted to ME; and, to begin with, it was thrilling to get emails directly from readers. It was also useful to have a single place where all my work was collected and archived. But still, I kept asking myself as I stared at the laptop screen: What is this new medium really for?
Then I discovered Blogger. No, it's not a new expletive. It's a simple web technology, based on a single website called - yes - Blogger.com. The word comes from the expression "web-log," which simply means a live, real-time, online personal diary. Blogger - pioneered and still run by one man, Evan Williams - makes that completely easy. Within minutes, you can have a website and post to the universe any stray, brilliant or sublimely stupid thought that comes into your mind. Blogger even provides a handy, idiot-proof rubric for a simple site. And all this is provided for free. It was, I realized two years ago, the nascent Napster of the journalism industry. Just as Napster by-passed the record companies and brought music to people with barely any mediation, so Blogger by-passed established magazines, newspapers, editors and proprietors, and allowed direct peer-to-peer journalism to flourish.
That shift began to happen a year ago. Within the last six months, however, the phenomenon has reached a critical mass - a tipping point, if you will. The number of "blogs" is growing by tens of thousands a month, and Blogger itself boasts of over 150,000 users. In January, 41,000 new blogs were created on Blogger. The vast majority of them are quirky, small, often solipsistic enterprises, and reading them is like reading someone else's diary over their shoulder. The pioneer - back in 1994 - was one Justin Hall whose "Links From the Underground" blog detailed, among other things, his passion for sex and drugs. But since then, the genre has evolved into a mish-mash of links to other stories on the web, personal comments on the news, spirited debates between various pundits, book discussion groups, and much else. As the Far Eastern Economic Review noted recently, "Weblogs are where the real action is. They are the creation of individuals, usually musings on national, local or personal events, links to interesting articles, a few lines of comment or discussion collected and presented by one person. Weblogs are a milestone in the short history of the Internet." In fact, I'd argue, blogs could well be a milestone in the long history of journalism. By empowering individual writers, by reducing the costs of entry into publishing to close to zero, the blog revolution has only begun to transform the media world.
Perhaps the best way to explain why I think this could be true is to recount my own experience. In October of 2000, I started my fledgling site, posting pieces I had written, and then writing my own blog, publishing small nuggets of opinion and observation at least twice a day about this, that and the other. I thought of it as a useful vanity site - and urged my friends and their friends to read it. But within a couple of weeks, something odd started happening. With only a few hundred readers, a few started writing back. They picked up on my interests, and sent me links, ideas, and materials to add to the blog. Before long, around half the material on my site was suggested by readers. Sometimes, these readers knew far more about any subject than I could. I remember trying to fathom some of the complexities of the Florida election nightmare when I got an email from a Florida politics professor explaining every detail imaginable. If I'd been simply reporting the story in the traditional way, I'd have never found this font of information. As it was, I found myself scooping major news outlets on arcane electoral details about chads and voting machines. Peer-to-peer journalism, I realized, had a huge advantage over old-style journalism. It could marshall the knowledge and resources of thousands, rather than the certitudes of the few.
And as the blog developed into round-the-clock musing and reporting, its audience grew. I had no advertising or marketing budget to promote it - so I simply put it in my regular bylines, and went on television a lot to have the site's name - www.andrewsullivan.com - put prominently on the screen. My readers did the rest. Within six months, I was amazed to find I was pulling in close to 5,000 individual visits a day, from a couple of thousand separate people. From being a fixed piece of written journalism, the blog gradually developed into something much more like a 24-hour broadcast. When we got technical glitches (the 'we' refers to my web-partner and business adviser), it was less like a breakdown in a printing machine than a screw-up on television. We had to fix the problem - and fast. I also noticed, as many other bloggers do, that the site was beginning to take over my life. If I didn't post for a day or so, I'd get emails asking me if I were ill. This was getting to be a performance as much as a job.
But there was instant gratification. With each month, the numbers grew. Unlike regular journalism, where you write a column in a newspaper or magazine, and the only feedback you really get is a few nice (or rough) comments from friends or outraged letters to the editor, each morning I would get up to a hundred emails about something I'd written just a few hours before - and a statistical report telling me how many people had dropped by in the previous 24 hours. All the familar writer's anxiety about his work was overwhelmed by a sea of instant response. I added a letters page. Soon emails were flooding in responding to other emails. Again, the numbers rose till by last summer I was getting close to 8,000 visits a day.
And then the war broke out. Suddenly, it felt as if this event were not just happening to me - but to all of the little community the weblog had pioneered. I started writing about my feelings, and readers responded with an intensity I've never felt in any other journalistic form. For a few months, the site was entirely about the war, a place where every possible argument about the conflict could be grappled with. People sent in poems; stories; first-person accounts, until the site became a clearing house for September 11 reflection. The blog almost seemed designed for this moment. In an instant, during the crisis, the market for serious news commentary soared. But people were not just hungry for news, I realized. They were hungry for communication, for checking their gut against someone they had come to know, for emotional support and psychological bonding. In this world, the very personal nature of blogs had far more resonance than more impersonal corporate media products. Readers were more skeptical of anonymous news organizations anyway, and preferred to supplement them with individual writers they knew and liked. The audience doubled literally over night. By last November, the site was getting over half a million visits a month.
I wasn't the only one. Hundreds of 'warblogs" started proliferating. A law professor named Glenn Reynolds set up one called "Instapundit.com," and fast became a sensation. Established writers like the libertarian Virginia Postrel (dynamist.com), the neo-liberal Mickey Kaus (kausfiles.com), and the left-liberal Josh Marshall, saw their own traffic jump and their influence grow. Previous unknowns like Ken Layne and Matt Welch added to the chorus. The Wall Street Journal's excellent online feature - OpinionJournal.com - added a blog summing up the "Best of the Web Today." "Overlawyered.com" started chronicling abuses in the legal industry. Tech bloggers gained followings that rivaled the now-flagging new economy magazines. Suddenly, traditional media was having to deal with a wave of new entries to the market, nipping at their electronic heels, and keeping them nervous.
Suddenly, old-style opinion columns also faced competition from round-the-clock rivals. More and more readers were reading the papers online, and using their favorite bloggers as guides to what was interesting or what they might otherwise miss. Bloggers became Internet sherpas - experienced guides to all the information and wackiness out there. Even more threatening to the old media was the fact that bloggers could read the nest day's op-ed columns online the night before and get in pre-emptive rhetorical strikes before readers had even tackled the next day's papers.
But, of course, as the phenomenon matured, the golden question about so much online publishing remained: how would this ever make money? Even bloggers like me, who did it for the fun of it alongside their day-jobs, found the time and energy required to keep the site constantly crackling was beginning to consume their lives. We were in effect working round the clock - for nothing. As my traffic soared, costs also grew. But no-one had figured out how to make the model self-sustaining. Online advertising was in the mother of all slumps. And the controversial, punchy nature of many sites made advertisers even more leery than usual.
So webloggers simply begged. They put little buttons on their sites that allowed readers to donate money to keep the blogs going. Slowly, cash dribbled in. In 2001, $27,000 came into my site via donations. Almost all of it went to pay for design and bandwidth costs, but before too long, a modest income source began to make blogging less like charity and more like minimum wage labor. Most major blog sites now have electronic begging bowls - although for most, the income is chump-change. Another option was what's called "affiliate advertising." The blog runs ads from, say, J.Crew.com or Home Depot or the Gap. The companies pay nothing for the ad, but if someone clicks through the ad to buy something from the Gap site, the blogger gets a small cut of the proceeds. In effect, the blogger becomes a sort of web shop-window. He gets readers to stop and look, and a few may go on to buy things. The commissions are small, but if the volume is sufficient, the income can grow.
The genius of the blogging model, after all, is the lack of overhead. Unlike loss-making online magazines, bloggers tend to have no offices to rent, and no staff to pay. After start-up costs for even snazzy sites, most income is profit. So even small amounts can make a difference. This month, I tried something else. I started a book club online so that my readers could read a book in real time with me and each other, post their comments as they read, and also get the author to write in his opinions during and after the online debate. The online bookseller Amazon co-operated, giving us a 15 percent commission on every book we sold. In our first month, we sold close to 1,000 books. At roughly $2.50 a book, that's real money. Even more interesting was the fact that readers, once they arrived on the Amazon site, also bought one non-book item for every two books they purchased. In the last fortnight, we made 5 percent off an electric tooth-brush and a cuddly toy. Sure enough, while providing a completely legit and even high-brow book-club, we made a profit for the first time. No subscriptions; no pop-up ads; no advertising; no marketing. Just an online community reading and thinking and paying for itself.
Few blogs have cracked this model yet - and it's way too early to know if it will work in the long run. For the vast majority of bloggers, the habit remains a hobby, not a business. But the leading bloggers are not far behind traditional media in their audiences and reach. Last month, my site racked up over 800,000 separate visits from 220,000 separate people. Instapundit boasts numbers in the same ball-park. In terms of eye-balls, that easily rivals the subscription base of a magazine I once edited and still work for, The New Republic, and many other small opinion mags, which average from 50,000 to 200,000 subscribers. Sure, their subscribers are worth more because they pay a real price. But if the goal of opinion journalism is not ultimately money but influence and readers, the blogs are already breathing down the old media's neck. In a bid to co-opt the trend, National Review Online recently added its own blogging section. Slate and Salon - the two major online magazines - are gradually shifting in the same direction.
And the more you think about this development, the more potentially significant it is. What it basically means is that a writer no longer needs a wealthy proprietor to get his message across to readers. He no longer needs an editor, either. Psychologically, this is a big deal. It means a vast amount of drivel will no doubt find its way to the web. But it also means that a writer is finally free of the centuries' old need to suck up to various entities to get an audience. It means that the universe of permissible opinions will expand, unconstrained by the prejudices, tastes or interests of the old media elite. It's no accident that a good plurality of American bloggers, for example, are libertarian or right of center. With a couple of exceptions, the established newspaper market in America is dominated by left-liberal editors and reporters. What the web has done is allow younger or more talented writers to by-pass this coterie and write directly to an audience. If the Drudge Report pioneered the first revolution of his kind (and Drudge is, in some ways, a blogger himself), then bloggers are the vanguard of the second wave. Liberal media bias is a favorite topic in Blogland. Mickey Kaus is often skewering the New York Times. Ira Stoll's Smartertimes.com dissects the Times daily for distortions, omissions and biases. The exposure of several pundits on Enron's payroll was also pioneered by bloggers (including me). It might never have happened if those pundits' own organs still had a monopoly on media power. But they don't.
So is it a real media revolution? It's way too soon to tell. One thing we've learned from web journalism is that predictions of sudden change have tended to evaporate as months and years have gone by. But it's still true that bloggers are perhaps among the first writers to have the medium direct them rather than the other way round. Most non-blogger web journalism is still a little like television in the 1950s. To begin with, television simply plonked radio show formats on the air, before they figured out what the new medium could do best. What many magazines and newspapers now do online is somewhat similar: they just put on a screen a pixilated version of what they already do on paper. But what bloggers do is completely new - and cannot be replicated on any other medium. It's somewhere in between writing a column and talk radio. It's genuinely new. And it harnesses the web's real genius - its ability to empower anyone to do what only a few in the past could genuinely pull off. In that sense, blogging is the first journalistic model that actually harnesses rather than merely exploits the true democratic nature of the web. It's a new medium finally finding a unique voice. Stay tuned as that voice gets louder and louder.
February 24, 2002, The Sunday Times of London.
copyright © 2002 Andrew Sullivan