Are superstar bloggers turning online journalism into the Premier League?

Andrew Sullivan

A minor earthquake hit the blogosphere recently with the news that Andrew Sullivan is to move his blog The Daily Dish from the website of the Atlantic Monthly, where it’s been based since 2005, to the Daily Beast. The news caps a string of trophy hires for the Beast in recent months, including former Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz and Fortune technology reporter David Kirkpatrick. The move makes sense for Sullivan, who’s proven a savvy manager of his blog – moving from a listing Time magazine to The Atlantic just when it was beginning to carve out a strong reputation online, and now moving to the hottest property in online news – and, thanks to the Daily Beast’s merger with Newsweek, getting some old-fashioned print exposure out of it.

But it’s terrible news for The Atlantic, and it’s got me wondering: are news and magazine sites becoming too reliant on big-name bloggers?

Once upon a time, the newspaper was the brand and writers were fairly anonymous. While talented reporters and editors would get poached by other publications, of course, the changes often wouldn’t register on the public. And for reporters, this is still the way things largely work. But bloggers’ brands are largely personal. Like big-name lawyers, they have their own ‘clients’ – readers – who will follow them from publication to publication.

This is good news for the bloggers, but less so for the sites that rely on them. Sullivan’s importance to The Atlantic is legendary. When the Atlantic revamped its site last year and downgraded its blogs into boring author archive pages (a move they reversed after user protest), the only one left untouched was Sullivan’s. Fellow Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates was under no illusions why:

Let me not mince words–it’s about traffic. I don’t think I’m at liberty to give out specific numbers, but suffice to say that Andrew is a monster…

I know that, in my best months, the Daily Dish was basically getting ten times the traffic that we were here. But more than that, a large portion of that traffic indirectly, or directly, came from the Dish. I’d be very interested, for instance, in what portion of my readership came here because I was either sitting next to Andrew, or because of a link from Andrew.

It’s fair to say Andrew Sullivan has been a major plank in the online strategy that helped the Atlantic make a high-profile return to profitability last year. And now he’s off. Will the Atlantic manage to make up the lost traffic, either by replacing Andrew with another big name or by promoting the rest of its online offering harder? Who knows, but it’ll be a tough sell.

Of course, the Atlantic is not merely a victim here – it’s perfectly capable of doing its own poaching. It recently hired Alan Taylor, founder of the enormously popular ‘Big Picture‘ photo-blog on the Boston Globe’s website, to launch an Atlantic rival, dubbed ‘In Focus.’

This kind of aggressive maneuvring – essentially poaching an entire product line from a rival – might seem to belong more in the world of low commerce than the high-minded milieu of elite American journalism. But so it is the increasingly competitive world of online. And chagrined as the Globe no doubt feels at the loss, it’s striking to think that there was nothing keeping Taylor there. The Big Picture is not about Boston, or anything the Globe’s natural online audience were particularly interested in. It pulled in readers from all over the internet who might, the Globe hoped, sometimes click on another feature. But those readers could easily be enticed elsewhere – the opportunity cost of changing publication in the online era is, after all, zero.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that these mega-blogs are a moveable feast, ready to up sticks whenever an exciting prospect comes along. The latest high-profile shift is Mickey Kaus, the controversial but beloved-by-fans political blogger, who’s moved from Slate to right-wing site The Daily Caller and can be safely expected to increase its traffic substantially.

Now, you might think: so what? The Atlantic got the benefit of Sullivan’s traffic while he was there, and now someone else will. Easy come, easy go. But the truth is that even though website costs are much more flexible than print costs, they are still ‘sticky’. A site with a certain level of traffic will hire a certain number of technical and sales staff to support it. A sudden loss of traffic when a trophy blogger leaves can mean difficult adjustments.

The danger is that leading online journalism brands become like Premier League football teams, dependent on the efforts of two or three star names – precocious, capricious, overpaid star names – and left stumbling when they leave (and bloggers can leave more easily than heavily contract-bound footballers).

A lesson from law: only integrate

This is a common issue for law firms, who have grown increasingly aggressive at hiring each others’ star partners in the last fifteen years or so. Firms buy in a practice, filling in a gap in their offering – say adding a finance capability to a real estate practice – and reap the benefits, only to see the partner in question disappear again when a better offer comes along.

The most successful firms, though, manage to integrate even star partners in a way that raises the opportunity costs of leaving substantially. It’s the art of ‘integration’. There are a range of methods used to tie star partners tight into the business – whole books have been written on the topic. They range from integrating their remuneration – so that the whole firm’s profits are shared out between partners, rather than partners keeping their own earnings – to financial tools to reward collaboration across departments, such as internal referral fees. There’s also a cultural element – a firm which maintains a regular calendar of events, cross-department seminars and so on, is less likely to lose important partners.

Contrast this with the ‘integration’ of most big-name bloggers. Sullivan didn’t even work from The Atlantic’s offices in Washington DC, but did most of his blogging from home hundreds of miles away in Massachusetts. How is he supposed to feel any loyalty to, or dependence on, his publisher or his colleagues when he never sees them?

Of course, star bloggers are in a position to demand autonomy – it would hardly have endeared The Atlantic to Sullivan if they’d demanded he come in to work. But more could perhaps have been done to make him feel reliant on, or part of a team with, the rest of the magazine’s writers: for example, encouraging collaborative or debating posts with other Atlantic bloggers.

(The last involvement I could find by Sullivan in the Atlantic’s videos, for example, was in October 2009, a piece in which Ta-Nehisi Coates “visits Andrew Sullivan at his Provincetown vacation home to ask questions submitted by Atlantic readers.” Here’s a tip, folks: if your star blogger won’t come into the office for a video Q&A every now and then, he probably won’t be around for long.)

I don’t know enough about the internal politics (and economics) of publication-blogger dynamics to be able to suggest in detail the kinds of techniques that might enable this ‘integration’ to take place. It may be that blunt instruments, such as five-year contracts and non-compete clauses – which would ban, for example, Sullivan from writing for another website for the first six months after he leaves The Atlantic – will become the order of the day. That would be pretty depressing, leaving online journalism as restricted by the egos of its stars as TV news has become.

But I hope that online publications are starting to realise that relying heavily on one big-name, personal-brand blogger may be an effective way of winning traffic, but it’s a highly unstable and risky one. A suite of strong bloggers with decent traffic – but with the publication remaining the main brand – is a far safer strategy. (The New Republic, for example, has some excellent bloggers, but it’s The New Republic I decide to visit rather than any one blog.)

And if you must hire a superstar blogger – or if you find yourself with one in your midst – for god’s sake go out of your way, not just to keep them happy, but to give them a reason to stay. Find ways of making the rest of your content support theirs, and vice versa, so they benefit from their association with you as much as you do from your association with them. And please, have a plan in place for when the inevitable happens and they disappear.

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Author: Rav

City boy coping with liberal guilt and culture shock in Tanzania. Writes about development, politics, culture and technology.

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