Nieman Lab has been publishing their regular series of predictions for the coming year in the last couple weeks. There’s been some interesting speculation and thinking in there, as there always is, as various people from a variety of backgrounds share what they think 2018 will hold.
One jumped out at me: “Zines had it right all along.”
The short extrapolation of that statement calls out features that were inherent in zines, the niche-oriented magazines that were printed on borrowed equipment and hand-distributed to a core group of interested readers: Freshness. Surprise. Diversity.
Those were the attributes that attracted audiences. Zines covered topics not deemed worthy of mainstream press attention and did so with the heart of a fan behind the effort. They were usually devoted to obscure miscellanea that would have been uninteresting to a mass audience and weren’t what advertisers were keen to support. Readers got hooked because finally, the conversations they were having with friends were clearly being had by others as well. That created a sense of community.
If that sounds like the early days of blogging, you’re not wrong. The same ideas were behind the online self-publishing movement. You could write about whatever niche topic you wanted because the barrier to entry had essentially been removed. And anyone with access to a search engine and an RSS reader could keep up with your posts, creating the same sort of distributed community zines first tapped into.
Maybe that’s where we should have stayed.
The biggest blogs to come out of those early days are either gone or are a shadow of their former glory. TechCrunch is no longer the personal blog of Michael Arrington, it’s one cog in a massive, faceless corporation’s media strategy. Mashable went from the passion project of Pete Cashmore to huge success to selling for a fraction of what it was once valued at. GigaOm used to be a must-read when it was Om Malik sharing his thoughts. Same with PaidContent from Rafat Ali. Most all of the blog networks that once dominated the landscape are gone for one reason or another. Countless other sites have been bought by bigger media companies, been shut down because success leads to bloat that couldn’t be sustained, or simply faded away for another reason.
(Side note: Give it five years, tops, and we’ll see the same thing happen to the podcast networks that are popping up to much acclaim and investing venture capital in original programming.)
The blogs, in the truest sense of the term, that continue are either continuing to attract small audiences but do little for the people behind them or are aiming for mass audiences by publishing content that’s so generic it could have easily been posted 10 years ago.
The problems are driven by the mindset that these publications should be something more than what they initially set out to be. There’s nothing wrong with reaching a substantial audience. Diluting your quality and chasing ad revenue introduces motivations that lead not to success but to just more chasing and headaches. It was the desire to turn blogs into a business in and of themselves that got a lot of people in trouble and lead to a lot of the problems we’ve seen in recent years as the foundation began cracking. Advertisers want pageviews, not quality content.
To paraphrase Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises, “You either die a niche outlet or live long enough to see yourself become a pile of crap.”
Zines had it right. So did the first wave of blogs. So did the alt-weeklies that were so popular for 30 years in major metropolitan areas. All fell victim to scale in some way or another.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.