Blog networks not so shiny

Earlier this week online blog network Shiny Media went into administration, which led to Techcrunch to declare the UK's experiment with blog networks were over. That's probably going a bit far, but for all the growth and proliferation of blogging, it's probably never been harder to set up and keep a blog network afloat in this day and age.

A few years back, when The World had generally decided that citizen journalism was definitely going to kill the mainstream media and blogs were the future, somewhere, somehow the misconception arose that blogging was the place to make money.

It was so easy; all you needed were a few clicks of a mouse a nice lick of virtual paint and, hey presto, your blog was up and ready to go, challenge the established order and make money.

Quite.

That really isn't the case, you know. Some blogs do make money, but they're often those who happened to be in the online space first, and were better than their competitors at the time. These blogs have had time to build traction, work on the USP and establish a loyal readership. These blogs didn't just become success stories overnight.

The majority of bloggers I've met largely do what they do for fun, and in their spare time (and a few very professionally done blogs have really surprised me, given the resources they have behind them). A few make a bit of money from blogging, but generally not enough to give up the day job.

One comment on the Paid Content article from Robyn Wilder, one of the brains behind the Domestic Sluttery blog, sums this up neatly:

"Domestic Sluttery was largely set up by the editors as a work of love, and the writers joined in the same spirit. No one is relying on it to provide an income; we may get paid one day but that’s not why we’re doing it."

Domestic Sluttery (while definitely not aiming at me as a target audience) is one of those blogs that could one day make money. It looks good, is well-written, and has a growing readership. But it's definitely not going to provide a living for the editors and writers. Yet. One day, it might be worth a bit, though.

As for making money from blogging, the rates generally tend by be lower than the mainstream press when you compare wordcount, etc.  Certainly a lot less than the NUJ's suggested freelance rate, although that's sometimes not the point. I've taken on some blogging jobs for sheer enjoyment. That said, if I was completely freelance and didn't have a day job, I would be a lot more money-orientated.

But that doesn't mean that a blog network can't be profitable, and I'd tend to agree with Katie Lee - one of Shiny's co-founders (who left the company in February) - that Shiny could (or indeed should) have still been going strong and had the potential to be profitable.

There are significant gaps in the online market still in certain areas. Fill these and you've at least got an audience, although monetising them is another problem.

Firstly, the advertising market was tough enough before the recession. Now, it's trying to climb the cliff it fell off a few months ago, and it's as tough for the mainstream media as it is for online offerings. Bottom line, any blog network today should have an alternative stream of revenue to advertising. Build your business model on advertising and you may as well stick up a For Sale sign over your network.

Running a blog network also takes time, effort and, if you're intending it to be a commercial venture, money. And the more blogs you have, the more time, effort and money it will take up (although I don't know the ins and outs, my suspicion is this is one of the areas where Shiny fell down somewhat). Again, if you're determined to pay your freelancers, the cash has to be coming in from somewhere. Otherwise, it's low rates, or no payment at all.

There will be successes. There will always be successes. But these successes are exceptions to the rule, rather than the rule itself. And for all the supposed last rites of the media industry, mainstream and commercial publications are in a much stronger position than independent networks. And, as the Devil's Kitchen points out, many blogs are dependent on such places for their content.

Come the end of the recession, it will be interesting to see what shape both the traditional and online media companies will be in. I suspect a few more from both will go to the wall, some of them high profile. At the end of it, some blog networks may survive, but these will probably be the ones with very clever sources of income.

It's a shame Shiny Media has ended up where it has today. For a time being, it looked as if it might have been able to hold its own and even surpass traditional media in some areas. But for a variety of reasons, and a few bad decisions, it hasn't.

Hopefully some of it can be salvaged. Some of the individual blogs still lead their field, and will as likely be worth a decent sum. It would be a shame to see the likes of Catwalk Queen and Shiny Shiny disappear completely.

And for all the problems that beset Shiny, it had some damn fine writers working for it, many of whom are now out of work, and that's one of the saddest aspects. So if you happen to be reading this and have any space, please take pity on the ex-Shinies and give them some work.

[Disclosure: I've got to know many of the Shiny editors and writers, past and present, on a professional and personal level, and some are now good friends. Even many of the ex-employees have been caught in the crossfire on this. Hopefully it'll all work out for those affected who I know well.]