One of the popular thoughts is that “small is the new big.”  Although many respected blogging experts say it, is it really true that small niche blogging can be wildly successful and profitable?  A few quotes to think about:

Previously I was a strong believer of the “small is big” philosophy.  However, AOL’s culling of three small niche blogs–pvrwire, divester, and bloggingohio–challenges this theory.   If with the full support of the Weblogs, Inc machine these blogs cannot survive, is niche blogging a profitable model?

I recently interviewed some of the bloggers displaced by the closing of these niche blogs – Tobias Buckell, Willy Volk, and Eric Brodeur.   The writers feel that the Weblogs, Inc network system is conducive to the production of good content.  They are happy to continue to work under the Weblogs, Inc system.  These talented authors do not feel that the blog network system handicapped them.  Why then did they fail? 

I recently discussed this with Jason Calacanis who is closely tied to the AOL/Weblogs, Inc organization.  I had assumed that Weblogs, Inc believed that niche content was part of its foundation.  For example, it is listed in DMOZ as “creating trade weblogs across niche industries in which user participation is an essential component of the resulting product.”  However, Jason disputes this:

Actually, it was not *built* off of small blogs at all. Our growth was based mainly on our big hits like Engadget, Autoblog, TVSquad, and Joystiq. The smaller blogs didn’t play much of a role in growing the company.

If you think Calacanis thinks the niche blogs can be profitable, think again.  Although he has publicly stated he would like to buy these blogs, it is not for the money: 

Frankly, I wouldn’t try to make them profitable. I would run them at breakeven for the fun of it.

People frequently use the AOL/Weblog Inc purchase figures to estimate the value of blogs based on one criteria or another.  Calacanis suggests that it is the system, not the content that makes Weblogs, Inc so valuable:

When AOL bought Weblogs, Inc. they didn’t buy the blogs. They bought the management team and the system for running blogs. The systems, software, and best practices Weblogs, Inc. created are used today at AOL’s other blogs like TMZ. The brands were icing on the cake for AOL to a certain extent. When you buy a small company like Weblogs, Inc. you’re basically buying the people, thats’ why it’s so important to support those people once you get them inhouse.

(You can read the entire Calacanis interview in my previous blog post.)

Being a part of the highly successful tech-recipes blogging cooperative, I am frequently asked if a particular topic is a good foundation around which to build a profitable blog.  I believe the popular ”find a niche and fill it” may be too simple of an answer.  Although optimistic, this theory is leading many young bloggers down the wrong direction.

A niche can be too small to generate adequate content, enthusiasm, and traffic.  The advertising value of a topic can be so small that monetization of the blog is not possible.

Diving, the state of Ohio, and personal video recording–these niches were filled.  They were filled by high quality authors producing high quality content.  However, even with the help of a very successful network supporting them, the blogs did not succeed. 

Small still appears small, indeed.

I recently interviewed Jason Calacanis regarding the closing of three small niche blogs by the AOL/Weblogs, Inc blogging network. Previously, I have interviewed some of the popular authors associated with these niche blogs. These have included Tobias Buckell of bloggingohio and Willy Volk and Eric Brodeur of Divester.  Calacanis was also kind enough to provide some startup advice to young bloggers.

The blog network you helped to develop, Weblogs Inc, was built upon small, niche blogs and large monster blogs. How do you feel about AOL culling the herd of these smaller sites?

Actually, it was not *built* off of small blogs at all. Our growth was based mainly on our big hits like Engadget, Autoblog, TVSquad, and Joystiq. The smaller blogs didn’t play much of a role in growing the company.

You have publicly suggested that you might want to buy some of these sites back? How could you make them profitable when AOL seems unable (or unwilling) to do so?

Frankly, I wouldn’t try to make them profitable. I would run them at breakeven for the fun of it.

How do you feel that the weblogs inc sites changed once they were purchased by AOL?

They have not changed at all from what I can tell. AOL understands that the magic of blogging is NOT EDITING THE BLOGGERS, and AOL has taken a hands off approach to managing the blogs.

I always told the bloggers that the day I–or AOL–start telling them what to blog or how to blog they should leave.

What was your compensation model for bloggers under weblogs inc? Do you still think that your method is a fair compensation model for bloggers working under a network umbrella? Do you know how or if AOL changed the way they were compensating their authors?

We started with revenue share and that didn’t work. Then we paid people by the blog post and it worked brilliantly. So, Weblogs, Inc. like Gawker Media is a pay-by-the-blog-post system.

I think paying people for work is the most fair system–yes. :-)

Some folks might want to own their own blogs and lose money for a year or two while they grow it, and that’s fine too. There are many options for bloggers today.

By retiring these blogs instead of selling them, AOL will continue to receive “long tail” income from search engine traffic. So much of a blog author’s success is built around the community and reputation that he or she develops. Is AOL damaging the future blogging careers of these authors now that they have to “start over” with a fresh blog. Is this just a weakness of working for a blogging network?

The bloggers from the retired blogs are all going to work at other AOL blogs, so there is no starting over for them. In fact, they are going from small blogs to bigger blogs so it’s better for them in terms of reaching a bigger audience.

End of the day this doesn’t really harm anyone. The bloggers have other blogs they are working on, the audience can go with the bloggers to their new home, and if there is a big enough audience they can go start their own blogs.

AOL and Weblogs, Inc. need to focus on the big winners and that’s fine.

As someone who has sold blogs before, do you have feelings about this sell? Previously, much was made of trying to calculate a blog’s worth based on the weblogs inc purchase by AOL. As a whole do you think blogs are worth more today than when you sold weblogs inc? What are some rough guides you would give a young blogger thinking about buying or purchasing a blog?

When AOL bought Weblogs, Inc. they didn’t buy the blogs. They bought the management team and the system for running blogs. The systems, software, and best practices Weblogs, Inc. created are used today at AOL’s other blogs like TMZ. The brands were icing on the cake for AOL to a certain extent. When you buy a small company like Weblogs, Inc.

you’re basically buying the people, thats’ why it’s so important to support those people once you get them inhouse.

If you are a young blogger there is no reason to buy a blog. Just find a niche that isn’t taken and spend 2-3 years blogging and you’ll be fine. If you want to make it in the blog business you have to be willing to lose money for 2-3 years while you build your audience.

This series continues with my post exploring the myth of niche blogging.

When AOL/Weblogs Inc recently closed the doors on three small niche blogs, I wanted to meet the people behind the scenes.  I have previously posted my discussion with bloggingohio blogger and novelist Tobias Buckell.  Now, two of the main bloggers behind the now retired blog Divester share their stories.

I originally asked them slightly different questions, but I now feel that combining their answers makes for a more interesting read.  Both bloggers are staying within the Weblogs, Inc network and talk positively about their experiences thus far.

WV – Willy Volk
EB – Eric Brodeur

What was your blogging experience prior to working with Divester?  What’s your offline job?

WV: I don’t have any journalism experience, though I have a Bachelor’s degree in English and a Master’s degree in Public Finance. When I’m not blogging, I work for a unit of local government.

EB: Except for a personal blog, I’d have to say none. Writing, however, is not something new for me. The bulk of my professional career has been in IT and I’m one of those few who believe strongly in creating documentation for techies and non-techies alike.

How did you become involved with Divester?

WV: I was an active reader of and commenter on Gadling, Divester’s sister blog. In early 2005, I noticed an open call for a writer for Gadling, and I applied. A few days later, I was contacted about writing for Divester.

EB: I’ve been diving since 2001 and long before that a fan of everything ocean-related. I had trouble finding a consolidated scuba diving resource like Divester so when I found it in 2005 I became a daily visitor and commenter. After sending in a bunch of news tips that were published, I thought “I can do this.” After a few back-and-forth e-mails to the production team I was in.

What was the goal of Divester and what did it do well?

WV: While the dive community has many places to learn about various, discrete components of the sport, Divester served as an excellent one-stop-shop for recreational news, general underwater photo news, marine news, and dive-themed travel news. Moreover, Divester was especially good at catching the news quickly and presenting it. I think Divester was also good at doing follow-ups on many of the stories it covered.

EB: I’ve never seen a mission statement but, for me, the goal of Divester was to produce scuba-related news both interesting and informative. A core strength was Divester’s independence – it didn’t need to tailor content to dive agency agendas or advertisers like printed publications often do.

We had a great team who contributed based on their areas of personal interest. No topic was left untouched: gear reviews, interviews with dive personalities, ocean-awareness, underwater photography, book & movie reviews, contests, and dive trips. As a reader you could go to one place for all of your scuba news and I fear nothing will replace it.

Who did you answer to in the AOL organization? Did your contacts in the AOL organization share your passions for diving or blogging?

WV: The people above me all worked for Weblogs, Inc. I have no contacts at AOL. From Day One, I was supported exceedingly well by Weblogs’ staff.

EB: AOL owns WIN [Weblogs Inc] but was hands-off from an editorial perspective. As long as the content fit the blog I could write what I wanted. There was even freedom in the tone of our posts provided we maintained a level of professionalism.

Our blog team and readership were very passionate about diving. The
AOL/WIN team as a whole are passionate about blogging and making their blogs the best they can be. It’s an inspiring environment to work in.

When did you find out that AOL would be cutting some of the smaller blogs? Were you told of targets that you guys were expected to hit? For example, a million pageviews a month is the rumored basement level for AOL blogs now.

WV: I learned of Divester’s closing the day before the rest of the world learned of it. We were never told about targets; we were just encouraged to produce quality content.

EB:  I learned about the closure in mid-January from an internal e-mail.
There were upset bloggers from other retiring blogs because the story
had (somehow) been leaked to the public. I wasn’t bothered by
that…it’s a sign of the times…but I was disappointed that Divester
was getting the boot.

Targets? No. It would have been helpful to interact with the business
team since scuba diving is a niche sport with a much different customer demographic than, say, Engadget.

Do you consider yourself a professional blogger?  Were you ever close to leaving your offline job for blogging fulltime?  Would you consider that now?

WV: I am by no means a professional blogger. Divester was an excellent second job — very flexible and convenient. I’ll consider leaving my “real” job when a blog network or some other freelance writing opportunity offers health insurance.

EB:  Not if you define it as someone who blogs eight hours a day, seven days a week. I can’t sit in front of a computer for that long which is why my primary income comes from IT consulting where I get out and visit clients.

What have you learned from the Divester experience?

WV: I learned that there are a lot of places I want to go diving.

EB:  First and foremost that I can write about something non-technical. Second, that I can hit on subjects people care about.

(To EB) Isn’t their something odd about being an Apple-owning XBOX user?

EB: Yeah. I’ve discovered the perfect way to get work done and have fun without the hassle of Windows. It’s bliss.

What are your future blogging goals and projects?

WV: Ironically, I’ve moved to Gadling, the blog I originally applied to. 

EB:  Right now I’m exploring other blogs at WIN and educating myself about the business side of blogging.

I’m putting together Switchtopia, a blog dedicated to Mac switchers;
it’s an experiment to see how I can transform what should really be a
book into the bite-sized equivalent of a blog. I’m shooting for a March
launch and if anyone wants to volunteer content I’d be happy to slide it into the production schedule.

In another few days I’m releasing a piece of software called Layout Planner for the building and home improvement industry; there’s nothing else like it on the market to create unique paving stone designs with a super-easy installation diagram. We’re looking for beta testers.

This series continues with the thoughts of Jason Calacanis regarding this situation.

As both a blogger and as a novelist, Tobias Buckell has unique insight into the skills of a modern author.  He recently came to my attention as one of the bloggers displaced in AOL’s retirement of bloggingohio.com.  His experience yields excellent lessons for young writers looking into traditional and online writing opportunities.

How did you start blogging for bloggingohio?

Almost exactly a year ago I was let go from dayjob as an underpaid tech support guy at my local university. I made the decision to become a freelance writer and professional blogger. I decided that since I had 8 years of blogging under my belt that it would be something that, although crazy, would fit with my skills and interests. I applied at Weblogs Inc. for another position that they had advertised for, and they saw that I lived in Ohio and asked if I’d be interested in an experiment in local blogging. I was happy to, and started in April.

What was your goal for bloggingohio and what did it do well?

What was cool about BloggingOhio was working with some awesome bloggers. At first I started working with Clevelanders Hannah Blumenfeld and Katherine Galo who were hired on along with me. In June or July I got promoted to lead blogger, so I scared up some cool talent to come work there, like Jeffrey Smith in Toledo of Just A Comment, author Chris Barzak from Youngstown, Tom Barlow in Columbus, and a travel writer, Jamie Rhein, also hailed from Columbus. That was a pretty cool team.

How is writing for a blog different than creating the depth of a novel? If you were forced to choose one, which would you rather do and why?

It’s an interesting difference. With blogging I can sit here, spend fifteen to twenty minutes and have a post. It publishes near-instantly, and within the day I will have comments back on it.

Within a month or so I get paid for it. There’s a constant feedback cycle that’s completely addictive. With the novel you spend a year writing, revising, and then more months before it gets published, the money is spread out far and between, and there are a lot more people involved in ever step.

That being said, I would lean towards novels. I really dig fiction. Though if I could make the money I made blogging writing fiction online in a bloggy format, hell, sign me up!

For the fledgling writer, do you think traditional journalism, blogging, or authoring novels would have the better chance of making a healthy, honest living?

I think that would depend on what your writerly inclinations are.
I think there is still more money in journalism, then blogging, and writing fiction last. I’ve been slowly adding articles and non-fiction work to my income stream, and the pay is much better for the work involved. But the blogging is fun and very creative and lets me geek out on stuff I like geeking out on, and it is more steady, so I don’t see stopping it unless I’m asked to leave! I think a mix of all three is a very smart bet. Get into old media, new media, and whatever else you love. Multiple and diverse income streams are a freelancer’s best friend.

What have you taken away from the bloggingohio experience?

There is a really cool crew of Ohio bloggers out there. You’d be surprised how active this state is. Toledo and north-east Ohio (Cleveland etc) have bloggers involved in meeting local politicians, meeting up, covering local events, and just showing the way for citizen journalism in the near future. Seriously, check out http://toledobloggers.com/ and http://www.meetthebloggers.net/.

With what projects are you currently involved?

I’m doing work over at www.BloggingStocks.com which is an awesome blog. I also blog about space access at www.Futurismic.com, and of course, I blog www.tobiasbuckell.com just as I always have for year and years. My second novel will be out this summer, and since I just signed a 3 book contract I’m working on a new book right now. There’s always something going on.

My exploration into niche blogging continues by exploring the bloggers behind the now retired Divester blog.