I don't really see a blog business," says Nick Denton over Gchat. He still isn't sold on the idea of an interview regarding his site, Gawker, and seems 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 says, then pauses for exactly one minute. "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 Gawker's latest redesign seems 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,'" says 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."
"What is blogging?" asks Lockhart Steele, publisher of the Curbed network. "Is what Capital New York is doing, do you consider that blogging? Well, yes and no."
"It always has been an embarrassing word," the Awl's Choire Sicha says. "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 spring 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. "We were certainly much more casual about launching sites," Denton says 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 your 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.
Soon, every 22-year-old with a "Sarah Palin" Google alert and a dose of irony fancied himself the next Alex Balk. From the story selection to the sarcastic or hyperbolic headlines, blog content became predictable, and duller for it. It's the sort of thing that can lead a good blogger to feel undervalued.
In his November farewell post, after a five-year stint on The Atlantic blog, Marc Ambinder wrote that it will be a relief to head to The National Journal, where he will feel no compulsion to turn every piece into the opinion of "a web-based personality called 'Marc Ambinder' that people read because it's 'Marc Ambinder,' rather than because it's good or interesting."
"You're competitive in terms of getting something first, and then you're competitive on getting a take that is close to the truth so much as it can be approximated, and then you're competitive in building and keeping an influential and broad-based readership," Ambinder says, speaking with exhaustion of his time on the web.
With the Jason Kottkes and Andrew Sullivans already established and still working, he adds, it's become increasingly difficult to carve out a niche.
"We're at a stage now where that market is saturated, so it's the long tail phenomenon," he says. "We're getting to the point where it's really, really hard once you start, unless you're a phenomenon or something."
This saturation of opinion drips into the personal blogging sphere as well, with Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter becoming the preferred mode for oversharing and aggregation. 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. What happened to the famed "snarky" Gawker take on the news of the day?
"Well, that will be there, of course," Denton says. "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."
"Social media killed the ironic blog headline," he adds neatly.
None of this is to say that Denton's model is the way ahead for all blogs. "I think the story of blogging in the last couple of years or more, professional blogging, is that we all do a lot more original content," says Steele of Curbed. "I think by the dint of being local, that's something we've always done, but if anything, that's gotten even more important."
If the freedom from the opinion-based aggregation model has freed blogs of their point of origin, the short-form personal blog may well encourage longer extracurricular writing. In Wired last month, Clive Thompson argued just this point. "Ten years ago, my favorite bloggers wrote middle takes—a link with a couple of sentences of commentary—and they'd update a few times a day. Once Twitter arrived, they began blogging less often but with much longer, more-in-depth essays," he wrote.
The Awl network may be a notable exception of a new online endeavor that essentially follows the old blogging method, although Sicha notes that some of the site's more unique efforts have gained a surprising amount of traction. Specifically, he references the flyaway success of their newest property, the Hairpin, which he credits to its editor, Edith Zimmerman.
"She's not aggregating blog posts about the thing that just came down the wire. She's making things, and I think one of the mistakes that a lot of blogs make that kind of dead-end them as blogs is covering the same thing that everyone's covering instead of like creating things and stopping to make stuff," Sicha says. "I really feel like she renewed this idea in me that this should not be about covering Keith goddamn Olbermann. This should be about engaging with the thing that most fascinates me or cracks me up at two in the morning."