Posted on | February 4, 2011 | 21 Comments
Elizabeth Spiers is taking over as editor-in-chief of the New York Observer — a minor blip of media news that is rather more significant than it would appear at first glance.
Earlier this week, the Observer ran a long article entitled, “The End of Blogging,” a grabby title that misinterprets the changes that are actually happening in the online world. Of course the irony is that the paper’s new editor is — you guessed, didn’t you? — a blogger:
Spiers is the founder of Dead Horse Media, which created highly successful blog properties such as Dealbreaker, Above the Law and Fashionista. She has also served as founding editor of Gawker.com and editor in chief of mediabistro.com.
She’s got some print-journalism background, too, but Spiers’ stock-in-trade is turning blogs into “properties.” As Joe Coscarelli of the Village Voice points out, “Spiers has been given the task of making the Observer ‘a website with a newspaper, rather than a newspaper with a website.'”
The much-analyzed Observer “End of Blogging” article — which got ripped apart by Chris Rovzar, among others — utterly misunderstood (or perhaps, cluelessly misrepresented) the phenomenon of online communication. It doesn’t matter, for example, whether or not you call your site a “blog” or whether you call the elements “posts” or “articles.”
A thing is what it is, regardless of what you call it.
Originally, the term “blog” was an abbreviation of “weblog,” which was shorthand for a sort of online personal diary, with an emphasis on the word “personal.” However, people quickly discovered that the same software you might use to talk about your favorite coffee shop or the antics of your kittens could also be used for any other type of communication, including news.
What was truly different about the “blog” was that software companies had created free (or cheap) online publishing tools which didn’t require advanced technological skill to use. This development — lowering the entry threshold to effectively zero in terms of what it cost to get published — liberated writers from the need to jump through the editorial hoops that had hitherto stood between them and the reading public.
It was the do-it-yourself factor of blogging that made it revolutionary, but many people misunderstood the nature of this revolution. The big splash made by a handful of early adopters — hello, Washingtonienne — led to “irrational exuberance” about the medium that hasn’t yet completely evaporated.
Brains, talent, hard work and persistence ultimately win out in any competition, and the losers go home. That’s what has happened in the blogosphere since the Gold Rush days of the Great Blogging Boom. (Aside: When was ’49 in that analogy? That is to say, was the boom year 2002 or 2005 or 2006?)
As I have often pointed out, the people who are most successful in the blogosphere don’t match the popular stereotype of dropouts in pajamas ranting from their mother’s basement. They are people of considerable professional accomplishment in their offline careers, often with advanced degrees and specialized knowledge that is their stock-in-trade online. (I’ve never met Eugene Volokh, but if I did, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t be wearing pajamas.)
Winners win and losers lose, and self-publishing software has not changed that fact, except to allow some people to succeed as writers who did not previously have the opportunity to write professionally.
What was John Hayward doing for a living before he became “Doctor Zero“? Who cares? He’s now a (self-)published author and staff writer for Human Events. Or who was Da Tech Guy before he became Da Tech Guy? Who cares? He’s now a columnist for the Examiner with his own radio show on WCRN.
These two examples (and I could cite many more) are cited for a reason. Both Doc Zero and Da Tech Guy achieved their success via the blogosphere long after the Gold Rush days of blogging had passed. Many others had already tried their hands and quit. As I said a month ago, referencing the 2002 list of blogs inspired by Instapundit:
What is interesting, in looking at all those blogs, is how many of them have faded into oblivion, even as blogs that started much later — including this one, which became a full-time project in March 2008 — have endured and flourished.
And so we come back around to the new editor of the Observer, Elizabeth Spiers. She is the fourth editor in less than two years and was hired to replace Kyle Pope, an alumnus of the Conde Nast flop Portfolio who lasted 15 months as editor of the Observer, during which time the operation was “plagued by departures,” as Coscarelli puts it. (Aside: Tina Brown, who has lost gobs of money at very publication she’s ever run, loved Portfolio.)
Elizabeth Spiers understands something about success in the online world, and as soon as publisher Jared Kushner handed her the whip, by God, she made sure they heard it crack. According to a source at the Observer told the Huffington Post, Spiers told the remaining staff in her first editorial meeting that “she wanted to ‘increase the metabolism’ of the website.”
Translation: Get your asses in gear and start cranking out copy!
She’s a winner, this one. For all I know, Spiers is a flaming liberal but her success speaks for itself, and I’ll bet she makes a go of it where others have failed before her.
Because it really comes down to the question: What is a blog? Or to put it another way, What does the experience of blogging teach us about the media?
The answer is: Learn to do more with less.
One of the basic problems of the established media is that for so long they enjoyed the luxury of high profits based on advertising. The newsroom prided itself on “editorial independence” from the dollars-and-cents profit-making business side of the operation. Editors and writers were employed without regard to the value of their work in terms of attracting readership.
The Web has changed that. The editor of an online publication can use analytics to measure whose work attracts the widest readership, and reward them accordingly. And if you’re not pulling your weight — if you aren’t quick enough, if you aren’t producing enough content, or not enough of the kind of content that generates traffic — your status as dead weight can no longer be concealed.
Get busy or get gone.
If Elizabeth Spiers can get that idea into the minds of her staff at the Observer, she will have taught them a valuable lesson from the world of blogging.
Just because Marc Ambinder doesn’t like the word “blog” doesn’t make blogging dead. Nor does it matter if you call this a “blog post” or a “column.” A thing is what it is, and success is still success.
UPDATE II: Linked by Charles G. Hill at Dustbury, whose blog has taken him “from having no influence whatsoever to having extremely little influence.” The journey of a million hits begins with a single link.