Bloggers ‘infatuated with revolutions’
Monday, December 16th, 2002
Steve Carlson, who runs NowEurope newsletter, interviews me in December, 2002. I’ve copied here, for archival integrity.
Henry and I know each other from Budapest, Hungary, where he served as editor of the Budapest Business Journal. Henry went on to found Pressflex, a privately-held consultancy that helps publishers profit from their web presence. Pressflex recently launched a service an ad network serving influential weblogs. According to Henry, PressFlex is now profitable.
In a recent post to nowEurope, Henry made three predictions for 2003: a) continued disintermediation of traditional commercial and social infrastructure, b) prolonged recession and c) thin media.
In this interview, Henry Copeland elaborates on his vision of how the blogging phenomenon, or ‘thin media,’ is revolutionizing the publishing world, and why this revolution is being led by outsiders.
Q: You coined the term ‘thin media’ to describe the blogging phenomenon. Can you tell us more about this trend, and what challenges it poses to the media establishment?
I use “thin media” to describe sites like LA Examiner, Gizmodo, AuctionBytes, Wi-Fi News and SciFan that are generated by only a single writer or a couple of part-timers.
They thrive in tightly focused niches. They generate some original content and analysis along with lots of links to other sites and articles.
Thin media publishers have none of the fat of traditional media. Usually, they’ve spend a couple hundred bucks to host a Pmachine or Movable Type site, rather than 10 or 100 or 10,000 times that — what a newspaper or magazine spends on publishing software, presses, ink, paper and delivery trucks.
They market via blogrolls and Google rather than doing mailshots at $1 a name. They sell ads efficiently to other entrepreneurs and use affiliate marketing, rather than employing legions of ad reps.
Thin media publishers are far nimbler and will feed happily on new niches that are far too obscure for traditional media to notice and too thin for traditional media to profitably mine. And, because they are small and nimble, thin media can help discover and invent the Next Big Thing much easier than their big peers who are busy looking for huge revenues from huge services.
I think your sites (nowEurope, The Digital Entrepreneur) are a great example of thin media. Because you don’t have legacy infrastructure — staff, technology, clients — you are free to chase new market niches.
Q: Isn’t it ironic that you preach the thin media revolution, while your clients are traditional publishers?
I do a lot of drum banging for thin media on my own blog. Several people have asked whether this evangelism means Pressflex is antagonistic to print publishers. Absolutely not. I love the print publishers and think that they’ll continue to thrive in their niches.
It is great to help publishers in places like Anjou in France or Peebles in Scotland thrive online. Done right, these publishers sites can turn a profit from selling subscriptions alone.
We’re still adding new features to our publishing service, which now serves more than 80 publications in Europe out of the same code and database.
In fact, we just signed on some magazines for a major UK business publisher that has spent tens of millions of pounds on its own sites, but finally realized that it was more effective and efficient to outsource to a company with expertise, commitment, low overheads and economies of scale.
And we’ve had good results recently doing consulting for some giant publishers who are missing 50% of their traffic because their tech teams are oblivious to the importance of Google.
We’ve still got a lot of eggs in the publishing basket. We don’t think traditional publishers will disappear — they are just going to have a smaller piece of a bigger pie.
Q: You recently made your own commitment to the Thin Media revolution by launching BlogAds, an advertising network for bloggers. Why prompted you to do this, and how has the service been received?
I’ve always felt that the explosive growth in web publishing would come from entrepreneurs, the guys outside the traditional publishing food chain. I just couldn’t see exactly who these guys were, and what would differentiate them from traditional journalists and publishers.
Then, eighteen months ago I was watching friends like Matt Welch and Ken Layne pull in 10,000-30,000 visitors a month working just a couple hours a day on their weblogs and realized “gee, this traffic overshadows what many print publishers with $2 million in annual revenues manage to attract.”
And I realized that, with just a little smart writing and linking, these guys were connecting far more intimately with readers than the traditional publisher.
Now you’ve got Andrew Sullivan, financed by just $80,000 in annual revenue from readers, reaching as many opinion makers as the New Republic with its masthead of 79. You’ve got Glenn Reynolds, moonlighting from teaching law, doing nearly 2 million page impressions a month. So it is just a matter of time before the blogosphere is recognized as a revolutionary advertising platform.
Q: That’s fine, but can you really develop BlogAds into a business?
At some point, we know these passionate blog audiences have to yield gold for advertisers, or the simple premise that has funded media for the last 300 years — exposure helps a business grow — has been false.
Frankly, though that time has not quite yet arrived. We’ve got some very satisfied advertisers on blogs. We can see the synapses firing. But won’t push the thing hard publicly until we’ve rolled out what we regard as the complete feature set that will complete the circuit. We’re still tinkering with the ingredients.
It’s kind of like watching one of those nascent slime molds — you can see the thing starting to respond to stimulus and flirt with swarming. So you tinker with the environment and see what are the right parameters, what’s the right amount of stimulus, what’s the critical mass?
I keep on my desk the copy of Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma that was given me by a smart VC back in the days when I still believed it was valuable to talk to smart VCs rather than customers.
The book lays out the histories of industries in which certain “disruptive” technologies — tech which is cheaper, simpler, smaller and easier to use than traditional tech — sometimes answer unexpected needs and, in doing so, eventually evolve enough to overwhelm existing products and market structures.
At the end of the process, whole new mountainsized markets have evolved out of what start out as commercial motes.
I feel like that is the track that weblogs are on. Patience and creativity is key. My favorite passage in the book is this one: “Disruptive technologies often enable something to be done that previously had been deemed impossible.
“Because of this, when they initially emerge, neither manufacturers nor customers know how or why these products will be used, and hence do not know what specific features of the product will and will not ultimately be valued.
“Building such markets entails a process of mutual discovery by customers and manufactures — and this simply takes time.” I skim that book at least once a week. It gives a healthy nudge to both your optimism and your realism.
Q: Some of the most prominent bloggers are people we know: Eastern Europe expats (or former expats). Who are these people, and what are they doing? Can you explain the Eastern Europe connection?
I like this question. On the one hand, there are lots of other blogging clusters, and maybe we are just more aware of our own. I bet there is a cluster of bloggers from Kent State U. out there right now asking each other — “Gee, why are we such a big part of the blogosphere?”
That said, I do think there is a predilection for blogging among post-communist expats. In the early 1990s, Budapest and Prague attracted publishing renegades, a mini-generation of people who decided that life was too short NOT to join the adventure after the Wall came down. Once here, we couldn’t tap into any old-boy networks or climb any corporate ladders; we invented new structures, businesses and networks.
We are, as a group, infatuated with revolutions. So blogging seems a natural fit for people like Ben Sullivan, Matt Welch, Ken Layne, Emmanuelle Richard, Nick Denton, Rick Bruner, you and me.
Somehow, having lived outside the system, we were better able to see blogging’s unique applications. Rather than saying “gee, but this doesn’t match traditional media’s credibility or resources,” we were more likely to say “gee, but look at all the neat new things it does do.”
We’ve all stayed in touch, we’ve learned from each other. I told Nick Denton about Google a few years ago and he told me about ObscureStore.com. I’ll say semi-seriously that, in the long run, I think I got the better half of the trade.
You take your friends more seriously than you take some case study you read in Business 2.0. Though I have to say I’m still astonished by the number of publishers, journalists, ad reps and professional writers who STILL don’t get the professional implications of the Internet. They use Google every hour, but they still don’t quite understand that nobody needs anyone’s permission to publish. A few publishers see this, but not many. I’d love to meet more publishers who get it.
There are some other character traits that seem to run strong in bloggers. First, few of webloggings vanguard are trained journalists. Matt Drudge is a former mail boy. Glenn Reynolds is a law professor. Dave Winer is a programmer. Megan McArdle is an unemployed tech analyst. Second, a decent number don’t have a college degree. Matt Welch, Ken Layne, James Lileks, Patrick Nielsen Hayden … the list goes on.
So perhaps the meta characteristic for great bloggers is “outsiderness.” Because they don’t have big career or conceptual investments in the status quo, outsiders can better imagine trajectories in blogging. And because they are outsiders, they’ve got a grudge and are more motivated to put blogging’s unique features to revolutionary use.