Portfolio, which Condé Nast started because there were no other credulous business magazines, has a story on why media companies should buy blogs, which is of course entirely wrong. Here's why Gawker Media, TechCrunch, Boing Boing and every other blog making over a million dollars should never be for sale.
Our publisher Nick Denton loves to point out that no major media company could buy Gawker and keep up the site's outsider angle. Of course he wants you to believe Gawker does something special and to think of it as a competitor to decades-old media empires. But he's not lying.
When this network tried licensing stories to Yahoo News two years ago, the editors bitched about it (this was before he replaced them with inexperienced, unsure toadies like me), and the stories never did well. Gawker and Yahoo let the contract expire, and while Denton pretended it was because I kept maligning Yahoo execs on our Silicon Valley site Valleywag, it was really because no one was reading Gawker on Yahoo. Their audience just wasn't interested.
Imagine you were running this show. Why sell it and either work under some executive who probably hates you for some five-year-old blog post, or struggle to start another business that becomes this influential? It's easy to say Denton is in this for the money, but only if you've never seen the man revel in his own role. He doesn't want to be rich, he wants to be Rupert Murdoch.
Before he started Silicon Valley's most influential blog, Michael Arrington (pictured demonstrating caution and humility in Business 2.0) was a successful lawyer, but this didn't make him much of an analyst. Despite frequently getting his story utterly wrong, he built influence by covering every startup that would talk to him. Tech writer Paul Boutin figured it out: TechCrunch wasn't a news source, it was a phone directory, and that's what the Valley wanted. Arrington used his local influence to earn a few scoops, and now he's an unignorable player in tech reporting.
But it's all him. Most press about TechCrunch is actually about Arrington. None of his writers are breakaway talents. And while the blog probably makes over a million a year in ad revenue, TechCrunch also makes plenty from its conferences (and "parties" where startups pay to demo products for liquored up biz-dev guys). As with Gawker, the publisher makes the brand. If Arrington sold but stayed in charge, he might have to stop writing dramatic posts like "When will we have our first Valleywag suicide?" If he left the blog, what's left? A staff of amateurish writers who can't get the scoops Arrington gets?
Boing Boing is owned by its four idiosyncratic writers, who act like the blog is still the small-time zine it started out as in the 90s. For example, Cory Doctorow always pushes his anti-copyright agenda, and Mark Frauenfelder owns the ukulele news beat. That's why the blog remains popular even when sites like Digg theoretically replaced the its role as a clearinghouse for Internet memes. The blog was getting nearly a million views per day before the team stopped publicly reporting traffic, but at its heart it's a personal blog, and selling it would be like selling a favorite pet: theoretically possible but against the whole point. Besides, they all have other work that they can promote to their Boing Boing fans, and that's more valuable than ad revenue.
The network of over thirty blogs made sense for AOL because it was already a non-personality-based news farm that paid under $10 per post (even lower than Gawker Media at that point), churning out consumer-friendly content. Since then, most of its blogs fell behind competitors, except for the still wildly successful Engadget tech blog. Founder Jason Calacanis was indeed in it for the money, and he left the network soon after the sale to try relaunching Netscape as a social news site (the project failed and is now just a section on the Netscape web site). Calacanis's new project, a web directory, is even less personality-based. Maybe a blog network could replicate Weblogs's success, but it would have to focus on a niche, as no one will manage to dominate as many topics as Weblogs did.
Well all the others are too small, aren't they? If you want to hire a writer, you could buy his blog and immediately dissolve it, but there's no point adding an existing blog to an existing media outlet.
Most magazines, TV networks and newspapers have already launched blogs with current and new staff. It's cheaper and avoids creative conflicts. Plus blogs always have a lower revenue-per-pageview rate than the media sites that could buy them, so any acquired blog would have to be integrated into the buyer's ad inventory.
For the record, Gawker Media doesn't buy blogs, but Denton's hired at least three people who started blogs about Gawker.