Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Blog of Blogs

The slow and agonizing death of metro area daily newspapers is a story that continues to fascinate, mostly because of the dearth of compelling ideas for what replaces these journalistic vehicles when they are eventually marginalized for good by the Internet. New business models are being vehemently debated (subscription, membership, micro payments, free etc.), but no one seems to have cracked the nut on how we end up with high quality arts journalism, which costs money, in a world where readers don’t seem willing to pay for content.

While many of these questions will I think remain unanswered for the foreseeable future, it is becoming more clear to me that small niches and communities (like fine art photography) won’t pay for themselves any time soon, even if the writers work for free (as we do now). While we might like to fantasize about our growing site bringing in enough money to support itself from loyal photography collector subscribers, or from gallery advertisers who want to reach an audience of targeted collectors and industry professionals like yourselves, the reality is that the total traffic flow just isn’t going to be large enough any time soon to make the math work. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t know of a single dedicated fine art photography site (not including gear focused photo enthusiast sites) that today regularly tallies 5000 subscribers and/or repeat daily visitors, even though there are plenty of terrific and original voices out there. I’d guess it probably takes at least 10 times that many to start to have any kind of viable and durable opportunity, even in a non-profit format supported by grants/foundations.

Since “going it alone” doesn’t seem viable as a long term solution (unless you’re just doing it for fun, which is of course what most of us are doing), I believe what will evolve to solve this problem is a some kind of “niche aggregator”, an umbrella site/destination that gathers together 40 or 50 blogs that are all targeted at facets of a specific subculture (say fine art photography), creating a one stop shop for readers who are interested in this topic. In finance, we talk about a “fund of funds” that offers investors a slice of a group of different narrow funds to create diversification; here we’re talking about a “blog of blogs” to aggregate a reader base/community that is now much too fragmented. Imagine that we took several best of breed blogs from each of the following categories (pick your own favorites please, from a variety of countries):

Emerging photographer showcase
Photo books
Photography news/reporting
Photographer interviews
Gallery/museum show reviews
Photo theory/criticism
Photography auctions
Miscellaneous photography serendipity/fun

We then build a site that has a common look and feel and easy navigation/search, but allows each author to continue to follow their own stories and have editorial freedom (even allowing overlap and duplication). ArtsJournal (here) is already down the path with a variant of this kind of model. Readers come for voices they want to hear, and are enticed by adjacent voices who have something relevant to say on a related topic. I hate to use the word “portal”, but that’s what it starts to look like, only on a much more granular level.

If we assume RSS readers will become more and more mainstream, somehow an aggregate feed of the entire umbrella site needs to be developed that captures the high points (perhaps something akin to the C-MONSTER digest (here), only in a more targeted way). Single voices also need to be available as feeds, like Modern Art Notes (here).

The key here (and the durable advantage) is massive but targeted scale; a site like this needs to generate coverage that is much, much deeper that any general purpose site. If other sites are covering 5 or 10 gallery or museum shows in a month, this site needs to cover 40 or 50 or 100 or more, all over the world (the long tail). The same goes for photo books or emerging photographers or artist interviews. The work of gathering all this is distributed across all the various bloggers, who are doing it already anyway.

Given the way search drives traffic, more posts, more reviews, more commentary, and more names means more successful connections to people who Google search for information on any one of those specific items or photographers, and more chances to convert them into subscribers. The combined searchable archive of all the blogs is likely the valuable (and defensible) product that eventually can be monetized, with proceeds shared amongst the contributor bloggers. Given the vast data store, more sophisticated tools can be added to enhance the user experience (if you like Henri Cartier-Bresson, you might like…, or people who read about Alec Soth also read about… etc.) The total subscriber/repeat reader count is the only measure that matters, regardless of whether we eventually talk about subscribers paying a fee or advertisers buying banners.

I actually think that the next few years are the “traffic grab” phase, where readers of traditional media (like the NY Times) continue to splinter off and are captured by vehicles that match their specific interests more closely (like this uber-photo blog I’m describing). So while we’ll continue to plug along, day after day, covering topics of interest to photography collectors and hopefully growing our readership steadily, I think some kind of “blog of blogs” aggregation model is what the future looks like (the devil is in the details of course). Until then, we’ll be investing in the archive and growing the subscriber base, one reader at a time.

6 comments:

bryanF. said...

Yes, I agree with you. There is a problem with RSS though. They aren't really growing being the geek sector of web users.

However, I absolutely agree that there's too much fragmentation these days. Why can't passionate writers, curators, editors and photographers collaborate on a bigger project? Why does it need to be an aggregator?

This is what is kind of frustrating with photography on the web. There are so many small bands of people doing interesting things but there seems to be a reluctance to work together on a larger scale to make what we produce more accessible to a larger audience. Why? have we all become so selfish that we can't work together? It can't be that difficult given the communication tools that are available on the web.

But at the end of the day, you have to ask, how large is the market for fine art photography? and what will they pay for? self-published books and mags? subscriptions?

I'm not optimistic. Rather, what I think you're going to see is a group of forward thinking photographers, writers, editors, models, actors, filmmakers, etc., band together under one brand and not only produce the content, but also market and distribute it as well.

I could be wrong, or naive, but I think we are in a period of time where artists and creatives can take full ownership of their creations. Why do we need to overhead of huge publishing houses? why do artists and creatives need to be slaves to greedy corporate moguls who don't really care about their art, unless it can make them money?

who knows :)

dlkcollection said...

Bryan,

Thanks for your comment and for the Tweet.

Some thoughts:

1.) Some kind of RSS reader has to go mainstream. It is not scalable to think readers will check hundreds of sites for new updates all the time. Perhaps it will evolve to a new form, but this feed aggregation must happen or the diversity of the Internet will overwhelm people.

2.) I think "aggregation" of blogs doesn't have to mean totalitarian top down control. I think it can also mean a looser affiliation of like minded folks who come together under one umbrella to share costs and combine traffic aimed at a specific audience.

3.) Blogs by nature started as personal narratives, so I think there is a tendency to think on an individual level. I hope this will change, where people are more willing to compromise a little to achive a larger goal/impact.

4.) I agree that we are in a time where the old rules of publishing/distribution will indeed change to some extent. In what directions and how fast remains to be seen. I think that voices in the community have the ability to help direct that evolution or stand by and watch it happen. Money is certainly part of the story here, but not all of it, as you point out.

bryanF. said...

Excellent points.

I know it makes some people cringe but Twitter really my new RSS feed. I get at least half of my feeds through there right now and the only reason I get the rest from Google Readers is because the blogs/pubs aren't on Twitter.

But Twitter is has an organization and grouping problem right now, so it's not really feasible to get everything through it at this point. But if they develop tools to help organize the Tweets better, forget about it. I think it'll be the first point of contact for people on the web.

I most certainly could be wrong though.

I also agree about the personal narratives comment. However, really, if you think about it, most bloggers are just really columnists using a different platform. However, there a good number of blogs that are more or less individually run publications.

It'll be interesting to see how it all shakes out the next few years. I'm fairly certain that photographers can't afford to sit around and hope someone saves the industry for them....

Akos Czigany said...

Months before I read your post (which is great by the way) I put together an art photography blog aggregator via Netvibes. Sure it has its weaknesses but that's for a start.

You can see it here:
ex Ponto - art photography reader

RedSardine said...

An emerging New York based photographer called Ofer Wolberger has an interesting exhibition entitled "(Life With) Maggie" at a London gallery called Michael Hoppen. Worth checking it out on www.michaelhoppengallery.com

dlkcollection said...

Akos,

I checked out your reader and it certainly is a comprehensive slice of all that is out there. Good work.

Your site has reminded me that not only are there challenges in getting the data agggregated in one place effectively (and thereby bunching together the traffic for potential sponsors or advertisers), there are also plenty of thorny but subtle UI issues about how to present the data once it is all gathered together so that is useful and legible for the reader.