I recently attended a session at the Wheeler Centre supposedly about ‘the blogging economy’. It was fundamentally misnamed. It barely mentioned blogging and most of the presentation was about the bigger and broader field of commercial electronic publishing. What was presented was relevant if you’re interested in this, but it was not about blogging.
The event went askew from the start, where the topic was not clearly defined. Blogging is a niche or subset of electronic publishing, but the term blogging was used to describe all electronic publishing, which had the effect of confusing and annoying different sectors of the audience. Furthermore, there was barely any recognition that not all publishing is commercial, particularly in relation to blogging.
Penny Modra, editor of the the Thousands city guide sites, spoke about the challenges of being a commercial publisher using a business model where advertising is the primary income and where authors are paid. She described the difficulty of maintaining profitability under this business model, whereby an increasing number of unnamed competitors (presumably Broadsheet, Agenda, Small Werld, Small Lust, Milk Bar Mag etc) publish similar content with little or no editorial input and where authors are not paid.
The proliferation of city guide sites means that a finite pool of advertising dollars are spread ever thinner amongst more competitors, who are desperately trying to publish more content for SEO purposes in order to attract more traffic and hence better advertising rates. The competition between these sites is fundamentally to produce quantity, not quality.
Ben Eltham spoke about the economics of publishing, including the supply and demand balance whereby a surplus of writers and limited opportunities to be published in publications with large audiences pushes down the price of writing and editing labour to the extent that many publications can expect to obtain free content in exchange for providing an opportunity for authors to have their work read.
As I have previously argued, giving away content in exchange for publication was a necessary and hence acceptable strategy in the print era. In the electronic era, however, it is naive and exploitative. It is far better for writers to publish their content in a free hosted blog and to build their own audience than give their content away to someone else to profit from.
The discussion turned to freelance rates and the fragmented nature of the electronic media workforce, and how this potentially contributes to the poor pay writers mostly receive. One particularly grating and naive question from the floor implied that there should be a solution to the problem and that worker solidarity and organisation could help improve pay rates.
I disagree. There is no logical reason why there should be an alternative to the current economic circumstances that suits writers. The advertising supported commercial publishing business model is dead. The world does not owe writers a living. Content does not produce profit, and therefore writers can’t expect to be well paid.
When experienced advertising industry leaders publicly comment that advertising is failing as a business model and can no longer effectively shape audience behaviour, it’s obvious that the business of advertising supported publishing is dead. It is perplexing to me why so few potential publishers pay attention to the fundamentals of their business models before they launch city guide sites that will never succeed. And the naivety of writers continues to bemuse me.
Only Jacinda Woodhead seemed to be aware of the difference between electronic publishing in general and the specific example of blogging. She was also the only speaker to recognise that a lot of blogging is not commercial. She gave a good example of how blogging can have a role in supporting and promoting the activities of an organisation or another publication, such as a print magazine.
I suspect that the audience, like Black Mark and I, included a significant proportion of bloggers who were seriously underwhelmed and disenchanted by the event, which may explain the limited and listless questions from the floor. Our reasonable expectation that the event would focus on blogging was not met.
As I cannot analyse a conversation that did not occur, in the forthcoming part 2 of this topic I will discuss the latest data about the economics of blogging in Australia.