A blog launch is a fairly mundane event these days: a new one pops up every few seconds. But when the political website Westmonster went live in late September, it was notable for being the first publication for Messy Media, the latest venture by former journalists to create a sustainable online publishing company based on extremely low-cost publishing tools.
‘The big difference between most political blogs and Westmonster is that we’re starting it from day one as a for-profit enterprise whereas many, and I might even say most in the UK, are set up as labours of love or platforms to speak one’s mind,’says Andrew Levy, the company’s co-founder.
‘We’re in the business of creating media titles, which is an entirely different thing,’Messy Media’s other co-founder, Lloyd Shepherd, interjects. And these are people who know about launching and running online media titles: Levy and Shepherd have strong online publishing pedigree. Shepherd, a former deputy digital director at The Guardian, left his most recent role as director of news, sport and information at Yahoo! Europe this summer.
Levy, meanwhile, jokes that he is officially an innovator. Also a former Yahoo! executive, he holds a special visa for innovators and entrepreneurs seeking to establish internet businesses in the UK. To obtain it, he had to provide the Home Office with Messy Media’s business plan.
And the plan they provided is fairly simple: ‘We can launch compelling online editorial propositions at quite a low cost,’says Shepherd, leaning over a laptop in a coffee bar offering free wireless internet access – the company’s office for this morning.
The growth of low-cost online publishing tools – blog CMS systems, backend tools like statistical packages ad-serving tools – have transformed the economics of publishing so that there is a great opportunity to establish a publishing business by gradually growing a stable of small-scale publications.
But while several American entrepreneurs have been able to turn stables of blogs into sustainable and profitable publishing businesses over the last three years, this type of business is still remarkably, inexplicably even, rare in Britain.
Former Financial Times reporter Nick Denton, last month claimed that his US company, Gawker Media, generates 6.6 million monthly unique users across its network of blogs – a figure that would put it ahead of all but the three largest US newspaper websites. Another large US blog network, Weblogs Inc, was acquired by AOL for a reported $25m in October 2005.
Shepherd is also impressed with TPM Media, the mini-media empire that New York-based political journalist Josh Marshall has built out of his political blog Talking Points Memo. ‘It’s just amazing how this one blog has transformed itself into this very, very rich online publication with lots of people writing for it, advertising supported, with strong community – it’s a new editorial brand that didn’t exist before,’says Shepherd.
More importantly, these businesses are paying their own way. ‘The other thing that has started happened in the US is that blogs, though not necessarily about politics, have started to make a decent amount of money,’says Levy.
In Britain, the only comparable company attempting to ‘blog at an industrial level’is Shiny Media, the three-year-old blog network that in January raised $4.5m (£2.25m) from Bright Station Ventures for a 50 per cent stake.
With 19 staff working at its new central London office, including 11 in editorial roles and ‘a whole heap of freelancers”, Shiny Media publishes 35 blogs that generated 5m page impressions from 3.65 million unique users in September. The company expects to cross the 4 million unique user mark before Christmas, according to its managing director, Chris Price.
The more established British blog publishing venture recently announced a deal to use the Roo platform to increase its video output and now has two Philadelphia-based bloggers beginning a push into the United States.
‘Apart from Shiny, we can’t really identify any pure-play blog that’s super profitable. It’s just not reached that level of maturity over here,’says Levy. But Shiny-style venture capital funding is not part of the Messy Media founders’ immediate goals.
‘The business plan is to launch rationally add new sites as steadily as we can afford to without any outside investment. I think the only way we would take on any outside investment would be if were going to try to do something significantly different to what we’re doing now, because this works,’says Levy.
It is likely that, in the long run, Westmonster won’t be the largest site in Messy Media’s stable either in terms of audience or revenue, says Shepherd – but it might be the most important.
‘If you can do politics, and do it well, it also means you can do consumer or food and drink – topics that actually draw bigger audiences and are more attractive advertising propositions than politics is,’he adds.
Messy Media has already started recruiting writers to run additional titles about celebrities and popular culture, media, the City, food and restaurants, automotive and consumer topics. The new writers will initially be freelancers, but the company also hopes to add permanent staff.
No specific launch dates have been set, the Messy Media founders say, because timescales will be determined by their ability to find the right writers. The site’s garish pink design was decided only after recruiting Parliamentary researcher Sadie Smith as its editor and author and discussing it with her.
‘That’s what you need in this sort of publishing. It needs to have some sort of connection with the personality of the person behind it and that’s quite different from what mainstream print media in particular, do, outside of the comment section,’comments Levy.
Finding the right talent is therefore likely to be their biggest challenge. ‘We’re not paying six-figure salaries, so we won’t be getting six-figure-salary journalists,’says Shepherd.
In fact, the right person might not even be a professional journalists – but they are likely to be young, have some expertise in the area they are covering, and ‘absolutely au fait with Facebook, MySpace, Last.FM, blogging,’Shepherd says.
‘We want to launch a title about the City. The profile of the writer could well be someone who’s already writing as a journalist, or it could just as well be someone who is a PA in a merchant bank.
‘We’re giving ourselves a lot of time to shape these people into writers. We’re both ex-journalists, we’ve both been through that kind
of training, so that’s a big part of what we’re doing here. We don’t have to follow the recruitment norms that you have to follow in the print media.”