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Towards the end of June, I was invited to a conference at the Banff New Media Institute, located in the midst of the Canadian Rockies in the province of Alberta. The title of the conference was "Producing New Media: Money and Law," and we explored and discussed funding models and legal issues for various new media projects, including Weblogs. During that weekend, I came to a realization that I've been mulling over ever since: a lack of money is hindering the growth and potential of blogging. Free--or personal--blogging can only take us so far.
Most financial discussions focus on blog content and explore donations, advertising, or some type of sponsorship/patronage model as the means to compensate bloggers. Very little progress has been made towards finding viable economic models because people still think of Weblogs as personal sites. If you aren't Andrew Sullivan (who purportedly makes $6,000 per month on his site through donations), it's hard to imagine how you'd get the traffic and donations to generate such revenue.
But these discussions miss the point--most personal content is just that, personal, and as such, it appeals to a limited audience of friends and family. The motivation behind it isn't financial. To discuss a financial incentive for the upkeep of this type of site seems ridiculous, and it's why discussions to date have failed. When I talk about paying people to blog, it's for commercial sites, not personal ones. It's for genre-specific content, unrelated to the author's individual experiences, except as they relate to the topic at hand. By paying great bloggers to produce Weblogs, we remove economic constraints and enable them to devote their energies full-time to producing compelling content and creating outstanding Weblogs.
Think Commercial, Not Personal
In 1999, the Poynter Institute, a journalism school, hired Jim Romenesko to produce his MediaNews Weblog, an early example of a blogger being paid to produce his or her site. Perhaps it was easier at that time to imagine people would hire bloggers to maintain topical Weblogs, before the label became synonymous with personal publishing and online journals. Yet the potential remains for Weblogs to add vibrant and relevant content to a variety of commercial Web sites.
One example of this could be Google. Google has released a powerful API with which folks are building cool things all the time. Why not a Google blog that tracks developments with the API? That connects the developer community at large with the Google API team? A Google blog of this nature could provide a valuable resource for anyone interested in the latest happenings with the API. What's missing here is the person at Google being paid to do this--a professional blogger.
Sure this could be done as it's always been done--a passionate programmer could devote time and energy to maintaining something like this for free on Google's behalf, but this is dangerous and unreliable. Those who depend on the information the blog provides are in a precarious position, reliant upon the good will of the blogger to continue to devote her time and energy to the project. What happens if she tires of it? What if she can't afford, for whatever reason, to do it anymore? What if she were to get sued by Google? There are many reasons why such a situation is untenable.
Another example is a large insurance company, like State Farm or Allstate. A Weblog on one of those sites could contain links and commentary that would interest policyholders and potential customers. Is there a hurricane warning for South Florida? The blog could offer links to hurricane-preparedness Web sites, information on emergency services, and pointers to policies and coverage elsewhere on the site.
A third example is Wine.com, an online wine store. By hiring a wine-aficionado blogger (surely among the masses of bloggers, there must be one or two?), Wine.com could offer its customers daily information related not only to specific bottles they sell but also to wine-related information in general--harvest celebrations in Napa county, a notice of a speaking appearance by a renowned sommelier, and of course, tasting notes on the "bottle of the day."
Hire a Blogger
If we can demonstrate that these blogs are worth the cost it takes to maintain them, we will enable the creation of many more compelling, useful blogs. The key to success lies in the creation of great blogs for these sites--blogs that will contain practical and engaging content and drive traffic to their respective hosts. One sure-fire way to do this is to hire bloggers.
To date we've seen some corporate blogging initiatives, such as Macromedia's use of Weblogs to interact with its product communities, but those sites don't reside on Macromedia.com. More importantly, maintenance is in addition to someone's day job and the blogs are admittedly personal in nature, despite being maintained by Macromedia employees and focused on Macromedia products.
What I propose is slightly different: make it a commercial endeavor and hire an experienced blogger. Engage someone who's already proven they can filter, condense, and write. Work with someone who can blog day in and day out for more than a month or two. The idea here is to find an enthusiast, empower them, and fund them, not to dump blogging onto someone's day job, or it's not likely to succeed.
Think of what some of the best bloggers could do if they were financially able to do focused, full-time blogging? Pick a topic you're interested in, now imagine someone had 40 hours per week to cover everything related to that topic, and you get the idea.
I love cooking and I really enjoy Bruce Cole's Sauté Wednesday Weblog. Imagine if Mr. Cole were able to write the blog full-time? What if FoodTV or Food & Wine were to pay him to do it? There would be more posts, more links to restaurant reviews, opinions on new cookbooks, and notes about upcoming programming on FoodTV or local appearances by celebrity chefs. If it were updated multiple times a day with useful information, maybe I'd subscribe. Maybe you'd subscribe to one on an important topic that interests you, personally or professionally. Imagine a virus Weblog to track the latest developments in anti-virus software, provide updates about critical software patches, and notify you when the next 'Code Red' or 'I Love You' virus is wreaking havoc on the Web.
Commercial Web sites aren't inherently better than personal ones, but they have business models and budgets. They have target audiences that can benefit from the type of focused content produced by bloggers. When a blogger is being paid to maintain a Weblog, he is able to do so full-time, with all his attention focused on the topic of choice.
The Next Step
There's a vast group of people out there now who are experts in finding the news and links, capturing its essence in short snippets, and churning it out hour after hour, day after day. We know their content is compelling, and that drives traffic and repeat visitors to their sites. It's time to take blogging to the next level and that starts with paying people to produce high-quality, focused blogs for commercial Web sites. Until that happens, people will continue to view Weblogs as little more than personal diaries, or just another form of Usenet. Until we create a financial structure to enable the creation and maintenance of professional blogs, we won't see the best, next generation of Weblogs.
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