Symbiotic Monetization & Parasitic Blawgospheric Sequalae

From Legal Blog Watch, Bob Ambrogi posts about the Brill Plan to save newspapers, which definitely need some saving.  Brill refers to Steve Brill, “the lawyer, journalist and entrepreneur who, in 1987, founded The American Lawyer magazine” and that favorite of the chronically unemployed, Court TV, where people can pretend to be Biglaw associates without ever leaving the La-Z-Boy.

Almost simultaneously, Daniel Lyons has an article in Newsweek that blogging is no way to get rich.  While his point is somewhat obscured by the fact that he then runs down a handful of blogs with millions of readers and an equivalent number of greenbacks coming in, the fact remains that he failed to earn a living in his pajamas and that a bunch of others who thought they could make some serious dinero off the blogosphere have found out otherwise.

Brill’s idea is to take blawgers, to whom he has attributed the well-intended and, frankly, unduly cutesy name of “parasites”, and turn them (us?) into the energetic sales force for the digitally altered, former dead-tree journalistic motherlode.

The core of the plan will surprise no one: Charge for content. Brill proposes readers pay 10 cents per article or purchase subscriptions by the day, month or year, capping at $55 for the full-year price. The more unique aspect of his plan is a strategy for, as he puts it, “turning today’s parasites into tomorrow’s sales force.” He would encourage Web sites and blogs to link to NYT articles by paying them a referral fee. If a reader clicks through from a blog to the NYT and then buys something, the blog gets 5 percent.

Now I like the New York Times as much as the next New York blawger, and I’m happy to link to one of its stories from time to time, not because I have an underlying agenda to promote the Times’ existence but because it’s of interest.  And as it happens, I subscribe to the Times, though I would think they should send it to me for free given all I’ve done to promote it.  But I’m not exactly sure I’m ready to get into bed with it.  And I sincerely wonder whether the Times is ready to get into bed with me.

But on the other hand, if the New York Times is going to kick me back 5% (or a half cent per click through), and I can get a few million of you readers to click through here, maybe there is a way to make some dirty lucre off this blawg.  Lyons’ whining notwithstanding, a few have done it.

Now others seem to be riding the same downward curve, with euphoria giving way to exhaustion. Michael Arrington, whose TechCrunch blog empire attracts 6 million readers each month, has gone on a monthlong hiatus after three years of nonstop blogging. His break was prompted, he says, by burnout and by the craziness of the blogosphere (he says he’s been stalked, threatened and spat on) and not by the fact that he’s been trying to sell his company for a year and hasn’t been able to find a buyer who’ll pay his price, which is rumored to be $100 million. Gawker Media, a leading network of blogs, recently laid off all but one of its writers for Valleywag, its tech blog, which has struggled for three years. In January Pajamas Media, a collective of right-wing political bloggers, shut down its ad network, which CEO Roger Simon says “was a money loser for three years.”

You’ve got to love a guy who makes fun of a blogger because he can’t get his $100 million asking price.  I could make due with less.  Go ahead, make me an offer.

A friend of mine who runs his bush league law firm but pretends he’s a Biglaw-type partner sniffled at me a while back about how I ought to be able to monetize Simple Justice, spend all day in my pajamas and rake in the dough.  He’s fat and ugly, and I tell him that every chance I get.  He doesn’t care.  But the truth is that I’ve never found a way to make any money blawging.  I’m not talking about a few grand in ad revenue, or (God forbid) google adsense.  I’m talking real money.  As reader Shawn McManus once commented, “I like reading your blawg, but I wouldn’t pay for it.”  I’ve never met Shawn, but I bet he’s fat and ugly too.  It makes me feel better to think so.

Steve Brill is a visionary, if your vision tends toward apocalypse now.  While he’s not exactly wrong that blawgers (like me) are parasites, using the legwork of newspapers to provide the fodder for post, he failed to appreciate the symbiotic relationship between parasites and hosts.  Truth be told, I don’t regularly read the Rocky Mountain News, though I link to it when there’s some Rocky Mountain-type story that I wan to write about.  Some readers will then click through to it and read the article.  Like me, they would not be willing to subscribe to it.

But what if a reader had to pay a dime, one thin dime, to go back to the source material I relied upon?  Before you answer, consider that the same reader may check out a dozen or more blawgs, and posts may include a few links apiece.  Round it away and a reader could eat up $3 to $5 a day cruising the blawgosphere.  Today it’s a free diversion, and may actually be of interest from time to time.  Tomorrow?  It’s a Starbucks mocha-frappa-latte-cino.  Vente with low-fat.  Who’s ready to give that up?

I can’t disagree with Brill that the paradigm presents a problem.  We all need someone to gather the news.  Blawgers can’t do the legwork, since we need to work for a living.  We rely on reporters.  All of us rely on reporters, criticism of their work notwithstanding.  We’re still far better off with them than without them.  And there has to be a business model that will keep reporters employed.  But this plan sounds like it will not only fail to do the trick, but bring the blawgosphere down with it.

As for the carrot Brill offers the blawgosphere, the half penny per click through if only we can make the New York Times articles seem sexy enough, smart enough, ridiculous enough, but interesting enough that you, dear reader, are prepared to spend a dime to click through, my suspicion is that it will bring me slightly less cashflow than Lyons got through his judicious use of google adsense, assuming it works at all.

Look, when your favorite blawgers tell you that they are doing this for free, believe them.  There is no great glory to blawging, despite rumors to the contrary.  It has some pluses, but the cost benefit ratio for serious blawging swings heavily into the red.  If your dream is to buy silk pajamas and tap away at the keyboard while checks arrive daily in the mail, then consider Hugh Hefner as a better role model than me. 

For the time being, I can post at will and link to whatever article strikes me as worthy of discussion.  Make me part of your marketing team and that equation changes forever.  I don’t think I would pay a dime to read half the stuff I do now, and I doubt that you would either.  It’s not that we’re intellectual Philistines, or that we don’t appreciate the efforts of journalists to bring us the day’s events.  It’s that we’re all sick and tired of being half-pennied and dimed to death.

4 thoughts on “Symbiotic Monetization & Parasitic Blawgospheric Sequalae

  1. Windypundit

    I think Brill’s idea isn’t half bad, but his price is far too high. The price of a newspaper barely covers its printing and distribution costs—profit comes from advertising. Much the same is true for magazines. (In fact, for many magazines, the newsstand copies serve mostly as advertising for subscriptions.)

    So, yes, I would happily pay to cover the distribution costs of online media. I think 25 cents per gigabyte served would be quite generous.

  2. SHG

    I suspect you might not find yourself speaking for the masses.  You are a unique individual indeed, and now that I know you’re willing to pay, the bill’s in the mail.  Thanks pal!

  3. Windypundit

    How big is your blog? Under a gig for all of it, including pictures, I bet.

    Dude, for allowing me to read your blog for the last few years, I’d happily pay you 25 cents.

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