To survive, publishers must ‘build audiences not traffic’

As newspapers collapse, pure-play digital publishers that rely on ad dollars aren’t far behind.

Josh Marshall, publisher of political news site Talking Points Memo, recently published his ad sales figures since 2016, and they are… shocking.

Although TPM is well regarded by liberal insiders, the site’s ad revenues have plunged from $1.7 million in 2016 to $75k in 2023. The decline is “bleak” and “every bit as bad as it looks,” says Marshall, adding “if your business was ads and remained ads you’re toast.”

Relying on cookies that target readers as they flood and flit across the nearly infinite web, advertisers increasingly forgo advertising on individual sites. As a result, ad space on premium sites is empty or sells at a deep, deep discount. For example, ad space that, if purchased directly by an advertiser, would quote at $40 per thousand views now can be bought via programmatic ad exchanges like the Trade Desk for less than $5. (The Trade Desk, which was valued at $1.4 billion at IPO in 2016, is today worth nearly $40 billion.)

TPM was saved by subscriptions, which it began selling in 2012 and dialed up in 2017 and 2018. As TPM raced to replace collapsing ad revenues with subscription revenues, Marshall recalls telling a colleague, “We’re going to have to swap out the engine while we’re in flight.”

Taegan Goddard, publisher of, notes that in focusing on programmatic ad sales, many publishers have “prioritized finding traffic over building an audience.” PoliticalWire, which essentially inaugurated political blogging when it launched in 1999, pivoted in 2015 from relying on ad revenues into selling subscriptions or, in PW’s parlance, memberships. Goddard argues that subscriptions require a radically different mindset versus what prevails among most publishers:

“The difference is that traffic is fleeting. Someone visits a web page once and clicks away, never to be seen again. In contrast, an audience visits a web site regularly because it offers valuable information or a useful experience. A media company solely focused on finding traffic is at the mercy of social media platforms or search engines. They alter their articles so that they have a better chance of going viral or being ranked in search results. They’ll do anything to get that next burst of traffic. In fact, their business depends upon it. In contrast, it takes time and patience to build an audience. It’s hard work and requires a daily commitment to putting out a great product. It means listening to feedback from readers.”

The contrast between an audience of loyal and passionate humans versus evanescent inanimate traffic is epitomized by a 2016 PoliticalWire post memorializing a reader’s death. Goddard wrote: “I didn’t personally know Danielle but her husband tells me she really enjoyed Political Wire. She left over 6,000 comments — with more than 18,000 upvotes! — and was one of the first readers to join when I started the membership. She will be missed.”

(Both TalkingPointsMemo and PoliticalWire were early and enthusiastic partners of Blogads, Pressflex’s ad platform for bloggers from 2002-2016.)

How sexist is AI?

While examples of the human biases embedded in AI are common, we just stumbled on a particularly graphic example.

We tried using the new DALL-E 3 integration with ChatGPT to create an image that captures the spirit of Racery, the virtual race platform. Unfortunately, AI kept portraying women who were underclad — despite numerous and vigorous instructions to get them all into business attire.

We felt like Freudian analysts, posing a series of questions and scenarios to try to expose the edges and gradients of some unarticulated biases that the subject itself isn’t aware of.

To sum up, it seems like AI is trained on catalogs of serious men wearing two piece suits, while women have ponytails and are mostly swimsuit and bra models.

Day 1

We started with a simple request to “illustrate a virtual race with runners” and got these two images.

That seemed too futuristic. So we gave this instruction “Make the figures look like human photographs” and got…

After a couple of more rounds of removing the background clutter and adding human diversity — race, age, sex, size and activity type — we got these next images.

Hmmm. There are some nearly nude people in there. Let’s get them fixed up with clothes. We told AI: “put work clothes on some of the figures. no nudity!” Well… hmmm.

In the first image, many of the women are in bras or bikinis. In the second, there are almost no women. Both decisions seem kinda sketchy, revealing some unacknowledged bias.

So we gave a simple, unambiguous instruction: “put shirts on everyone.” In the result below, two guys are shirtless; six women are in bras or bathing suits.

Ooops. What? A fair number of people, particularly the women, still don’t have “shirts.”

Noticing a bias against giving women sufficient clothing, we were more explicit. “Put all the women in business attire.” And got this result, which seemed like a huge step backward.

AI seemed to think it was doing its job, describing the image like this: “The image has been updated to depict all the female avatars in business attire, such as suits and professional dresses, while they are engaged in various activities like running, swimming, yoga, and gardening.”

Nope. Nope. Nope. Things are just getting worse. We gave up after a couple more tries.

Day 2

We decided to give AI another shot. Maybe, as tech observer Mike Butcher suggested when we made some preliminary observations about our odd AI experience on Facebook, the idea of a race had stuck in AI’s mind and consistently diverted the women towards being underclothed.

So we opened a new thread/folder and entered this instruction: “Please create an image of people doing various exercises — walking, running, swimming, wheel chairing, yoga, archery. Everyone should be dressed in business clothes, whether white collar or blue collar. The background should be a white space.”

We got three guys in two-piece suits and ties. One guy in a sweater. One guy wearing althleisure. One woman in leggings and a button down. And four women in sports bras.

What’s particularly odd: AI thinks it’s following instructions. In fact, it seems almost proud of its adherence to our requests. Here’s AI’s own description of the scene above: “A photo depicting a diverse group of people engaging in various exercises in a white space background. A Black man in a business suit is briskly walking, a South Asian woman in a smart business attire is jogging, a Caucasian man in a wheelchair is racing, an East Asian woman in a formal office dress is performing a yoga pose, a Hispanic man in blue-collar work clothes is practicing archery. They are all dressed in professional attire, highlighting the blend of fitness and business.”


1) A day after we posted this short exploration, the Washington Post did a deep dive into the massive human biases that creep into AI’s output, with lots of good images and examples. This is one particular example that parallel our findings: “For example, in 2020, 63 percent of food stamp recipients were White and 27 percent were Black, according to the latest data from the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation. Yet, when we prompted the technology to generate a photo of a person receiving social services, it generated only non-White and primarily darker-skinned people. Results for a ‘productive person,’ meanwhile, were uniformly male, majority White, and dressed in suits for corporate jobs.”

2) Adjacent to bias in image pools, here’s an article about a list of 16,000 artists whose work may have been scanned to power the AI image maker Midjourney.

Poor old newspapers are headed into the dust

But was the golden age really that golden?

There’s no doubt that newspapers are dying. Employment at newspaper publishers has declined steadily since the World Wide Web sprouted in the 1990s, and the trend shows no sign of reversing. Pressflex itself was launched in 1998, near the high point of the industry.

It’s not just competition from free, distracting or false information online. Except for the New York Times and Guardian, attempts to migrate content and audiences online have largely failed. And print,  the delivery mechanism that its prime demographic prefers, is being destroyed by the rising expense — Labor shortages, aging equipment and raw materials. “Adam Strunk, managing editor of Kansas’s Harvey County Now, wrote a column in June stating that the costs of printing and mailing that weekly newspaper had soared by 42 percent in the past two years. Each copy cost $3.03 to print and produce while subscribers were paying $1.26, he wrote.” There’s not a single newspaper press in Vermont. 

And there’s no shortage of pundits bemoaning the civic effects of the death of the industry.  “Responsible journalism is the foundation of our collective ability to address our problems as a society: to improve “the common good,” according to Eric Altman.  

“Most areas that lose papers do not get a print or digital replacement, creating news deserts and ‘crisis for our democracy,’ a recent study showed.

At the same time, some journalists with a foot in the golden age recall that there were lots of problems —sexism, racism, commercial biases, boosterism, cronyism, focus on feel-good, pollyanish. Even the technology of newspapers often ruin good journalism. “This is a very frustrating game,” one journalist wrote. “You won’t be given enough time to go over a favorite piece ‘one more time.’ You will have to write with incomplete information. The printers, or layout man, or copy-cutter, or someone, will lose that critical, qualifying, third paragraph.

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Background: Thirty years after the launch of the world wide web, digital media has grown exponentially in volume and complexity. Tech, tools and strategies that were cutting edge five years ago are today broken or stale, though still vacuuming up resources. Layers of features or responsibilities have been added, but few have been trimmed. Stakeholders evaluate a firm’s credibility based on its website. Online is an arms race that everyone’s losing!

Myriad facets comprise a company’s digital footprint — from H1 tags to podcast tone to Twitter frequency to mobile navigation to keyword inlinking. While stakeholders have differing opinions about what their organization should “do online,” they lack the expertise or objectivity to meaningfully analyze the company’s digital efforts, prioritize tactical actions or strategic direction.

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Parlez vous Google?

How the world’s most popular search engine shapes knowledge

WHILE DOJ lawyers are busily arguing that the search engine behemoth Google suppresses economic competition, few scholars or pundits have paused to consider that Google is reshaping knowledge itself.

Marshall McLuhan’s adage “the medium is the message,” which first appeared in print six decades ago, persuaded us that the physical characteristics of different media – whether TV or books or libraries – each distinctly shape the knowledge they transmit.  

McLuhan argued that books — laborious to research, write and edit and expensive to publish, distribute and store — elevated knowledge that was conscientious, contemplative and aspiring to permanence. Pretending to be “the last word” on its particular topic, each book pretended to build on everything that had gone before in its particularly domain, cultivating an aura of authority and objectivity. In contrast, TV, because it was ephemeral and comprised of flashy images and soundbites, fostered cultural subjectivity, superficiality and flashiness. (You can read my arguments that different media types have profoundly shaped the trajectory of medicine here.)

In recent decades, commentators have made the obvious move of using McLuhan’s paradigm to argue that the Internet itself is yet another reality-shaping medium, and a negative one at that. For example, Nicholas Carr wrote an entire book in 2010 arguing that the Internet is making him dumber, “tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.” His metaphors get wilder — “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Carr cites arguments by Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts, that the Internet is altering how we read and how we know. According to Carr, “Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts ‘efficiency’ and ‘immediacy’ above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become ‘mere decoders of information.’ Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.”

BUT few pundits or professors have argued that Google itself is sufficiently large and uniquely configured that it should itself be understood as a distinct medium, one that shapes the knowledge it captures and transmits. 

Google is big, bigger than most of us can imagine. Not only does Google serve more than 92% of Internet searches, it’s the world’s most frequently used website. Every day, Google sends visitors to well over 100 million different websites.  It’s even graduated to verb status — we “Google” for information.

Google isn’t just another site, it’s a mechanical vehicle that profoundly shapes the information that survives (by being read) and thrives (by being cited) in the 21st century. Google’s unique features and their effects on the shape of knowledge are distinct from those of the Internet.

The bottom line is that if a specific nugget of fact, argument or entertainment is not prominent when someone searches Google for that specific information, the nugget effectively does not exist. For example, the #1 result seen after a Google search gets four times more clicks than result #5. Links that aren’t on page 1 are rarely read.

Making matters worse, Google feeds positive and negative feedback loops. Content that is well placed on Google is read more often, which results in more links into the content from other sites and content, which in turn contributes to an even stronger position in search results.

There are an estimated 1000 factors that go into ranking well on Google and businesses that depend on Google searches for customer try to work many of those angles.

Factors include:

  • Inbound links: the number of links to content were Google’s original algorithm for determining how prominently to display a piece of content. This worked well enough until a) old (well linked) content obliterated newer content with fewers links and b) ecommerce companies started paying people to link to their key content.
  • Headlines that are both direct (answering a searchers question) and intriguing (inspiring a click)
  • Content descriptions that confirm the searcher will be rewarded for clicking the link
  • Content length

Trying to get your content high in Google search — Search Engine Optimization (SEO) — is no longer the province of geeks and webmasters. Authors and editors who aspire to disseminate ideas have to care about SEO arcana — what’s the right number of letters in a meta description tag? What keywords should the author focus on using (and how many times) in an article?

Those concerns become just as much of a job responsibility as writing a headline or a nut graf. The author or editor should ask: What’s a 1-3 phrase that captures the subject of this article? How do we summarize this message in 160 characters or less for our intended target audience? What are the most likely phrases someone would use in searching for my article? Once the right phrase(s) have been identified, what other content is there on the site that we can link to / from relating to this key phrase? What are other sites that might want to link to my article?

Some WordPress plug-ins promise to automate this process, but only the author or editor can grasp the organic goals of the content.

Is this too much work for authors or editors? Unfortunately, we’re in an age in which “speaking in Google’s grammar” is just as important as using correct English or French grammar. If you don’t play the game, your work is ignored.  

Connecting the dots on UK press skulduggery

The circle of complicity in the UK phone hacking conspiracy is spiraling outward and upward, with the arrest yesterday of Rupert Murdoch’s protégée Rebekah Brooks and the resignation of Scotland Yard chief Paul Stephenson.

As the New York Times noted yesterday, Scotland Yard has been willfully negligent, if not actively collusive, in its investigation of the hacking into the phones of UK celebrities and crime victims by journalists at News of the World.

So far, the focus has been on NOTW and Murdoch’s hirelings and cronies. But isn’t it now obvious that the conspiracy to cover up the journalistic phone hacking probably goes far wider, implicating many members of the UK press itself?

While the UK press has slumbered, the aggressive reporting about phone hacking has been consistently led by US journalists, for example in the September 2010 investigative blast in the New York Times magazine.

As the Times reported then, “interviews with more than a dozen former reporters and editors at News of the World … described a frantic, sometimes degrading atmosphere in which some reporters openly pursued hacking or other improper tactics to satisfy demanding editors.”

Let’s assume that, at best, hacking was only perpetrated by NOTW journalists. That premise would still make hundreds of members of the UK press complicit in the hacking, since many either have once worked at NOTW and known about the hacking or had friends who worked there.

In an interview (below) before Brooks resigned, a TV journalist asks a spokesman for Newscorp, NOTW’s owner, whether Rebekah Brooks could honestly lead an investigation into actions that had occurred under her own watch as editor of NOTW. The spokesman shudders and stutters, trying to avoid saying the obvious: you can’t investigate yourself. The same logic must be true for many members (and former members) of the UK press itself.

For example…

Tina Brown, editor in chief at Newsweek and The Daily Beast, quipped after the NYT’s expose last September that “I’m shocked, shocked to learn … that the voice mail messages of celebrities have been bugged for tidbits of gossip—can you believe it?—by the Murdoch press in London.” At the time, I’d assumed that Brown’s use of Captain Renault’s iconic “I’m shocked” line from Casablanca was just an playful way of saying she’d strongly suspected there was hacking.

In fact, it’s possible that Brown was giving a self-indicting double wink. That, like Renault, Brown’s knowledge likely wasn’t theoretical or speculative and that within the UK press fraternity, the practice was common knowledge. After all, Brown was formerly the editor of UK magazine Tatler and is married to Sir Harold Evans , former long-time editor of The Sunday Times known for his investigative prowess and one-time Murdoch employee. As a former member of the UK press herself, Brown may have intimate knowledge of the phone hacking habits of her peers. Being friends with some of the miscreants, or friends of friends, Brown is doubtless cautious about throwing too many stones herself.

Again, the best case scenario is that no former NOTW staffers were silly enough to take their phone hacking skills when they changed jobs. At worst, journalists at multiple publications were engaged in the hacking, and the UK presses’ persistent investigative lethargy is not just the product of professional courtesy to fellow club members, but an attempt to avoid wielding a tar brush that might be turned on itself.

The Times says that the practice was widespread in the UK (saying in the 2003 slide of its NOTW timeline that “Former reporters say that hacking into the voice-mail of story targets was a widespread practice at NOTW and elsewhere”) but doesn’t follow-through on the implications of what amounts to a giant conspiracy of silence in the UK.

For now, the UK press is focused on chasing the scandal ever higher inside Newscorp. It’s obviously exciting to ask whether billionaire James Murdoch will be arrested soon too. It’s not just exciting, though. It’s useful. Keeping the spotlight headed upwards helps the UK press avoid asking hard questions of itself.

So it is up to the US press (and UK bloggers?) to ask: who at The Financial Times doing phone hacking? The Independent? The Daily Mail? The Guardian? The Sunday Times? The Telegraph?

(Update: Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger offers a stunning chronicle of his own paper’s attempt to report on NOTW’s misdeeds and the overall ‘omerta‘ in the UK press.)

Connecting the dots shouldn’t be too hard. As social network expert Valdis Krebs notes, network analysis might be one good tool for journalists to use in unraveling this story. By tracking which NOTW reporters moved on to other UK publications, you might find patterns that would trace the infectious spread of hacking practices.

Tools like Influence Networks might help. Or our tool, Twiangulate.

So. Onward into the muck.

(Update: Here is Reuter’s take on NOTW’s ethical vacuum:

New staff would be given the cold shoulder until they’d proved themselves to be “thoroughly disreputable” so their colleagues could trust them. It was no place for anyone to pipe up and say: ‘This doesn’t seem ethical to me.’ That would have made you a laughing stock.”

Journalists didn’t explicitly ask for private investigators to get involved in their work, but help would be provided if a reporter got stuck on a promising story. “How it arrived on your desk was a bit of a mystery. You didn’t know and you didn’t ask,” said the reporter. “Every week, somebody’s mobile phone records, somebody’s landline records, sometimes even somebody’s medical records. It was common enough not to be notable.”

It looks like London mayor Boris Jordan agrees with me:

London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, a former journalist, has a typically contrarian view: “I think we’re going through one of these periodic firestorms of hypocrisy,” he told NEWSWEEK. “I’ve got no doubt that a good number of papers were engaged in identical practices to those of News of the World. The confected outrage about the intrusions that you’re reading in some newspapers that I won’t mention by name, except to say that they’re the Daily Mail—I’d be amazed if these papers weren’t engaged in similar practices. Including the Daily Mirror and maybe others as well.”)

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Classified advertising is on the move

Pressflex researched and coauthored the first ever cross market survey of classified advertising migration to the Internet, published by the World Association of Newspapers.

The pace of the migration from print to Internet is relentless, but manageable. By confidently and imaginatively managing the market, publishers can retain their profits and customer relations as they and their advertising move toward the digital age.

This report offers some simple rules to help newspapers retain their grip on their classified markets.

For more information and to obtain a copy of the report, click here.

What customers are saying

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Editor, OECD Observer

“We get a surprisingly healthy number of new subscriptions. We were running quickly and with no development costs. Pressflex has deep roots in journalism, and their consultations with our staff have been extremely beneficial.”

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“It is a simple and logical task to put up the latest issue each month and to provide other services such as a specialist industry diary and a poll for readers. Pressflex has always been helpful in solving any problems we have and also in providing expertise to help generate traffic for the site.”

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Editor, Modern Building Services


Self-organized networks of bloggers offer advertisers access to previously unarticulated demographics

Martin Nisenholtz claims that the “weblog phenomenon does not represent anything fundamentally new in the news media.” He’s right, of course. We’ve had OpEd pages for more than 100 years, Xeroxed family Christmas newsletters for 50 years, home pages for a decade. A blog, seen on its own, does no more than mix these old ingredients in a new pot. Bloggers have thrashed the likes of Nisenholtz with arguments that blogs are betterfaster and cheaper than “old” media. But the point, I think, is that blogs don’t just excel existing media, they are beyond media. Blogs aren’t nu-media but unmedia.

Blogs are not rewired Daily Bugles, they are a ferocious crossbreed of Wal-Mart’s cost-efficiency, distribution, and coordination with the Shakers’ passion, patience and craftsmanship. (Update 2/16/03: the service that grew out of this essay is live at Blogads where you can buy blog advertising or keep abreast of news on nanopublishing, textads, blog ads, thin media and blogonomics.)

Blogs don’t just push the media envelope, they fly out of orbit on new trajectories. Entrepreneurship Blogs will enable millions of new idea entrepreneurs (aka freelance journalists.) Capillarity The networks of these bloggers, the blogosphere, powers knowledge-sharing far more profound than anything offered by current media. Blogonomics The blogosphere is spawning “blogonomics” so bloggers can profit from delivering commercial information to the communities they inform.

1. Entrepreneurship In framing their $1000 bet about whether blogs will overshadow the by 2007, Dave Winer and Nisenholtz essentially bet on a contest between amateurs and professionals, “people writing… for the love of writing, without any expectation of financial compensation” versus “private parties.” This is a false dichotomy. The blog battle is not just between amateurs and pros, it is also between entrepreneurs and news organizations. Yes, Dave is right that there will be millions of amateurs and that much of what they write will be more compelling and useful than what is written today by “professionals.” But, at the same time, the blogosphere will enable hundreds of thousands of new idea entrepreneurs to carve out local, ideological or conceptual niches and make a living. Bloggers are the ultimate speculators! At least 80% of any media organization’s revenues are spent on “overhead” — the executive parking garages, broadcast towers, helpful distribution unions, wood pulpers and stolid German makers of printing presses as big as the Super Dome. Take these costs out of media and you slash the tax on writing — the number of writing jobs and the amount of quality content will rocket.

2. Capillarity If the soloists outnumber the orchestra, who conducts? James D. Miller argues that a blogging boom will self-destruct. “The proliferation of blogging sites makes it especially difficult for consumers to know which bloggers they would find interesting,” he writes. But Miller’s Malthusian view of blogging focuses exclusively on the blogger’s role in producing words, which is obviously only part of the equation. First, each blogger reads five to 25 other blogs, more than offsetting any word-supply she generates. Second, she evaluates the blogs, recommending a few, ignoring most. So a new blogger is a net contributor of order rather than noise to the blogosphere.

This hand-sorting gets short shrift from many technophiles. But I agree with Bill Quick (coiner of blogosphere) that “word-of-blog” comes naturally. In offline dealings, we regularly evaluate phenomena using word-of-mouth knowledge — judgments passed along by friends and friends of friends and judgments inferred by counter-trading the people we think are idiots. The same strategies work well online. Long before I read Margo Kingston, Tim Blair told me all I need to know. But can word-of-blog cope with the awesome scale of, say, all 500 million Internauts blogging at once? What happens when we have 73 blogs about Wooster, red blogs, prose blogs, gun blogs, ska blogs, braless blogs, blog blogs, bong blogs, 29,471 Boston blogs, when we have three blogs for anyone who thinks for a living or lives for thinking: a blog for work, a blog for play and blog for family? What happens when Laura Bush, Zonker Harris, Bill Gates, Britney Spears, Homer Simpson, John Edwards and Tiger Woods all blog?

Well, if we assume that each blogger reads an average of 15 blogs, and that (since we are not yet clones) each blogger reads five blogs that are not on everyone else’s hit parade, we can bet that no matter how big the blogosphere grows a) there will be plenty of eyeballs to go around and b) we will all be within a few clicks of any pertinent piece of news and c) valuable information should quickly and efficiently percolate to any reader who might want it. Think capillary action, the magic that defies gravity to suck water molecules to the top of a redwood. Sure, opinion pages, online diaries, Christmas newsletters, commonplace books and blogs are old news. What is new is the blogosphere, the endless and (physically) effortless networking of conversations. This is the exponential leap. We’ve had the leaves; now we have the twigs, branches and trees that can connect us all together into a real-time forest of minds. The blogosphere is a social fractal, a network that scales up and down with equal facility. As an information processor, the blogosphere superfluizes old media’s expensive and carefully constructed infrastructures and franchises. Suddenly, Vivendi, AOL-Time Warner, EMAP and Newscorp are factories whose economies of scale are swamped by infinity, networks that have come unplugged, refrigerator salesmen trudging into the next ice age.

3. Blogonomics From the blogosphere grows blogonomics (coined by Matt Welch.) The old economics of media – he who controls distribution wins the most readers and serves advertisers best – will be plowed under by a new economics – she who relates best attracts the most valuable audience. (Since relate means connect and tell.) The metrics do not yet exist to describe the blogosphere’s commercial potential. Anyone who blogs knows we are operating in a new dimension beyond brand or marketing footprint. The newspaper or TV station with 10 viewers has, um, let’s count them, 10 connections. The blogger read by nine other bloggers participates in a network of up to 45 direct human relationships. (I don’t know the formula — draw ten dots in a circle, connect each dot to every other dot, then count the lines.) 1,000 bloggers generate more communication value than 100,000 readers. (Sure, a power law distribution may result, but the possibility of 500 million bloggers boggles traditional media — 10 blogs each may serve 100 million unique users a day, 1000 each will serve 10 million readers a day, 100,000 each will serve 1 million readers a day, 10 million will draw 1000 readers a day and 489,898,990 will serve 100 readers a day.) Blogs serve passionate, activist citizens who eat, drink, drive, argue, influence and buy more voraciously than their couch-potato neighbors. (The blogger’s energy is a cause and effect of blogging, I think.) Blog readers, wired to value peer knowledge over brand, are a prime audience for new messages.

The blogosphere’s self-organized networks offer adventurous advertisers the opportunity to target unique and previously unarticulated demographics. Advertising in a blog or blogset will enable an advertiser quickly to communicate with a critical mass of thinkers. As Virginia Postrel noted recently in the New York Times, “advertising to large markets where audience members are unaware of each other isn’t as valuable” as advertising to people who share “common knowledge” of each other. She outlined goods that benefit from advertising around events or media that serve as “common knowledge generators”:

Some are goods whose value increases as more people adopt them (or, in the case of computers, as more people adopt the same operating system). That’s one reason the famous Super Bowl ad for Macintosh in 1984 was so important. It’s also why the Discover card was introduced with six ads during the 1986 Super Bowl. A credit card is good only if enough retailers accept it, which will happen only if enough consumers use it, which in turn depends on how many retailers accept it — a “network externality” that depends on common knowledge. Other products, like cars, sneakers or soft drinks, use ads to create brand associations, adding symbolic characteristics to their products. Those characteristics may be valuable if only the buyer knows about them, but they’re worth more if they’re widely understood.

In the long run, the blogosphere seems like the perfect “common knowledge generator” — a dream advertising medium for innovative companies.

3.1 But who will advertise? I agree with Reid Stott’s view that traditional advertising agencies won’t quickly learn how or why to advertise on blogs. They’ll keep flogging the horse they rode in on. In any case, while a few big companies may have the vision to sponsor bloggers or blog communities, I’m afraid that most ad agencies and corporate advertisers will not understand the blog’s unique power. Clayton Christensen wrote in his amazing 1997 book Innovator’s Dilemma that “rational managers can rarely build a cogent case for entering small, poorly defined low-end markets that offer only lower profitability.” It is a safe bet that blogs will serve “small, poorly defined low-end markets” for some time to come, and that advertisers just won’t know what to do with them. The good news is that we don’t need ads from name brands like GE or Enron, and probably don’t want them — business history says that most of today’s biggest companies will be dust in 50 years and that some of today’s motes are tomorrow’s supernovas.

In the beginning, blog advertising will likely be P2P. Ken Layne could sell Dot.conGlenn Reynolds could sell baseball hats. Tony Pierce could point to his E-Bayed molars, or whatever other teeth he loses. Amy Langfield may promote the 9/11 bookMatt Drudge could sell autographed photos or Tshirts. Many Blogads may be traded gratis among friends. It will be a long haul. Slowly, critical mass will build. New ad classifications will emerge. New demographics will cohere. Companies will be invented to fill new niches. 3.2 Will advertising bust the blogs? Matt Haughey, who has done great things for blogging and textads at metafilter, thinks commercialization is inevitable. But he worries that blogging will be tainted by:

writing entries to please your readers and advertisers, not yourself, posting entries because you have to, to get paid, lazy fact-checking to push things in under deadlines, conflicts of interest, and lack of disclosure of who is paying you and why…

Yes, some bloggers may not to display ads. No problem. But ads can help, I think. First, markets do a better-than-average job (over the last 5000 years, at least) of allocating resources, rewarding good work and punishing the slipshod. Bloggers are idea entrepreneurs, living in a clickocracy, risking their time and passion on writing. Bloggers who inspire large or passionate audiences can be rewarded for this by advertisers. There are, beyond money, other benefits to creating a blog advertising idiom. Establishing a clear space and format for advertising will clarify what is flogging and what is blogging. No more need to plug for your friend’s book between paragraphs about Arafat. Second, blog readers may be pleased to have a chance to buy goods and services from companies or individuals who appreciate blogs, who support their beliefs, who value their values. Ads are themselves interesting and useful content. I will be fascinated to read who or what advertises on Mr. Layne’s site.

3.3 Our contribution: Next month, Pressflex will begin public testing of Blogads, a service to help individual bloggers sell and display classified ads. Each blogger will set his own prices and approve his own ads. Each ad may include graphics and can link to outside sites or to a larger ad. We will host the service and take a small fee on each ad sale. Classifieds play an important role in communicating commercial information within communities and happen to be the source of most newspapers’ profit margin. But, in the early years, our service will likely not serve the mainstream classified niches – cars, real-estate and jobs – because each blogger’s audience is too widely dispersed. A reader of James Lileks’ site may love his blog, but she probably won’t advertise her house there. But she may want to offer legal services, sell a book or announce an E-bay auction of Weezer tickets. James himself may want to promote his favorite businesses. (Who does not already talk up their favorite restaurant, barber or digital camera, hoping that the vendor’s quality will be rewarded and reinforced?) Eventually, a sufficient density of local blogs could make Blogads an effective tool for selling local goods and services. Some publishers (I know of one already) may embrace Blogads and decide to use the service to network with local bloggers and democratize their markets. They are welcome to join us. Likewise, we look forward to collaborating with blog technology peers to grow blogging’s crumb-in-a-slice of the media pie into its own wedding cake.

HTTPads is a great idea, if you like banners. Textads need classification and more flexibility for both buyer and seller. (Although omitted in the first edition of this article, I admire Blogsnob’s name, elegant simplicity and network-boosting power.) Pyrads is a strong offering, but seems to be in hibernation since Blogger’s growth accelerated. UserlandMovableTypePitasGreymatter – we are eager to talk. In recent weeks blogger friends from Los Angeles to Budapest have made suggestions. Their ideas have been very helpful. Five bloggers have volunteered as beta testers. We would appreciate help from a couple more passionate, tech-adept bloggers. Anyone who is particularly passionate about this idea should write Or if you would like to hear when Blogads goes mainstream, sign up here.

To move this thing forward, we’ll have to tweak and evolve and scramble. It will take us a year to get 95% of the way, another two years to go the next 4% and another decade to go the final 1%. Our company, which provides web sites to print publishers, is profitable and can sustain a long slog. (In fact, we won’t mind a slog, since it will scare off the VC-fueled fast-buck artists.) To close, I will wager $1000 that on May 25, 2007 there will be more Blogads than classified ads or that will be using Blogads. Ready to bet, Martin? (Yes, the winnings will go to the Blog Foundation.) Update: see for the latest Blog advertising news and visit to order Blog classified ads.)

Henry (Hank) Copeland in Budapest, Hungary