|America's Newest Profession: Bloggers for Hire [WSJ]|
By MARK PENN
In America today, there are almost as many people making their living as bloggers as there are lawyers. Already more Americans are making their primary income from posting their opinions than Americans working as computer programmers or firefighters.
Paid bloggers fit just about every definition of a microtrend: Their ranks have grown dramatically over the years, blogging is an important social and cultural movement that people care passionately about, and the number of people doing it for at least some income is approaching 1% of American adults.
The best studies we can find say we are a nation of over 20 million bloggers, with 1.7 million profiting from the work, and 452,000 of those using blogging as their primary source of income. That's almost 2 million Americans getting paid by the word, the post, or the click -- whether on their site or someone else's. And that's nearly half a million of whom it can be said, as Bob Dylan did of Hurricane Carter: "It's my work he'd say, I do it for pay."
Forget about huge, sweeping megaforces. The biggest trends today are micro: small, under-the-radar patterns of behavior which take on real power when propelled by modern communications and an increasingly independent-minded population. In the U.S., one percent of the nation, or three million people, can create new markets for a business, spark a social movement, or produce political change. This column is about identifying these important new niches, and acting on that knowledge.
This could make us the most noisily opinionated nation on earth. The Information Age has spawned many new professions, but blogging could well be the one with the most profound effect on our culture. If journalists were the Fourth Estate, bloggers are becoming the Fifth Estate.
What started as a discussion forum for progressive politics and new technologies has now been applied to motherhood, health care, the arts, fashion, dentistry -- and just about every other imaginable area of life. What started as a hobby and an outlet for volunteers is becoming big business for newly emerging sites, for companies that now depend upon their reviews and for the people who work in this new industry.
All this fits with the trend toward Opinion TV. Less and less of our information flow is devoted to gathering facts, and more and more is going toward popularizing opinion. Twenty-four-hour news channels have been replaced by 24-hour opinion channels. The chatter is the story.
Comparing Job Numbers in America
Computer Programmers 394,710
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Demographically, bloggers are extremely well educated: three out of every four are college graduates. Most are white males reporting above-average incomes. One out of three young people reports blogging, but bloggers who do it for a living successfully are 2% of bloggers overall. It takes about 100,000 unique visitors a month to generate an income of $75,000 a year. Bloggers can get $75 to $200 for a good post, and some even serve as "spokesbloggers" -- paid by advertisers to blog about products. As a job with zero commuting, blogging could be one of the most environmentally friendly jobs around -- but it can also be quite profitable. For sites at the top, the returns can be substantial. At some point the value of the Huffington Post will no doubt pass the value of the Washington Post.
The barriers to entry couldn't be lower. Most bloggers for hire pay $80 to get started, do it for about 35 months, and make a few hundred dollars. But a subgroup of these bloggers are the true professionals who work at corporations, serve as highly paid blogging consultants or write for sites with substantial traffic.
Pros who work for companies are typically paid $45,000 to $90,000 a year for their blogging. One percent make over $200,000. And they report long hours -- 50 to 60 hours a week.
As bloggers have increased in numbers, the number of journalists has significantly declined. In Washington alone, there are now 79% fewer DC-based employees of major newspapers than there were just few years ago. At the same time, Washington is easily the most blogged-about city in America, if not the world.
Almost no blogging is by subscription; rather, it owes it economic model to on-line advertising. Bloggers make money if their consumers click the ads on their sites. Some sites even pay writers by the click, which is of course a system that promotes sensationalism, or doing whatever it takes to get noticed.
The United Kingdom has just had a major scandal in which an official at 10 Downing Street had planned to leak to a friendly blogger all sorts of lurid stories about the Conservatives, complete with descriptions of secret sex tapes. But all of it was to be made up, and the friendly blogger who was going to post it all thought it was an "absolutely brilliant" idea. Someone blew the whistle, but had the plot gone through, this blogstorm could have played a major role in the upcoming election.
As a political pollster, I always observed that the poll that often got the most coverage was the one that was different from the others, regardless of whether it was right, or whether the pollster had any track record. This is true with opinions, too: those on the extreme right or left, or those that are the most titillating, seem to drive the most traffic through their sites. The center doesn't seem to have either the edge or the passion to grab the same kind of traffic.
The implications of bloggers for hire are substantial. While many bloggers probably support unionization in general, they have no union of their own. Most have no benefits, yet they work long hours in front of computer screens which could cause a variety of health ailments. And the owners of the big sites most often pay their bloggers as freelancers, avoiding all of those taxes and benefits that newspapers have to pay for their writers.
For now, bloggers say they are overwhelmingly happy in their work, reporting high job satisfaction. But what happens if they, too, lose work; are they covered by unemployment insurance if tastes change and their sites go under? Are they considered journalists under shield laws? Are they subject to libel suits? Are there any limits to the opinions they churn out, or any standards to rein them in? Is there someone to complain to about false blogs or hidden conflicts? At the recent Consumer Electronics Show, Panasonic outfitted bloggers with free Panasonic equipment; did that affect their opinions about the companies they wrote about? There are more questions than answers about America's Newest Profession.
It is hard to think of another job category that has grown so quickly and become such a force in society without having any tests, degrees, or regulation of virtually any kind. Courses on blogging are now cropping up, and we can't be far away from the Columbia School of Bloggerism. There is a lot of interest now in Twittering and Facebooking -- but those venues don't offer the career opportunities of blogging. Not since eBay opened its doors have so many been able to sit at their computer screens and make some money, or even make a whole living.
And with millions of human-hours now going into writing and recording opinion, we have to wonder whether being the blogging capital of the world will help America compete in the global economy. Maybe all this self-criticism will propel us forward by putting us on the right track and helping us choose the right products. Maybe it will create a resurgence in the art of writing and writing courses. Or serve as a safety net for out of work professionals in the crisis. But for how long can nearly 500,000 people who are gradually replacing whole swaths of journalists survive with no worker protections, no enforced ethics codes, limited standards, and, for most , no formal training? Even the "Wild West" eventually became just the "West."
Mark Penn Responds:
People have raised questions about the calculations on the numbers of bloggers for hire. First, I was surprised at how few studies there are on this and I believe there definitely should be more. So perhaps in the future I will do some original research, but for this piece we took the best we could find and referenced every number so people would know where they came from.
There is no question that the blogosphere, fast-growing as it is, has yet to nail down one way to measure itself or gauge its activity. But the most comprehensive sources we could find, conducted by reputable professionals, say there are over 22 million bloggers out there; and that 2% of bloggers are making their living blogging. Do the math, and you get roughly 450,000. It's a fast-growing group and we ignore their needs, and influence, at our peril.
As far as the $75,000, the Technorati report says that of those bloggers who had 100,000 or more unique visitors, the average income is $75,000. True, it's not the median, but it is the average. We can quibble about how easy it is to make this kind of money -- but the point is, the huge potential is there.
Here are some further details on the sources and calculations:
The Technorati Poll -- The methodology stipulates that in order to qualify for the survey, Technorati "state of the blogosphere" respondents needed to be bloggers over 18 years old. The survey was hosted by Decipher Inc., was in the field from July 28, 2008 through August 4, 2008, and received 1,290 completed responses from 66 countries. Survey design and analysis was conducted by Dr. Michele Madansky and Polly Arenberg. Dr. Michele Madansky runs a media and market research consultancy specializing in online media and Internet startups. From 2003 to 2007, Michele was vice president of global market research for Yahoo! Polly Arenberg is a marketing strategist with more than 20 years of experience; her clients include Yahoo!, Microsoft and Flickr, as well as numerous start-ups.
The 2% of bloggers making a living comes straight from the Technorati Poll. The total number of bloggers--22.6 million--is supported by a research report from eMarketer (2% of 22,6 million is 452,000). This report was written in May 2008 by Paul Verna, a senior analyst there: "The Blogosphere report aggregates the latest data from marketing and communications researchers with eMarketer analysis to provide the information you need to make smart, accurate business decisions."
The question of how much traffic it takes to make a living also comes from the Technorati report. We say it takes "about 100,000 unique visitors a month to generate an income of $75,000 a year" and Technorati states those who had 100,000 or more unique visitors the average income is $75,000