Yesterday I saw some sad media news circulating on Twitter. Eater, the Vox Media food website, announced it’s closing its London publication. Writing about the decision, the site’s UK editor Adam Coghlan said that “as a result of economic circumstances in the U.S. right now, a daily news and service outlet in London can no longer be a commercial priority for the business.”
I happened to see this news shortly after seeing an announcement that Backbench, a lesser known (but persistent) British politics blog with a youth focus, would also be closing its doors. “It can be difficult for some members of older generations to appreciate the influence of the online world on our lives,” its founder, Sam Bright, wrote in a farewell letter. “But the online world exists, for many of us, at the very core of our identities.”
On the one hand, Backbench was a throwback – really a student publication with the muck-in ethos of early 00s digital journalism. Unpretentious and unprofitable, it just rumbled along while more ambitious competitors in this space – I’m thinking Novara Media, The Canary, Works in Progress etc – got caught up in professionalisation, and the difficulties that ensue. It was, in many ways, an old school “blog”.
Similarly, Eater always seemed to be inspired by the spirit of food blogging from the earlier days of the internet. Though it was owned by Vox – a multi-national media conglomerate which has laid off 7% of its workforce this year, constituting some 130 employees including the Eater London team – it felt a bit old school. But being owned by Vox meant that it could, and did, employ real journalists who made their livelihood (and took out mortgages on that basis) writing about food and restaurants and all that. They brought in freelancers from outside and paid real fees for those pieces; they paid photographers and videographers and all that jazz. And then, in the end, it got cut.
I have a friend, let’s call him Steve. He isn’t a journalist and never has been, but when we were at school together, some 15 or more years ago, he decided to start a blog called “The Best Burger in London”. His goal was simple: go to all the good burger restaurants and apply an analytic criteria to their burger recipes. Rate the bun out of ten, the patty out of ten, the relish out of ten. At the end, you’d have a numerical score for each and every burger in London. And, as a result, he would know where served the best burger. He had two major problems: firstly, he had no interest in journalism, or even the basics of the written word, and, secondly, Steve had no follow-through. And so “The Best Burger in London” fizzled out after just a few perfunctory entries.
But if he’d persisted with that project, he would’ve been at the avant garde of a moment in food blogging where you could make a name for yourself, with nothing more than a free Wordpress or Blogger or Tumblr, a half-decent digital camera, and an acidic writing style. Bitchy food blogs were du jour all over the world at that point – and the pursuit of an objective “best burger in London” is a lofty one. It’s also bloody good for SEO. In 2006, you could still corner a market, if you were willing to put in the hours and raise your cholesterol.
The fact that Eater, a relatively rare and hugely popular addition to the London culinary scene, cannot survive in the current market suggests that something is broken about journalism. But that breakage dates back before the current Big Tech squeeze and the domino layoffs across the media. It dates back to the way, at some point in the 2010s, it was decided that people could no longer make a living as a “blogger”. This was partly due to collapsing digital advertising revenue, and partly due to bigger publications working out how to game SEO (i.e. pretty rapidly Time Out realised that they should be the first result when someone Googled “best burger in London”, rather than my mate Steve). But there was also just a change in cultural perspective. Many hands had been wrung over the lack of gatekeeping involved in blogs, the failure of many to maintain the standards of legacy journalism. And so the era of the blogger was short, and swiftly over.
But it has already begun to return in, of course, the form of the newsletter. It is a tricksy incarnation, only semi-true to the origins of the term: Substack, the dominant force in this space, has expended a lot of capital on signing writers over to its service in a manner better known from the world of Big Tech than the era of blogs. Wordpress never shelled out millions of dollars to get users on their platform. But from these VC-fuelled, turbocharged, origins, Substack has basically ended up at something close to a blog. Star users like, say, Matt Yglesias, Heather Cox Richardson or Andrew Sullivan, have control of their product, their audience, and their earnings.
But… there are two things that separate, in my mind, newsletters (in their current a la mode state) from the Golden Era of blogs. Firstly, there’s the question of stardom. Can you become a newsletter star? The current fashion for newsletters has undeniably favoured existing talent. Substack poached journalists away from publications (I have it on good authority that they were offering salaries of 150%+ what even the best UK publications were able to offer) and almost all the users of the service who have achieved stardom were already stars before Substack. Has there been an organic newsletter star in this recent regeneration of the format? It’s hard to think of one.
Secondly, there’s the question of indexing. Substack does index its content in a fairly traditional blog format, but that’s not really how its distributed or consumed. Steve’s Substack – The Best Burger in London dot Substack dot com – would go out to subscribers each week. Honest Burger, Bleecker Burger, Dip’n’Flip, In’n’Out – perfectly consumed bite-sized morsels on a weekly basis, but no central index. Nowhere that I could see a nicely laid out map or graphic, showcasing all these different burgers.
And this is where I sniff – like the scent of burger fat on the District line platform at Victoria – opportunity for a return to the world of the blog. It starts, I think, with the blogification of legacy media. I’m not just talking about Buzzfeed’s clickbait headlines – 20 Celebrities Who Had Heinous Rhinoplasty Surgery – which are blunt and effective, but still rely on traffic quantity. What I’m talking about are the Which? infused product reviews, city guides, restaurant rundowns. Lists and rankings, all generating revenue through affiliate links.
Take, as a perfect example, the Daily Telegraph. If you think about the Telegraph (as a Brit) you think of a Charles Moore column about why we should start fox hunting in south London, or a Matt cartoon of Ed Miliband eating a bacon sarnie. That’s the banner view of the Telegraph, and not one that appeals to a left-leaning millennial like myself. BUT I currently get more out of the Telegraph than I do from many UK publications, simply because of the quality of its travel reviews. Google “best dog friendly hotels in Oxfordshire” or “best hotels in Sicily” or “where to stay in Stockholm”, and up pops the Telegraph with a fabulous rundown of all the best boutique hotels, complete with, you guessed (guest! nice pun Nick) an affiliate booking link.
I was speaking recently with someone who works at a sports magazine, who was saying that their whole revenue stream had moved over to affiliate links for sporting goods. The 10 Best Pairs of Football Boots for the Sunday League Amateur or Ten Tennis Rackets for Left-Handed Continental Grip Players. More and more websites, legacy media outlets, have been blogified, listified, consumer-recommendationsified, over recent years.
So in this world of a blogified central media, there must be a glimmer of hope for blogs. And why shouldn’t a good blogger be able to achieve something not infinitely different to what Eater London was achieving? 5-10 pieces a week – a handful of restaurant/café reviews, a few recipes cards, maybe a Q&A interview – and you’re outputting at a level not dissimilar to a lot of smaller publications. And what’s to stop that blogger writing 10 Best Sushi Bars in Camden or 15 Speakeasy Themed Cocktails Bars Where You Will Need to Re-mortgage to Buy a Margarita? One person could create a brand that embraces the world of recommendations and affiliate marketing.
If Steve was floating his burger idea right now, I guarantee that people “in the know” would recommend Substack. It’s a place where you can monetise quickly, which is a huge advantage for a solo operator. But – trust me – the subscription model is fruitless for low-profile users. The number of Substacks with more than a hundred paying subscribers is vanishingly small. More effective, I suspect, would be to work on building the SEO of your brand – and then pushing into affiliate marketing. Because there is a clear use case for both advertisers and audiences, something that is very rare these days. I am genuinely interested in dog friendly hotels in Oxfordshire or sushi bars in Camden. You are pushing a product I want. It all makes sense.
Vittles, a Substack that is probably, in the post Eater world, the pre-eminent London food blog, has shown there is an appetite (nice pun Nick!) for high quality food writing. But there’s also an appetite for low quality food writing – something between a deranged Yelp review and Jay Rayner. And you can replace “food” with any consumable product here: “wine”, “video games”, “dishwashers”, “dogs”, “schools”. The opportunity is there; the blogger could rise again.
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