Thursday, February 2, 2012

Golden Age of Tech Blogging Done? I Couldn't Disagree More

I'm a big fan of Jeremiah Owyang's market analysis but I think he missed the point on this one, big time. He recently wrote a post on how the Golden Age of tech blogging is over. No way. Unless of course, he means we're about to enter the platinum age. Because things are far from dead in tech blogging-- and blogging in general. In fact, I think we're poised to enter one of the most exciting periods yet.

I'm a big believer that tech trends tend to over-promise in the short term but under-promise in the longterm. As Jeremiah points out, the last few years demonstrated some of the limitations of blogging-- ie, we can't all make businesses and build big audiences, it won't replace all older forms of media, and  it's a grind that will wear down all but the most intent. In a lot of ways sites like Facebook, Yelp and Twitter have scratched that itch for self-expression by giving the masses an easier and more painless way to get the endorphin rush that blogging gave in the early days. Scoble speaks to that in Jeremiah's post. And that's thinned out the blogging herd-- no question.

But there are still plenty of people who love to write-- not just share, Tweet and comment-- for a living, and blogs are still the best platform for that. In many ways, professional blogging is just getting started. It's a time when new entrants are jumping into the field with bold, fresh ideas, standing on the shoulders of the blogging giants that came before, taking a second stab at reinventing the new media landscape. Look at what Bleacher Report has built in the long-neglected sports world, and what SB Nation is doing. Look at how the Verge (owned by SB Nation) is reinventing one of the oldest and most successful niches in blogging-- the gadget blog. And if you believe what you read, more new entrants are coming in the tech news category.

Sure, a lot of the first generation have been bought up or the founders have gotten tired and are blogging less. And that's a massive loss. And, yes, that's lead to exodus of talent at some core properties.

But none of that means the medium is dead or struggling. Quite the opposite: It's ripe for a reboot and throughout the blogosphere the  next generation is sprouting up, fired up with new ideas and resolve to build exciting new businesses that are different from wave #1 from the beginning.

Here are some of the trends this generation seems to be playing with in new ways:

- Reader blogs. Pioneered by HuffPo and SeekingAlpha, I believe we're only getting started when it comes to platforms that enable readers to blog alongside paid authors. Bleacher Report has created a fascinating business around carefully curated user blogs that other verticals may seize upon. A lot of the power of blogging is the individual voices but as we learned from blogs 1.0, there's a major distribution problem if you don't want to blog everyday. Squeaky lawsuits aside, the unpaid blogger isn't dead. Plenty of people want to write just to be read. In our world, VCs like Chris Dixon, Fred Wilson and Ben Horowitz are writing some of the best stuff out there. Imagine how many other people are out there who don't write for a living, but have plenty to say. They don't want to blog everyday, and are put off by the distribution problem if they post only sporadically. Expect a lot more innovation here.

- UI. The Verge has really experimented with this and while it's a bit too busy for my tastes, I love that it's pushing the envelope. As blogs have exploded with volume to drive more traffic and page views, the industry has created huge challenges from a user interface perspective. A lot of the older generation of blogs have struggled to address this, as entrenched audiences have balked at dramatic changes. But there are fewer sacred cows for new properties starting with a clean sheet of paper.

-It's definitely not all about short, commodity news. I totally disagree with Jeremiah's assertion that blogs are bound by shorter and shorter attention spans. Over the last year at TechCrunch, I wrote several very long posts and those were some of the highest trafficked on the site. If the content is good, people will find time to read. We're seeing this with the explosion of Kindle Singles and new imprints like Byliner. Writing long for the sake of long is silly, but don't underestimate a smart audience. People will read you if you do quality reporting and have something interesting to say.

- Business models. In many cases, blogs haven't yet figured out a way to monetize their influence. TechCrunch had an insane amount of reach and influence compared to any other platform for which I've written. And yet, TechCrunch made the least per ad of any platform for which I've written. There's something wrong with that, and it'll get rectified at some point. The new generation will be the ones to experiment, throw assumptions out the window and find those answers. The new generation has the advantage of starting from where the previous generation of blogs left off. The first generation did the hard part. It proved blogs had to be taken seriously; that it was possible to build a big audience, rival the biggest, most respected names in old media in terms of influence, and buid a business if you got large enough scale. The next generation will start from that premise and go further.

- Less about a Single Star; More about the Platform. One of the biggest challenges of the first generation of bloggers was building the property beyond one, dominant voice. TechCrunch did this better than many, but in the end many still viewed it as "Mike's blog." Part of that was because a lot of those blogs started as a hobby. This next generation are starting blogs as businesses first, and solving for challenges like these from the beginning.

- Not for Sale. I can't speak for other nascent blogs out there but the biggest lesson I've learned from the first wave? Start out with a mindset not to sell. Ever. When you sell, your platform and brand may live on, but eventually your voice dies.

Not selling can sound laughably naive in some corners of the Valley. Indeed, I've known enough entrepreneurs to know you can never know at the beginning of the journey where it'll end up. But, at least for me, I've set the expectation in every conversation I've had with potential investors and employees: If I'm going to build something, my plan is not to sell. I'm not building a non-profit. I think everyone taking the risk on my new site, me included, will make money. Lots of money. But it won't be from an acquisition, and if it is, I've failed.

That mindset is reflected in every thing a new blog does; from the way a new blog sets up compensation to the way it hires its staff and in particular, it makes the point above about platforms and individuals even more important. The only way to build a lasting media property is to build one that stands for something not someone.

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