Explaining Southern California's economy

Blog Wars, Part I: Nick Denton doesn't like commenters

Nick Denton

Dave Winer/Flickr

Nick Denton is the man who founded Gawker Media. He doesn't much like commenters anymore.

Nick Denton is one of those Blog Lords whom, if you blog at all seriously, you have to pay attention to. But you also have to expect Denton to routinely exasperate. Such as when Gawker Media redesigned its blogs to be far more iPad friendly — and reader unfriendly. Or just today, when CNN reported on some comments that the Great Provocateur made at South by Southwest:

In the early days of the Internet, there was hope that the unprecedented tool for global communication would lead to thoughtful sharing and discussion on its most popular sites.

A decade and a half later, the very idea is laughable, says Gawker Media founder Nick Denton.

"It didn't happen," said Denton, whose properties include the blogs Gawker, Jezebel, Gizmodo, io9 and Lifehacker. "It's a promise that has so not happened that people don't even have that ambition anymore.

"The idea of capturing the intelligence of the readership -- that's a joke."

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How much traffic is the Los Angeles Times willing to lose on new paywall?

Mercer 3958

David McNew/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Times building as seen on the evening of September 20, 2006 in Los Angeles, California.

It's finally happened. The Los Angeles Times has joined the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal in charging for online content. It's a paywall, but they're not calling it that. They're calling it a membership program. And the switch gets flipped March 5.

LA Observed sums it all up (and also included LAT President Kathy Thomson's memo):

Freeloaders get 15 stories for free in a month. Otherwise, it's $3.99 for a week of digital access, less if you take the Sunday paper in print, the Times story says. There's a cheaper introductory rate of 99 cents for four weeks of what the paper calls a membership program, to go into effect March 5. Print subscribers get the online paper for free.

You can compare this with the New York Times paywall, which we learned earlier this month has managed to convince 325,000 folks a month to to pay for access the online edition. The NYT also charges a 99-cent four-week intro rate, but thereafter it jumps to $15-35, depending on whether you want full online, mobile, and tablet access. For now, the LAT is keeping tablet and mobile access free — perhaps because it's reportedly pursuing a proprietary tablet that may affect how content for the device is bundled. 

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Is the LA Times becoming Gawker Media?

LATimes-Gawker Media

The Los Angeles Times just went through another round of layoffs, while its parent, Tribune Co., is nearing an exit from a bankruptcy proceeding that began in 2008 and shows few signs of being pleasantly resolved. The Times itself, however, is becoming a legitimate online powerhouse. But it’s beginning to look less and less like a newspaper.

The paper itself conveniently reports its own traffic numbers, focusing on its blogs. And the numbers are impressive. In July, the top 3 blogs racked up 36 million in page views. Let’s just jump back to that for a second. Blogs. Racked up. 36 million in page views. 

Justin Ellis at the Nieman Journaism Lab is impressed:

[T]he Times’ traffic gains have also come off the work of its blogs, including Politics Now, Hero Complex (on “movies, comics, fanboy fare”), and a Technology blog. Orr attributes that to the high posting frequency from the blogs’ writers, as well as their writing style. It’s writing that has voice and knowledge, but is also reported out, Orr said. So when you read an item on Politics Now about the Iowa straw poll, say, or an item about Pixar on Hero Complex, those posts are actually more akin to article-length stories.

Hero Complex is indeed a fanboy's paradise. Gawer Media started a very similar effort in 2008, called io9, that roams the territory of capes, wands, and lightsabers. But Hero Complex aims for a more middle-ground, less geek-a-delic readership.

If you check out the Pixar post that Ellis highlights, it quickly becomes apparent that it isn’t very bloggy at all. But then again, this is something of a trend in the blogosphere. Old-school journalism and the fast-and-loose world of what we might now be able to call old-school blogging are beginning to converge. And both are changing in the face of the rapidly shifting economics of the media business.

Traffic is the coin of the realm in this space. And high-quality traffic -- the kind of thing that Google likes, and likes even more since it revised its Panda search algorithm -- is what the Times high-quality blogging is bringing in.

In fact, the Times’ blogs are beginning to look a lot like what Gawker Media -- the once-upstart New York-based enterprise that publishes the eponymous gossip site, as well as technology blog Gizmodo, sports blog Deadspin, and even porn blog Fleshbot (sorry, that link is NSFW) -- wanted to be in the aftermath of its controversial redesign earlier this year. (Reuters blogger and Gawkerologist Felix Salmon unpacks the whole thing here.)

Weirdly, it’s like the L.A. Times and Gawker are ships passing in the night: one a leviathan ocean liner trying to become a frigate; the other a fast-attack sub that’s turning into dreadnought. You could even say that the Times is ahead of the game here: its blogs feature exactly the kind of rich, reported content that Gawker head Nick Denton insists he wants -- as opposed to the snarky, quick-hit blogging that has made the Gawker sites successful and addictive in the early years of Web 2.0.

Viewed this way, the Times’ blog network, Southern California born and bred, looks like the most innovative media business in country -- better than the New York Times, which despite the popularity of satellites such as DealBook is still tied to the staid mothership; and better than the Huffington Post, which has become something of a hot mess since its merger with AOL.

Is this a model that newspapers everywhere should emulate? Well, maybe. The Times’ blogs have earned their traffic through original writing and reporting, less from the dreaded aggregation, whereby blogs summarize or deconstruct and re-assemble the content of others in a more search-friendly context. 

But the Times’ blogs are also highly dependent on what Jeff Jarvis has called “Google juice.” The Times’ online managing editor, Jimmy Orr, reported that Google traffic for LATimes.com was up “65.4% year over year.” Sounds great. Until whatever search-engine optimization strategy that yielded it gets gamed by lesser operations and compels Google to again adjust its algorithm. 

Of couse, one lesson that the Times’ can learn from Gawker is to avoid messing with a good thing. After Gawker Media unveiled its redesign, its traffic plummeted by 25 percent. That was the sound of a blogging network becoming less bloggy -- but also of money leaving the bank.

Photo: Minaert/Wikimedia Commons

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