New York Times: blog trolling 101

by Mathew on April 6, 2008 · 25 comments

I’m sure someone at the New York Times has to be feeling pretty smug right now — after all, look at all the attention the paper’s story on bloggers is getting from the blogosphere. Obviously, the Times has learned the first rule of getting attention from blogs: talk about blogs. The Times also seems to have learned the second lesson, which is related to blog “trolling,” namely: associate blogs or blogging with some kind of apocalyptic or otherwise incendiary statement, viz. “Blogging kills.”

It’s true that the NYT didn’t actually use that phrase, but the story about two deaths (Russell Shaw from ZDNet and Marc Orchant, whose last gig was the ill-fated Blognation) and a near-death experience (Om Malik) in the blogosphere might as well have had that headline, as Marc Andreessen notes in his hilarious roundup of future potential New York Times headlines about blogging (including “Hitler probably blogged”).

Mike Arrington helps the Times out by saying he has gained 30 pounds, has a severe sleeping disorder and is on the verge of a nervous breakdown — which may be true, but could just as easily be said by someone who has become obsessed by major-league football during the playoffs, or someone whose hobby is building miniature ships in bottles. It has nothing to do with whether they spend every waking moment typing on a keyboard or obsessively checking Techmeme.

For me, the low point in the piece — which goes on to talk about how some bloggers for sites like Gizmodo spend dozens of hours blogging for pay from their tiny apartments — is when the Times coaxes this incendiary quote from blogger Matt Buchanan: sometimes, he confesses, he is so tired “I just want to lie down.” Stop the presses! (best quote comes from Gizmodo editor Brian Lam, who has trained as a Thai kick-boxer: “I’ve got a background getting punched in the face… that’s why I’m good at this job.” Definitely should have been higher up).

Further reading:

Om Malik’s thoughtful take on the issue is here, and Henry Blodget says the startup life probably has more to do with the phenomenon than blogging does. My friend Howard Lindzon says the story is bunk, and a sign that the NYT is out of ideas, while Dr. Tony Hung takes a look at whether stress actually does increase your chances of having a heart attack. Doc Searls has a thoughtful response as well.

  • http://broadcasting-brain.com Mark Dykeman

    It feels a bit odd to know that my own blog contributed to something hitting the front page of Techmeme. Actually, I never knew how Techmeme worked before reading this article – I had never taken the time.

  • http://paul.kedrosky.com Paul Kedrosky

    I generally agree. The piece is inflammatory and overdone, but my friend Matt at the Times is too smart to not know he was poking bloggers with sharp sticks.

    That said, there is something to say for noticing the emergence of a piecework occupation where there is an economic incentive to produce 24×7, as well as immense pressure (on many) to stay hooked to newswires. No surprise that such a “job” has a tendency to burn people out.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I think Matt knew exactly what he was doing — and had the effect he
    intended. But I wish he had spent more time talking about the
    economics of blogging, by maybe bringing in some of the commentary
    about Valleywag's pay structure, etc., rather than going straight for
    the easy and inflammatory “it causes heart attacks” angle.

  • http://paul.kedrosky.com Paul Kedrosky

    Yup, and that's sort of my point. I thought he was going the Portfolio
    death-by-piecework-pay approach, rather than
    bloggers-have-no-self-discipline. As always, heart attacks trump economics.

  • http://www.drumsnwhistles.com/ Karoli

    I agree with you 300% about this. My first instinct when I read that article yesterday was to want to find a way to slap some folks upside the head and remind them that they are a) making a good deal of money that they wouldn't otherwise be making; and b) CHOOSING to push themselves in their lifestyle.

    If Mike Arrington has a sleep disorder as a result of blogging, it's not the blog's fault. It's his type A personality that pushes him to be first with the next shiny thing.

    For those who have a problem with this, I can only suggest a perspective adjustment which would include stepping back and asking whether the world will still turn if that blog post waits to be written until the next day. I assure you it will. Then they should step away from the computer and the gadgets, enjoy the lovely spring day with some good friends, and realize that the world still turned.

    Life's too short to lose sleep and sanity over blogging. Wars, famine, starvation, etc…maybe. But not blogging.

  • carlton benjamin

    wow, that's rich: a newspaper guy like you taking pot shots at the ny times from your comfortable perch at a toronto rag. the fact that the times presented another slant on today's events touched off the predictable bitchmeme and you just couldn't resist piling on with yet more mediocre mumblings..

    whatever. but here's a thought: instead of doing your derivative daily, why not surprise the world with an original story. i know – that involves actual WORK. so…probably not.

    LOL

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    You know what's even richer, Carlton? You just posted a lame,
    derivative comment on my mediocre mumblings. Here's a thought: how
    about coming up with something original? Or better yet, give me a
    link to the blog where you're generating all those stimulating,
    original and thought-provoking posts, and I'll be sure to drop by.

  • http://spap-oop.blogspot.com Tish Grier

    Hi Matt…
    Actually, I found some grains of truth in the Times article. Sure, it had its link-baiting hype potential, but then again so have all those other articles over the past 2-3 years in pubs like BusinessWeek and New York Magazine that shrieked “you too can make big bucks from blogging!” (and then went on to profile Arianna Huffington and Mike Arrington and Josh Marshall and the scant few others that make big blog money….)

    Thing is, when you *are* doing blogging as a career or career path (as I have for the past two years–with a modicum of success) it *is* a lot of stress. It's sometimes a lot of long hours for not a lot of pay. It's having no boundaries in your life because you have to get a project completed, or a client's in need of something ,by an insanely short deadline. It's trying to come up with the right “conversational tone” for a marketing campaign. It's trying to write in a way that's going to get the eyeballs of the 18-34s while getting the jobs and respect from the 34-54s.

    It only gets easier when you've put together a decent reputation and people are willing to take a chance with you (but it's still pretty tough.) Even then, the standards are high because you are working in a field that is brand new, that has no hard stats to back it up, and that many are looking to be the savior for industries with failing business models.

    It won't kill you, but the stress will get to you if you're looking to be Arrington or Marshall or to go viral like Coke and Mentos or Lenovo. If you keep perspective, though, and not measure your success by the successes of others, then you'll be ok. Easier said, however, than done.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks for the comment, Tish. And I wasn't saying that blogging — or
    rather, trying to turn a blog into a business — isn't stressful. But
    is it any more inherently stressful than trying to turn a love for
    bicycle repair or hair-styling into a business? Probably not.

  • http://www.broadstuff.com alan p

    Matthew, like Paul Kedrosky above I think the real story here is the emergence of the piece-work blogging industry, and I suspect that segment does fit his model well.

    People who are earning a living elsewhere and blogging for free are just not part of this game – ironically they (we) are the ones crashing the piecework market, which imho makes it unsustainable.

    Anyway, these thoughts in more depth here:

    http://broadstuff.com/archives/833-Bloggers-vs-

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I agree, Alan — and that's a good point about the unsustainability,
    or the competitive threat from those who blog for free. That's
    something that is affecting all media. As I said to Paul, I wish Matt
    had spent a bit more time on that and a bit less on the “blogging will
    kill you” idea.

  • http://republicofinternets.com Sachin Balagopalan

    NYT should have done a story on the real epidemic in America – the 24/7 around-the-clock internet economy…

    http://tinyurl.com/3paf74

  • http://www.bourkepr.com KMB

    Yes, I found the piece a bit alarmist, seems a bit anecdotal (someone pointed out the Times highlights a couple of deaths, one heart attack, etc) — if suddenly, hundreds of bloggers were dropping dead, then perhaps we'd have something. But I was surprised, however, that the article doesn't touch the issue of journalistic integrity or accuracy. My biggest concerns with bloggers rushing to get their story out their first is accuracy in reporting. Are these guys verifying their sources, confirming with multiple sources, etc?

    Truth is, the blogosphere has muscled its way into traditional media waters (I just canceled all my newspapers) and the more people rely on bloggers for news, the more the responsibility to be accurate weighs upon them.

    Watch “All the Presidents Men” a few times and watch Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein check their sources a hundred times before going with the story.

  • Daniel Gibbons

    One thing I've learned from various start-up experiences (some moderately successful, some so-so, some outright failures, others just too early to know) is that the people who *talk* (or, I suppose, blog) about how hard they're working, their insane hours, etc, are usually among the least productive.

    Even the successful blogs seem to validate this truth, in that volume always seems to trump quality. That is, the focus is on generating as many posts as possible to chase pageview growth that I'm sure is accompanied by bottom-feeding and even declining CPM rates. It's much easier in the short term to assume the position of sweatshop 2.0 rather than be innovative and work out how to create a property that will attract a sustained, high-value audience and drive up those CPMs.

    It's interesting that all of the examples cited are technology-related blogs, which perhaps does nothing more than reveal that the tech/geek audience simply isn't attractive to the mainstream advertisers who spend 90% of the ad dollars. Combine low barriers to entry with a product the market doesn't value very highly and a sweatshop is all-but inevitable.

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  • http://spap-oop.blogspot.com Tish Grier

    Matt,

    Agreed. making it in blogging probably does indeed have the same or at least a similar amount of stress as making it in any high-volume, hyperactive business (I'm reminded of friends who used to own a gaming company…. or any start-up….)

    and I too liked Doc's response. You should check out dana boyd's and Renee Blodgett's as well.

    Now that it's midnight, I can write mine ;-)

  • http://www.cloudiD.com david usher

    im not sure about death yet, but blogging can certainly drive you to drink. link baiting bloggers about blogging, thats just too easy.

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  • http://www.reportervirtual.ro Hitler :)

    Funny: “Hitler probably blogged” :)

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