It’s pretty easy to agree that by and large tech journalism is in a horrible state. Although you do have the MIT Technology Review, most tech webzines are sophomoric at best. You have newbie writers, discussing an industry they don’t understand, constrained by advertising dollars. The problem is that there is a legitimate reason for this mess other than business owners being greedy. Simply put the advertising model does not pay enough to support good tech journalism.
In all business quality comes down to the availability of cash. The more money a business owner is free to spend, the more can be spent on quality resources. In the tech world human resources of high quality are foolishly expensive. In Silicon Valley the average pay for a coder at a startup is the $90,000 per year PLUS equity. To find professionals that understand the tech industry, understand the core concepts that make all of these gadgets function, have the ability to critically think about what they see, be able to follow up with CEO’s and Engineers, and THEN put their final thoughts into words is a valuable skill set. This doesn’t even start to talk about having writers self determine SEO appropriate topics, and helping to forge organization relationships with the wider industry. You can’t hire folks that can do this for $30,000 a year, and if someone agreed to that pay you’d have to be highly suspicious.
This then comes to the issues of advertisers and sponsors. Over the years advertisers have been demanding more and more from publishers, and are willing to pay less and less. Those big digital ad spends you’ve heard about are spread across a lot of platforms, or if they are focused they target Facebook or Instagram. When ad buyers come to news type publishers what they are looking for is basically to pay for long winded advertisements (Native Advertising). They want to pay so that a writer will espouse the virtues of their product for 500 words. They will also let you know if content that they do not pay for makes them uncomfortable. “We really think the last post you did on the subject missed some key concepts. We’re not really sure if we can support a site that does not fit in with our world view.” The end result is that fluff pieces are published as matter of course. Critical posts are edited for context by management, and the n00b writers self censor so that they are not seen to rock the boat. For a reader the resulting stream of content is little better than trash.
This is one of the reasons I’m optimistic about the new membership model for Failed Normal. At $5 per month I know that every 1000 new members equals $4,000-$5,000 per month in profit. I can plan and build based off of a relatively stable extra $4,000 per month. Essentially it means that for every 1000 members we have I can afford to pay a decent wage with benefits to a low level employee, or for 2000 members per month I can hire a more senior professional. (One good part of the Baltimore area is the lower cost of living.). Of course there will be natural churn, BUT unless we do something horrendously stupid it’s unlikely 1000 members will cancel overnight. The paid membership model doesn’t just give the freedom to write about the content I think is important, but also gives a financial base to be able to build off of.
This was an underlying issue with Geek Sexy News. I HAD an excess of profit that I was using to fund the project. I thought my YouTube ad revenue was stable, and I THOUGHT I understood what sponsors wanted. I was willing to use my excess to try to build something that I thought would be valuable. My legs were cut from under me when the sponsors became more and more demanding, and YouTube ad revenue didn’t readjust upwards past the after holiday lull. I had based my spending on revenue I had little control over. At first the sinking of revenue made me have to cancel Geek Sexy News and refocus on YouTube, but then obviously it got to a point where I had to jump from YouTube myself.
The reason tech journalism is horrible is because most people don’t want to pay for it. Ad rates are too low to hire high quality professionals, and too fickle to be able to base solid projections on. The content itself has to be molded based on the whims of PR people that don’t know their industry or their products so that the final content that is put out is generally worthless to anyone who actually needs to make a decision. Regardless of the success or failure of Failed Normal at the end of the day I would argue the paid membership model is the best way to go at this point. Whether you charge $1 per month or $25 per month you’ll have something that is relatively solid and that you can build on. You’ll also know if your content is actually valuable. Previously people were very hesitant to sign up for subscription websites out of due course, but now using a credit card online and creating an account is a daily occurrence for most people. Whether they are willing to spend a few buck per month on your content really shows whether what you are saying is actually valuable to the people who care.