The End of Blogging

What Gawker’s redesign says about the Web’s chattering class

“I don’t really see a blog business,” said Nick Denton over gchat. He still wasn’t sold on the idea of an interview regarding his sites’ redesign, which debuted Feb. 1, and seemed to be attempting an escape. “I should find you that old post in which I compare blog ad revenues to McDonald’s franchises, i.e. piffling.”

Ah! But! Surely they aren’t so McDonald’s-sized now? “Well, the McDonald’s reference was from five years ago—when I was downplaying the revenue potential of blogs,” he said. “Things did move on from then.”

Whatever blogs have become, there seems to be universal agreement that the format that made them ubiquitous—the reverse-chronological aggregation accompanied by commentary—is not long for this world, and Denton’s scoop-friendly redesign would seem to be the best evidence of that. In fact, the decline of the blog has come so quickly, one has to wonder whether we ever really liked the medium at all.

“From the beginning, I didn’t call the sites ‘blogs,’” said Dan Abrams, who launched his Mediaite network in 2009. “And that’s true because I always had this vision of them being more than just advertising-supported, ah, well, blogs. You know, whatever the word is.”

“It always has been an embarrassing word,” The Awl’s Choire Sicha said. “First it was embarrassing because bloggers were these dirty, horrible people, and then it was embarrassing because our grandmas have blogs, God bless them.”

The reluctance to even talk about blogs may have sprung from the fact that our early enthusiasm for the medium was, in the clarity of hindsight, based entirely on hypotheticals. Blogs were meant to offer untrammeled personal expression. They could turn elections. They’d straight-up murder newspapers! Oh gosh, remember The Printed Blog?

We even thought that owning enough of them could turn a tidy profit. In 2003, Google both debuted AdSense and purchased the Blogspot blogging platform, symptoms of the business model based on the notion that ads could target a vast audience of niche readers. In 2004, Jason Calacanis launched a blog dedicated solely to the goings on of satellite radio. “Howard is moving to satellite radio, so it’s a done deal,” he wrote, excitedly, in the launch’s press release.

“We were certainly much more casual about launching sites,” Denton said of those days. “As soon as we had a name and a concept, we just launched.”

Somewhere between the business and personal sides of the blogging bubble were of course the bloggers themselves, sometimes pajamaed, often scoop-wielding and truly witty creatures that occasionally danced across the cover of the New York Times Magazine. If bloggers back then were no less reviled, they were at least objects of curiosity.

When the micropublishing model flopped, the game soon turned to going bigger—in this period, Gawker reversed its ban on reality stars, among other measures, to grab more readers—competing for the largest audience in the areas, like gossip and media, known to be successes. Sites like Business Insider and Mediaite popped on the scene to compete for those ever-inflating ad dollars, and this called for more bloggers.

This saturation of opinion dripped into the personal blogging sphere as well, with Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter becoming the preferred mode for oversharing, the sharing sort of being the point, and aggregation.

To establish the very basics, the personal blog took the form of a passive website that offered a glimpse into one’s inner life to anyone interested, whereas these networks broadcast these thoughts to friends, who would presumably be best suited to receive them, and who in turn used these networks over the others, without having to trudge through, say, WordPress.

“The purpose of it is just pretty different,” said the Web developer Rex Sorgatz, who recently gave up his personal blog for a Tumblr. “Because I see the audience and I know who they are, see who they are. I talk in a completely different way and post pictures of my dog and make jokes about people without linking to them because everyone knows who I’m talking about. And certainly it changes the way you talk about things.”

The astounding amount of traffic passed to websites from social networking would seem to discredit the idea that people actually like having their news surrounded by lame jokes. Also indicative of this is the strange occurrence of aggregation-only websites—blogs that have been stripped of their writing. Sorgatz has worked on a few recently debuted versions of these, and notable among the established sites are the newer efforts of the Memeorandum family, like Mediagazer, which offers algorithm-based curation of media gossip.

Then there is The Atlantic Wire, the stripped-down aggregation service from a company that frequently touts its Web presence, which will soon relaunch under former Gawker editor Gabriel Snyder with 15 new employees in New York.

According to Denton, the “pendulum has swung,” and it’s become more viable to profit from this spate of aggregation, which he arguably prompted, rather than attempt to compete with it. His new goal is to make sure the entire Web sees whatever scoops he has to offer. Rest assured that the next time Tom Cruise uses a new Apple product to send photos of his penis to something that washed up on Montauk, it will be in your RSS feed as soon as it’s splayed across the Gawker marquee.

Still, even knowing the logic behind it, the Gawker redesign is jarring. Just one story is featured on the home page at any given point, and the vast majority will not be exclusive by any stretch of the imagination—past examples seen on its public beta have included a guide to flying tipsy and a chart examining Charlie Sheen’s publicity value for porn stars. It’s sleek to be sure, but there are shockingly few links, and that’s somewhat unexpected coming from the man who codified the blog format.

What happened to the famed “snarky” Gawker take on the news of the day?

“Well, that will be there, of course,” Denton said. “If anything, in splash story, more obviously there, i.e. the most pungent of stories will be the ones that get the most play on the front page. Writers will have to ease up on irony in headlines—because they will no longer have the lede to clarify. But that’s already been happening—because so much traffic comes from headlines distributed on Facebook and Twitter.”

None of this is to say that Denton’s model is the way ahead for all blogs, least of all because he boasts around 20 times the traffic of any of the other sites mentioned here. But his emphasis on original content has already been in the ether, in a proportionally smaller degree, on the more forward-thinking blogs.

Some of these have been bullish on old-school scoops. Yahoo recently put together a whiz-bang team of reporters for its Upshot news blog, which regularly furthers stories with new details. It’s a model that’s been pursued by Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall from early on in the lifespan of his Polk Award-winning site and one that he’s pushed aggressively, to the point where he’s been outspoken in his recent decision to stop calling the site a blog at all. He now relegates the opinion-heavy personal posts, more in keeping with what he used to do in the early days, to the “editors blog” section.

As for Denton’s redesign, it’s unlikely that many other blogs will rush to copy the visual format, with its paucity of links. Lockhart Steele, publisher of the Curbed network, went out of his way to praise the traditional blog appearance over any innovation because of the reader engagement it encourages.

“I contrast that to the home pages of, let’s say, magazine websites, where there’s an internal consistency, as in the magazine understands why the box on the upper right corner changes every week and this right over here changes every day and this over here changes every hour, but the average reader has no idea what’s new,” he said.

“The thing about blogs that’s great is that if you arrive at a blog, you know immediately how to read it,” he added. “Once you’ve learned to read one blog you can basically read every blog.”

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