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Blogs to Riches

The Haves and Have-Nots of the Blogging Boom.

Two years ago, David Hauslaib was a junior at Syracuse University who was, as he confesses, “totally obsessed with who Paris Hilton was sleeping with.” So he did what any college student would do these days: He blogged about it. Hauslaib began scouring the Web for paparazzi photos of Hilton and news items about her, then posting them on his Website, (Sample headline: PARIS HILTON SPREADS IT IN THE HAMPTONS.) “My friends got a chuckle out of it, but it didn’t get really big or anything—maybe a few hundred visitors a day,” he says.

Then one day Hauslaib took a good look at Gawker, a gossip site owned by the high-tech publisher Nick Denton. Gawker’s founding writer, Elizabeth Spiers, had pioneered a distinctive online literary style and earned a large following in the Manhattan media world. What really got Hauslaib’s attention, though, was Gawker’s advertising-rate sheet. According to Denton, the site received about 200,000 “page views” a day from readers. The site ran roughly two big ads on each page, and Gawker said that it charged advertisers $6 to $10 for every 1,000 page views—almost the same as a midsize newspaper. There was also a smattering of smaller, one-line text ads bringing in a few hundred bucks daily. Doing a quick bit of math, he figured that the income from Gawker’s ads could top $4,000 a day. The upshot? Nick Denton’s revenues from Gawker were probably at least $1 million a year and might well be cracking $2 million.

Not bad, considering the blog had no serious expenses other than its writers—first Spiers and now Jessica Coen and Jesse Oxfeld, all working for journalist wages—and Webhosting fees of maybe a few thousand bucks a year. “The rest of it,” Hauslaib points out, “just goes into Nick’s pockets.”

“And I was like, I can do that,” he says, laughing.

So in June 2005, Hauslaib packed his bags and moved to a sparsely furnished sixth-floor walk-up in the East Village, where he parked his massive Dell laptop on his kitchenette counter, installed a flat-screen LCD TV to catch breaking celebrity news, and began working on Jossip in earnest. He’d start each day at dawn, trolling the Web for dirt about celebrities and media stars. (“You gotta have something posted before people get to work,” he explains, “because my audience is people who hate their jobs.”) By the end of the year, Hauslaib’s site was steaming along nicely. He had almost everything Gawker had: He stalked the same celebrities, posted with the same speed and frequency, and wrote prose in the Spiers vernacular.

The only thing he didn’t have was Gawker’s audience. About 30,000 visitors a day, Jossip’s traffic is a mere 15 percent of Gawker’s. Hauslaib was generating a “comfortable five-figure income,” but certainly not millions. He’d hit a glass ceiling, in a medium where there weren’t supposed to be any limits.

By all appearances, the blog boom is the most democratized revolution in media ever. Starting a blog is ridiculously cheap; indeed, blogging software and hosting can be had for free online. There are also easy-to-use ad services that, for a small fee, will place advertisements from major corporations on blogs, then mail the blogger his profits. Blogging, therefore, should be the purest meritocracy there is. It doesn’t matter if you’re a nobody from the sticks or a well-connected Harvard grad. If you launch a witty blog in a sexy niche, if you’re good at scrounging for news nuggets, and if you’re dedicated enough to post around the clock—well, there’s nothing separating you from the big successful bloggers, right? I can do that.

In theory, sure. But if you talk to many of today’s bloggers, they’ll complain that the game seems fixed. They’ve targeted one of the more lucrative niches—gossip or politics or gadgets (or sex, of course)—yet they cannot reach anywhere close to the size of the existing big blogs. It’s as if there were an A-list of a few extremely lucky, well-trafficked blogs—then hordes of people stuck on the B-list or C-list, also-rans who can’t figure out why their audiences stay so comparatively puny no matter how hard they work. “It just seems like it’s a big in-party,” one blogger complained to me. (Indeed, a couple of pranksters last spring started a joke site called Blogebrity and posted actual lists of the blogs they figured were A-, B-, and C-level famous.)

That’s a lot of inequality for a supposedly democratic medium. Not long ago, Clay Shirky, an instructor at New York University, became interested in this phenomenon—and argued that there is a scientific explanation. Shirky specializes in the social dynamics of the Internet, including “network theory”: a mathematical model of how information travels inside groups of loosely connected people, such as users of the Web.