The latest issue of the British Journalism Review has a fairly lengthy article by me on whether UK bloggers can make money from their blogging activities. Although it has only just been published, the article was written three months ago. Links to all the blogs mentioned can be found at the end of the article.
In the United States political bloggers have taken on an importance that would be unthinkable here. Several of them have a profile comparable with the leading print media and broadcast commentators. The Drudge Report is the media phenomenon of our age. The Huffington Post and Daily Kos are as familiar to the political establishment as Sam Donaldson and Peggy Noonan. US bloggers are prominent in all US election coverage. Hundreds of political bloggers make real money from their activities and devote their entire working day to their online activity.
But in Britain it’s very different. The development of the UK political blogosphere, while much heralded in almost weekly newspaper features, is way behind that of the United States. Few bloggers have any sort of media profile and even fewer make any money at all out of their online activities.
There are only four independent UK political blogs with what one could describe as a mass readership – and by that I mean an audience of at least 50,000 absolute unique users each month. Guido Fawkes, the anarcho-libertarian blogger who specializes in political gossip and scandal boasts a readership of more than 100,000. ConservativeHome, edited by Tim Montgomerie, recently joined by the Daily Telegraph’s Jonathan Isaby, and my own blog, Iain Dale’s Diary, both boast monthly audiences of more than 70,000 individuals. PoliticalBetting.com attracts more than two million page views each month.
But there are others who are building an audience which any normal website would envy. Liberal Democrat Voice, the LibDem equivalent of ConservativeHome is about to break through the 20,000 monthly user barrier, Conservative technogeek Dizzy Thinks is up to 25,000 and the libertarian swear bog Devil’s Kitchen has an average monthly audience of 25,000. And there are plenty of others snapping at their heels, including LabourHome, John Redwood’s Diary, Liberal Conspiracy and Tim Worstall. When you consider that the New Statesman has a circulation of 25,000 and the Spectator 70,000, all these blogs can be considered influential to one degree or another.
Over the last twelve months, political blogs run by mainstream media (MSM) organizations have taken on a new importance. Virtually every newspaper or magazine has now ordered its team of political journalists to get in on the act. The Telegraph has Three Line Whip, the Times has Red Box and Comment Central, The Guardian has Comment is Free and even the Independent has finally caught up with its Open House blog. The Daily Mail’s Ben Brogan is considered to be the best individual political journalist cum blogger, while the Spectator Coffee House has become one of the most widely read political blogs in the country. But they have all struggled to find as big an audience as the leading independent bloggers. Despite the marketing power of the Telegraph, its political blogs struggle get half the audience of Guido Fawkes. Ben Brogan’s blog and Sky News’s Boulton & Co, although widely read in the Westminster village, attract barely a fifth of the audience of Conservative Home or Iain Dale’s Diary.
The thing most of the independent blogs have in common is that they are owned, written and edited by individuals, the majority of whom blog as a sideline. In contrast to the situation in the United States, there isn’t a single UK based political blogger who earns a living directly from their blog. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Few bloggers ever commence blogging thinking that they might earn money from the activity – or even wanting to. I certainly didn’t. I saw blogging as a platform for me to give my views on politics. It was attractive because I could do it when I wanted and write what I wanted with no media filter. I never thought of building a huge audience. It just kind of happened. Blogging wasn’t a substitute for anything.
Many in the MSM believe bloggers to be wannabe journalists, or even failed journalists. That may be true for a very small minority, but the rest of us regard it as an insult. If I wanted to be a journalist, I would be. I didn’t set out on my blogging journey to do anything journalistic, I set out to write an online diary providing daily political comment. I never set out to be investigative or break news. The fact that I do so from time to time is more by accident than design. I still regard my blog as a vehicle for personal political commentary. And I think I am typical of many of the many ‘one man band’ bloggers.
ConservativeHome’s Tim Montgomerie is an exception, as his blog is funded by polling entrepreneur Stephan Shakespeare but Guido Fawkes, Devil’s Kitchen, Dizzy Thinks and PoliticalBetting.com are all run by enterprising individuals who have created niches. With the level of audience these blogs have reached one might assume there is a pot of gold of advertising revenue out there somewhere. In the future, that might be the case, but it certainly hasn’t been found yet. Advertisers are wary of partisan political blogs, even if they have the kind of readership demographics most advertisers would die for. For example, ten per cent of my readers earn more than £100,000. Blog readership is predominantly male, aged 25-50 with a high propensity to travel abroad and read broadsheet newspapers.
Message Space, an online advertising agency was set up three years ago to exploit the blog advertising market. While it initially found it difficult to persuade brand advertisers of the merits of advertising on blogs, slowly but surely a breakthrough is coming. It has a network of more than 50 blogs, each of whom are now earning money from the adverts placed by Message Space on their blogs. It ranges from a hundred pounds a year to several thousands. With the acquisition of several blue chip advertising clients, Message Space now confidently predict that I will earn a low five figure sum from them over the next twelve months - but still not enough to give up the day job, even if I wanted to.
My blog traffic levels are attractive to many. Twice now, I have been approached by mainstream media organizations (who shall remain nameless!) who wanted me to blog on their platforms. I could certainly see the advantages from their point of view (extra traffic etc) but what was in it for me, beyond the kudos of being associated with … well, let’s not go there.
The money on offer was derisory and the loss of independence would in the end have had an effect. At the moment I can blog what I like, whether it’s to do with politics, football or some personal idiosyncrasy. I doubt if a MSM blogging platform would welcome my musings about the death of my Godmother.
But for me, much of my other income is an indirect result of what I do on my blog. I certainly wouldn’t have my Daily Telegraph column if the editor hadn’t liked what he saw on my blog. The same goes for Phil Hendren (Dizzy), Tim Worstall and Oliver Kamm in The Times. Would I be invited onto TV and radio so much if it were not for my blog? I doubt it. Similarly, the blog has given me a public profile which has enabled me to charge a decent fee for public speaking engagements.
There also other minor sources of income which a blog can provide. The two main ones are Google Ads and Amazon commissions. For most blogger this won’t amount to much more than pin money, but for the high traffic blogs it can amount to several hundred pounds a month.
Blogging is almost a byword for specialization. And with specialization can come real influence. Richard North co-writes the EU Referendum blog, specializing in foreign policy and the Defence of the Realm blog on defence issues. He now enjoys a status within the MoD far higher than most defence correspondents. Former Defence Secretary Des Browne irritated them beyond belief when he told them: “this is Richard North - he writes the Defence of the Realm Blog and his blog has had more influence on MoD procurement policy then the rest of you put together”. North says he has never seen a group of journalists look more annoyed. But he says that far from earning money from his blog, the effort he puts into it means he is subsidizing it. Other specialist blogs ought to be a magnet for advertising in their own spheres yet advertisers have so far shied away from the likes of NHS Blog Doctor, Burning our Money or Inspector Gadget.
Crime writer Martin Edwards says that he too earns money indirectly from his blog Do You Write Under Your Own Name but it’s mainly because it has improved his reputation. “Since I started blogging (every day) a year ago, my profile and sales have increased and I've won a major award for the first time. I don't attribute this mainly to the blog, but I do think the blog creates increased interest and profile, and it must be helpful.”
Liz Upton, who writes the Gastonomy Domine blog agrees. “I started my (food) blog when I was working in educational publishing and loathing it, “she says. She intended that the blog should work as a portfolio for a kind of writing she wanted to do professionally and reckons it has served its purpose well. “I left my job and went freelance, and I now have some huge clients including the National Geographic and Penguin, she adds. “There's absolutely no way I could have got the exposure I needed to find work with them without the blog - many of my clients have approached me directly after having read it, which is just as well, because I'm rubbish at networking in the old-fashioned way.”
Some bloggers have earned money directly from their blogging by winning book deals. Former Sunday Times journalist Judith O’Reilly won many plaudits for her blog Wife in the North where she told the painful story of following her husband north and the changes it meant for their family. She reportedly earned a £70,000 advance. Conservative PR guru Ellee Seymour has also signed a book deal which would never have happened without her blogging profile.
Speechwriter Nick Thomas started his blog a year ago with three aims: acknowledge, advise and advertise. He says: “ [I wanted to} acknowledge the hospitality and appreciation from the audiences I speak to, advise other speakers by passing on presentation skills tips and, of course advertise my services as a speaker, speechwriter/comedy writer and coach.” And it has paid dividends and brought him work he would not have got without the blog.
Some bloggers, me among them, grow incredibly frustrated by the habit of newspaper diary columns to steal their original work and pass it off as their own. The Sun’s Whip Column and the Mail’s Ephraim Hardcastle are the main culprits. On some days both columns are stuffed full of stories they have lifted (sometimes almost word for word) from the likes of Guido Fawkes blog. Had he or I sold them the stories directly we’d both probably be several thousand pounds richer each year. More fool us, some might say. The Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary is far more willing to credit where a story came from, and because of it gets far more tip-offs.
Earlier this year, the LabourHome was sold by Alex Hilton and Jag Singh to Mike Danson, the new co-owner of the New Statesman. They were rumoured to have paid in excess of £50,000 for it – an astonishing sum bearing in mind its lack of readers. But Danson invested because of its potential. Hilton and Singh were wise to cash in. However, they were only able to do so because the blog is not reliant on a single person for content. Guido Fawkes calculated that if LabourHome was worth £50,000 his own blog must be worth £1 million. Up to a point, Lord Fawkes. A blog like his or mine is only worth anything if its author comes as part of the package. We are our blogs. Blogs like PoliticalBetting, ConservativeHome or Labour Home are group efforts and are therefore easier to monetize.
Slate.com recently revealed that a blog in the United States with 100,000 readers a month earns around $75,000 per annum from it. A few earn more than $200,000. Bloggers on this side of the Atlantic can only dream of such rewards for their efforts!
It has been suggested that some bloggers could charge a subscription for their work. Maybe, but it goes against all the non existent rules of blogging. It would shrink the audience and be very exclusive. Would I rather have 1,000 readers paying a few pounds a month to read my blog or 70,000 reading it for free? Clearly the latter.
Slate.com tells of a blogger called Jason Kottke who quit his job to blog full time. He asked his readers to support him, and they did. More than 1,450 of them coughed up nearly $40,000 but he abandoned the experiment within a year, worried that people wouldn’t contribute again. His blog remained open to all, though. I have little doubt that if I decided to go down this road I would be able to raise a substantial one-off sum to keep me going, but could I do that every year? I’m not sure I would risk it just yet.
Political blogging in the UK is three or four years behind the United States but it is flourishing. Readership is rising year on year – in my case by 50% over the last twelve months. Newspapers and magazines would kill for that. Blogging here hasn’t got the money making ability of US blogs, or their influence, or their profile. But in three or four years they might have.
Links to blogs mentioned in this article
Boulton & Co
Comment is Free
Defence of the Realm
Do You Write Under Your Own Name
John Redwood's Diary
Liberal Democrat Voice
NHS Blog Doctor
Nick R Thomas
Spectator Coffee House
Three Line Whip
Wife in the North