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You’re Not Going to be a Professional Blogger, Regardless of What the Wall Street Journal Tells You

June 17th, 2009 · by Jake Seliger · 32 Comments

The Wall Street Journal published a misleading article by Dennis Nishi called “Early Transition to Blog Pro,” about BoingBoing’s Mark Frauenfelder. It has two major problems: it implies that many more people make money solely from blogging than actually do, as though one can make a quick career of blogging (“How You Can Get There, Too”) and it doesn’t discuss how people actually use their blogs to make money, which is by selling ancillary services.

Problem One: No Money

Frauenfelder says that his blog does “make enough from advertising alone to cover costs and salaries,” but that “it’s hard to grow on just advertising.” Other bloggers—whose blog is a cornerstone of their career strategy—have already dealt with this issue in almost the exact language that he uses. As Penelope Trunk writes in “Reality check: You’re not going to make money from your blog,” people whose blogs are their income are very much the anomaly.” Right: even she doesn’t derive her primary income from blogging. Google ads pay almost nothing. Banner ads are worth almost nothing, and the market for advertising has cratered with the Great Recession.

Notice her first point: “Big bloggers come from big media.” She wrote a syndicated column before Brazen Careerist. If you’re not already involved in big media, you’re even less likely to make money blogging.

The experience described in “Blogs Falling in an Empty Forest” is probably more common: “Many people who think blogging is a fast path to financial independence also find themselves discouraged.”

First-Move Advantage

Frauenfelder has a first-mover advantage. Notice this:

Not long after [Frauenfelder's magazine distributor folded], I discovered blogs and loved how easy they made it to publish, so I turned BoingBoing into one in 2000. It had already become a web zine (so) it seemed like a natural evolution.

He started nine years ago, before anyone on a newspaper staff had even heard the word “blog.” BoingBoing is now one of the most popular blogs on the Internet, in part because it covers technology, which is perhaps the most pervasive topic on the net. Very people are going to get there, even if they do work as hard as he has. Even then, I’d love to see Frauenfelder’s tax returns, because I bet he’s not making all that much despite running one of the Internet’s most popular blogs. Virtually no one is making any money directly from web advertising except Google (more on that later).

Lying With Numbers

The sidebar to “Early Transition to Blog Pro” claims:

Salary range: According to Henry Copeland, founder of BlogAds.com, a Web advertising concern based in Carrboro, N.C., self-employed bloggers in 2007 took in between $2,000 and $10,000 a month from ad sales.

I’d love to see what those numbers are based on, how Copeland defines self-employed, and so forth, especially since the numbers come from a person with an interest in making them appear high. This is a classic example of bogus data appearing in newspapers, and it’s the sort of thing that makes people doubt the news; this statistic could be an example in James Fallows’ Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy.

Paul Graham explains how bogus numbers get into newspapers in The Submarine, which concerns how public relations lurk beneath much of what you read and watch. In one example, he says:

Our greatest PR coup was a two-part one. We estimated, based on some fairly informal math, that there were about 5000 stores on the Web. We got one paper to print this number, which seemed neutral enough. But once this “fact” was out there in print, we could quote it to other publications, and claim that with 1000 users we had 20% of the online store market.

Copeland did the same thing to the WSJ, which is unusual—not because he tried, but because they bit. Without real metrics, Copeland’s numbers are garbage, and I doubt they’d stand up to, say, peer review. You can see the same kind of twisting in data about, say, job creation through government spending.

Still, Blogging Isn’t a Waste of Time

That being said, Trunk also argues that “Blogging [is] essential for a good career,” which is true for the reasons she gives and one she doesn’t: it sends a powerful signal of your intellectual engagement and prowess. You can’t fake enthusiasm and knowledge on a blog, where what you know and how you express what you know is available for all to see; Geoffrey Miller discusses extensively in his book Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior.

Note, however, that Trunk’s article doesn’t map to “you’ll make a lot of money from blogging,” which is the subject of the WSJ story, and the likelihood of it being one’s primary income source is, again, low.

Problem Two: How People Do Make Money Via Blogging

They sell something else besides ads on their blog. If they run XKCD, they sell T-Shirts. If they run Ph.D. Comics, they sell… T-Shirts. If they run Joel on Software, they sell software. Trunk began a startup around headhunting.

Far more seem to make money by showing expertise and then selling said expertise. In other words, they’re producing something useful for the world.

To be Fair…

I wrote an e-mail to expressing some of these concerns Nishi, who replied:

Most of the people I interview for this column probably have some advantage or more sheer will than most people. But they do represent exceptional examples and are meant to inspire and show what’s possible. So if I interview Bill Gates, it wouldn’t be an instruction guide about how to create a software giant. It’s more of a glimpse into what it took to build a software giant, hence the name of the column.

(The name of the column is “How I Got Here”).

Bill Gates isn’t a very good analogy—if you told someone you could be like Bill Gates and get rich selling desktop software in, say, 2001, you would’ve been misguided at best: the world was (and still is) moving to web-based applications. Hell, even if you said that in 1989, you would’ve been wrong: between then and now, the only companies that have really made money from shrinkwrapped software are Microsoft and Adobe. Everyone else folded. His timing advantage isn’t just “some advantage”—it’s the advantage that allowed him to massively succeed.

Nonetheless, Nishi has a strong point. But the tone of the story differs from the tone of his e-mail. Look at the first line of the story: “When blogs first came to the Internet over a decade ago, nobody believed they would make money,” which implies that now some of them do make money. Which is correct—but it’s probably an astonishingly small number relative to the number of blogs out there, especially given the (cratered) advertising market. Look at the aforementioned sidebar: “How You Can Get There, Too.” Lots of people build blogs about subjects they’re passionate about and will never make money from them, as Trunk observes.

Tags: Advice · Blogging