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Blogs to Riches

Since blogs set their own ad rates, each one offers a different value proposition, Copeland explains. A gossip blog like Perez Hilton has a huge readership—220,000 page views daily—but since the audience is broadly based, the rates are very low, costing $202 to run an ad for one week. Meanwhile, a smaller blog might have only 10,000 visitors daily—but if it’s a lucrative, tightly focused niche, the blogger could charge much higher rates per visitor.

For Pete Rojas, blogging paid off handsomely. Last fall, AOL bought Weblogs, Inc., which includes his blog Engadget, for $25 million. “I didn’t intend to become a millionaire,” says Rojas, “but I wound up there anyway.”

How big and lucrative can an accidentally professional blog grow? The biggest so far is Boing Boing, a pioneering site run by five former Wired editors and writers. By posting wittily, and more voluminously than almost any other blog—up to several times an hour—they built up a devoted audience of 1.7 million readers. (Boing Boing is also the most-linked-to blog in the world, according to Technorati’s rankings.) The site began running ads two and a half years ago, and the expensive ones can currently command more than $8,000 a week, according to John Battelle, whose ad co-op, Federated Media, manages the blog’s finances. Despite those premium rates, the five Boing Boing bloggers still retain their day jobs, blogging only part time. “I always figured my life was fueling my blogging, so I didn’t want to be just a blogger,” says Cory Doctorow, a novelist, copyright activist, and one of the Boing Boing five. “We could make a living at this. I mean, we’ve got the circulation of a good-size magazine—better than a good-size magazine. And our overhead is much smaller.” Or as Shirky puts it, “The Boing Boing thing is, they have more readers than Wired and yet they have a part-time staff of five. That’s the new math.”

The second basic blogging business model is the record-label approach: Crank out dozens and dozens of sites and hope that one or two will become hits. The pioneer here is the new-media entrepreneur Jason Calacanis, who founded Weblogs, Inc., in September 2003 and began rapidly shotgunning new blogs into obscure niches: Tablet PCs, Microsoft Office, “telemedicine,” and the like. It is not, many note, a recipe for quality writing. “What do his bloggers get? Two dollars a post?” jokes Brian Clark, the advertising buyer. Nonetheless, Calacanis scored an enormous hit with Engadget, the second most-linked-to site on Technorati. “AOL basically paid $25 million for Engadget,” more than one envious blogger carped to me.

The third and final model? The boutique approach: a publisher who crafts individual blogs the way Condé Nast crafts magazines—each one carefully aimed at some ineffable, deluxe readership. This is Nick Denton’s modus operandi. Though he set up shop three and a half years ago, making his the oldest blog empire around, he has launched a mere fourteen blogs. They are all, however, in niches that target high-spending, well-educated readers—such as gossip, sex, and politics. The aim is to hit the sweet spot: big readerships, but not hoi polloi. Gawker even claims to turn away advertisers that are too low-rent; the site’s ad manager boasted to Mediaweek that it takes no Ford or Chevy ads because “we hate American cars” and no pharmaceutical ads because “our readers are healthy and beautiful.”

Denton is famous for spending months hunting for writers with the snark and wit that his audience likes. (Obligatory disclosure: Denton sometimes calls to pick my brain, and last year hired somebody I recommended.) He’s also equally famous for being tight with a buck: His bloggers work from home, get no equity, and make salaries that are by all accounts unremarkable, even by the paltry standards of journalism. (Health insurance starts on March 1.) Indeed, before Calacanis sold his company for $25 million, Denton was fond of proclaiming that there is little money to be earned in the blogosphere. “Blogs are likely to be better for readers than for capitalists,” he wrote on his personal site in 2004. “While I love the medium, I’ve always been skeptical about the value of blogs as businesses.”

But as his critics note, this is precisely what you’d say if you wanted to scare other people away from competing with you. “When Nick said you can’t make money at it,” says one of his frenemies, “everyone believed him.” Denton and partners, veterans of the dot-com boom, sold their last company for $50 million, so . . . why would he need any more money? “But that was just his strategy, and it works.” One terrific way to stay alone on the tall side of the power law is to discourage anyone else from trying to climb the curve.

Among bloggers, few things provoke more rancor than the subject of the A-list. Much as in high school, C-listers quickly suspect the deck is stacked against them, and the bitterness flows like cheap wine. No one knows this better than Elizabeth Spiers, the original Gawker girl. She is arguably the most famous professional blogger, since she invented its dominant mode: a titillating post delivered with a snarky kicker, casual profanity, and genuine fan-girl enthusiasm—sonnets made of dirt. Yet no good deed goes unpunished; the player-hater e-mail she received during her tenure at the gossip site was astonishing. “I’d get these e-mails saying, ‘You’re a dirty slut who can’t get laid,’ ” she recalls. “How can I be dirty slut and not get laid?”