Open Source (Pajamas) Media: An Early Assessment

The thing bloggers most like to blog about is blogging itself, especially the hypothesis that blogging will one day transform the global media–if it already hasn’t. Thus, it’s not surprising that yesterday’s launch of Open Source (nee’ Pajamas) Media is among the hottest topics in the blogosphere. Of course, if you just like to read blogs, it may be the most boring topic in the blogosphere.

Below is a lengthy collection of responses to a survey I sent out yesterday to several prominent bloggers associated with OSM/PJM supplemented with other blogger commentary on the subject.

John Hawkins has a typical reaction:

Today, Pajamas Media, now known as Open Source Media, had their big roll out and…I still don’t totally get it.

Don’t get me wrong, like everyone else, I’m very impressed by the endless assortment of big names associated with OSM, like Michelle Malkin, Mark Steyn, Glenn Reynolds, and Tammy Bruce among many, many, others. Also, the fact that they’re having a roll-out at the Rainbow Room and have attained $3.5 million dollars worth of venture capital is certainly a sign that someone thinks they’re on the ball.

That being said, there are a lot of things I still don’t understand yet.

For example, is OSM trying to be the Huffington Post, Blogads, the Associated Press, or something in between?

Yesterday, I sent out a survey to quite a number of bloggers who are participating in or writing about the OSM venture, including the principals, asking them to discuss the following:

    1. Why did you join or decline to join?

    2. What do you believe OSM will accomplish?

    3. What role do you see the editorial board of OSM playing among member bloggers?

    4. Did you have concerns that joining a collective enterprise such as this would diminish your editorial control over the site, even in an indirect sense? If so and you joined up anyway, how were your concerns allayed?

    5. There was quite a bit of cross-discussion in the Blogosphere about the financial benefits of this venture vice BlogAds and others. Similarly, some were happy to be freed from the administrative chores of running their own ads. Did this enter into your thought process?

Some disclaimers:

  • I make no claim that this is a scientific survey; it was just a reasonably efficient way to “interview” sources.
  • I have not heard back from founders Roger Simon and Charles Johnson nor editorial board members Glenn Reynolds and Michelle Malkin. Given that my survey overlapped with the launch festivities, though, I still may. If so, I’ll certainly update accordingly.
  • I was invited to join then-Pajamas Media but demurred mostly because their offer was radically less than I was making from BlogAds at the time. Further, I could not quite grasp their business plan after several back-and-forth emails. Ultimately, I expressed interest in participating in the media aggregation part of the plan but not the advertising part; I never heard back on that score.

One of the oddest things I discovered was that some very prominent, respected bloggers to whom I sent the survey were not invited to join. Among these were Stephen Bainbridge, Joe Gandleman, and Steven Taylor.

After informing me of this in response to my survey, Bainbridge joked on his blog, “Am I annoyed that I’m not listed on their blog roll? Nope. Not a bit. … Well, maybe just a smidge. … Well, now that you ask … I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Gandleman informs me that, “They never contacted me beyond that 90 day confidentiality agreement while they looked into it and I never got the stuff by email that other people said they got about ad rates.” He would likely have declined, anyway, because, “As I said in my reply, it’s too branded on one side ideologically for me to get involved with it. ” Joe would rather risk missing the gravy train than risk being lumped in with a collective: “Could it mean PJ Media could take off and I’d lose some money? Maybe. But Blogads aren’t even slightly identified with one political viewpoint.”

David Corn (not surveyed), one of the few true leftists on the editorial board, is cautiously optimistic on that score:

Simon is a prowar social liberal. The other cofounder is Charles Johnson, a conservative blogger. Given this provenance, some folks have been suspicious of this project, seeing it as another rightwing media entity and have questioned my participation as one of its senior contributors/bloggers (and a member of its editorial board). So far, the OSM blogroll is tilted toward the right. But Simon and Johnson claim they are committed to balance and to a free-ranging debate involving all sides (as well as hot-blooded blogging about fashion, entertainment and other lifestyles issue). My attitude is, give it a shot.

John Hawkins reports,

I was one of the people who they contacted initially, but, for whatever reason, I was not one of the people they offered a contract. Had a contract been offered, I would have declined unless they made me an offer so much higher than what I normally made with BlogAds that I just couldn’t refuse. The real concern would have been signing up for a long-term contract with OSM before they’d even gotten up and running.

Taylor was not among those contacted initially but had some discussion with them once they started to explore the idea publicly. Ultimately, he remained skeptical:

I have concerns over content control, but especially concerns over whether joining up would eliminate the individuality of the blogs who join, rendering the concept of a blog moot.

I also have concerns that there isn’t a clear plan for the project. Is this supposed to be actual journalism, is this a way to make advertising dollars? What is it?

Tim Worstall, who was offered a contract, had a reaction similar to Hawkins’:

I [initially] wanted to join for two reasons. One, a further source of revenue over and above Adsense and BlogAds. Two, the original idea as I read it was to try and create a syndication service. Not just an electronic one, but feeding the better pieces from the blog world into the dead tree industry. Sort of a Creators or United for bloggers, those few writing coherently enough to be of interest to those who might actually pay for content.

As more details came out about what was really going on I became less happy. For example, the advertising model was often referred to as a way for PJ to make money to support its other operations. Umm, happy for someone to make money out of providing me with an opportunity, but to deliberately tell me that my income is to be held down to fund other projects? I have a feeling this is more about the principals not being businessmen or salesmen first and thus not quite understanding the impact of their words.

I was also unhappy at the way in which income was capped. What if I start writing something that people actually rather like (instead of appealing to my usual couple of thousand)? My hits will go way up but not my income. Where’s the incentive in that?

As it became clear that the syndication process was a lot further away than I had thought I reckoned best just to sit it out for the moment.

Ann Althouse responded to the survey quickly, referring me back to her blog post of July 31. It’s a very lengthy discussion of the competing business models of then-Pajamas Media and BlogAds and why she found the latter better suited her needs. Last night, she posted a roundup of reactions to the event which gives one the impression she has not changed her mind.

Jeff Jarvis was traveling yesterday and has not sent back a response to the survey. On October 31 he blogged:

Pajamas, as I understand it, wanted to be an ad network. I don’t see huge advertiser demand for a bunch of mostly conservative political bloggers. At one time, they wanted to be some sort of syndicate but I said nobody would buy content. It seems they now want to be some sort of blog central thing — antimatter to the Huffingtonpost’s matter, I suppose — but the difference is that most of her people don’t blog while most of these people already do blog so I don’t know why I need to see a collection of them. And they keep saying they’re going to change their name but they have their gala introduction still using the silly name they have.

Yesterday, after listening to the launch, he wrote: “I still don’t get it.”

Rusty Shackleford said that both the mission of the organization and role of the editorial board was “Unclear to me” but that this was overcome by the revenue issue:

Guaranteed income at a time when I need to be blogging less, not more. Although the upside income is much more limited than under blogads, the downside is also less. […] My biggest concern with blogads is that revenue was so dependent on hits, and on a site like mine hits (and therefore revenue) can vary drastically.

Dean Esmay agrees,

I don’t like hustling for blogads. I also think some blogads are cheesy and cringe to accept them but I wind up doing it because the money is too useful. One of the things OSM promises is to go after higher-quality, professional ad buyers, people like Coke and Chevy and Absolut and so on. That strikes me as a splendid idea, and is something I could never dream of doing while I’m still accepting ads for things like vitamin pills. The contract has reasonable “out” clauses and I keep ownership of my own writing. So where’s the problem?

He explained recently (no date stamps) on his site,

With these guys, I can stop thinking about advertisers almost completely (unless some ad goes up that I strenuously object to anyway). Pajamas Media will bring in a predictable (if small) amount of income to make it worthwhile, and will also promote your blog and increase its respectability and visibility in the “real media” world. Sounds like a win all the way around to me: I signed up immediately.

Of course, that only works for the initial contract period. Presumably, if one’s site traffic declines, so will the renewal offer–if one comes.

Don Singleton was perhaps the most enthusiastic of the responders:

I believe that the blogosphere is the wave of the future, and am interested in participating in any endeavor that advances it.

He sees the organization as

A clearinghouse for advertisements, to allow me to focus my efforts strictly on blogging.

[…]

AFAIK, the only control they will apply is requiring me to insert some code to process their ads. They forbid me to take other ads, but I do not object to that. Getting ad revenue without having to solicit my own ads, deal with the advertiser, etc, was a big positive.

The early reaction seems to be “wait and see.” Because the business model has evolved from the initial proposal sent out by Marc Danziger (who ultimately pulled out to form a different venture of his own) and because the current goals seem somewhat conflictual, there is quite a bit of confusion. On the revenue issue, the arguments are sometimes heated with some feeling insulted by the initial terms and others thrilled.

The one thing the OSM founders have done best–aside from generating seed money and publicity–is allaying concerns about editorial oversight. While there is concern among some that the editorial board is too-right leaning, almost no one seemed worried that the content of their writing would be influenced by participation in the venture.

Update (1147): Althouse is one big exception:

If I were an insider to OSM, would I mock them like this? Isn’t much of the value of bloggers that we are on the outside? Rolling up together in a group to make money — is that worth the sacrifice of independence?

The thought occurred to me as well as I posted an update to my earlier post on the controversy over Open Source Media‘s name. Johnson, Simon, and company are well established bloggers and I honestly don’t think they’re going to abuse their newfound power. But make no mistake: If their venture is at all successful, they’ll control the keys to the kingdom.

Elsewhere:

    Dennis the Peasant (not surveyed) provides a bitter former insider‘s take on this issue. [Update (1307): Apparently, his new format is working for him:

    I’ll note that I’ve had over 7,000 unique visitors over the past 10+ hours. That’s without the West Coast. So I’ll probably have 25,000 to 30,000 unique visitors today. 35 days ago, just before switching this station to a 24 hour “Ragging On Roger” format, a good day was 500 unique visitors.

    Cornering a niche market works, I guess.]

    Kevin Aylward live-blogged the event and provides info on the hotties in attendance.

    Mike Krempasky was there, too, and reports:

    It’s a pretty flashy event – but I don’t think they’ve done much to explain their business to the attendees. […] But in the end – even though many bloggers signed up for this new enterprise early on – I think the bulk of those were motivated by trust in the influential priciples and a healthy competitive streak. The chance to stand on the same pedestal as the New York Times surely appeals to the little guy. And unfortunately – those bloggers interested in a new business model still don’t seem to have any more answers than they did this morning.

    LaShawn Barber (survey sent, no response yet) had a great time at the event and hopes it’s the start of something big:

    Being a part of the pajama brigade, whether we̢۪re getting good press or bad, is exactly what I need to propel myself (and LBC) to a new level. I like blogging, but I want to write books, articles, get quoted by the national media, and blog.

    Pieter Dorsman live blogs it in a series of posts. Scroll down.

    Jeff Goldstein wasn’t there but he live blogs anyway.

    OSM Board Member Dan Drezner (survey sent, no response) posts that,

    I’m less than thrilled with the decision by Pajamas Media to have Judy Miller give the keynote address at the big launch. I’m even less thrilled to have to agree with Kos that this is not an auspicious beginning.

    I initially had a question about that controversy in the survey, lost it due to a technical glitch, and forgot to include it on the re-write.

    Update (1535): Steve Bainbridge has created a law school essay exam based on the OSM contract.

Previously:

FILED UNDER: Best of OTB, Blogosphere, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Jay says:

    James, I was NDA quite early, and was intrigued, even excited initially.

    My understanding was that it had two points:

    Point one and primary, to me, was creating a consortium of blogs, down to the small ones read mainly by friends and family (the latter not always being a comfortable readership to have, but I digress), to attract major advertisers with an advertising venue less fragmented than, say, Blogads, and with more robust ad hosting, to milk the expanding market for internet ad dollars and allow even smaller blogs to make more than might ever be possible for them otherwise.

    Point two was to make further money by syndicating particularly good blog content into the mainstream, as well as running a portal that would help promote associated blogs, increasing traffic all around and bolstering the advertising consortium value.

    Nobody involved ever stated it as clearly as I have, but that was what they were putting forth.

    The thing of most interest to most bloggers, widespread advertising to maximize overall eyeballs by including many small sites, did not materialize. Officially, and no doubt partially, this was for technical reasons. This change was associated with the departure of the founder most associated with the advertising and technical aspects. It also seemed to be associated with the changes needing to be made to the concept to make the venture capital happen.

    In the end, we lost interest, and would probably not have taken up an offer had one been presented. They found they needed to stick with blogs of several hundred hits per day and larger. Apparently I neglected to “withdraw” fully, as our blog is listed as one of the content associates (or whatever they call them) on their outrageously bloated in file size blogroll page.

    Mostly the whole thing has been inept, not in keeping with how true bloggers might operate, and at the same time lacking in basic business skill, like making sure the name was well chosen (not to mention not already in confusingly similar usage).




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  2. Tim Worstall says:

    I’d just like to add that if they or anyone else comes up with what I describe above as what I thought they were going to do then I’d join like a shot.




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  3. Jack says:

    I was number 300 to sign the non-disclosure agreement so that I would be included on the evolving business plan.

    I only received two emails after the initial one congratulating me as #300, neither of these emails indicated the radical change of dropping 230+ blogs and moving away from the ad-distribution model.

    In addition, it appears that their new name/slogan was already owned and trademarked, which would have been revealed by a simple Google search or looking at the US Patent and Trademark Office, which has an easy to use search page.

    Enterprises that start with significantly less initial investment behave more professionally both in terms of communication and covering the bases.

    I am rather alienated, not by their decision, I can understand a change was needed. However, the complete lack of communication gives it the feeling of “you’re not good enough, so we won’t even tell you what is going on.”

    I don’t know how many of the other 230+ feel the same as I do, but the reactions I see are not promising.




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  4. Nick says:

    As a smaller blogger who wanted to participate, I have a obviously different perspective on the whole thing.

    I wrote about my experience here.

    I also have provided my thoughts on their new name, and terms of use here.




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  5. Jim Kukral says:

    Great summary here, thank you. I’m still confused though, what does that mean? 🙂




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  6. Don’t take it for granted. I’m far from sold and I can’t figure out what the orgy fest is really for? I’m sorry. I’ve read everything that everyone has written and I just think it’s another stupid thing. I’m just not buying into it. Sorry.




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  7. bryan says:

    Just for the historical record, I want to again state that Dean Esmay and I had the original idea well before the OSM folks, as I detailed here: How we almost came up with the next big thing.

    Our idea was much more along the lines of syndication, providing traffic back to the blogs who put their content on our site, but with the emphasis on original reporting and a modicum of editorial oversight.

    This whole business about “making blogs legitimate” is going to be the part that kills it for me.




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  8. Sissy Willis says:

    Nobody asked me — even though my buddies at PJM profiled me early on — but in my view the big mistake was dropping trou (PJ bottoms) and going with the generic-sounding OSM. It’s poetry vs. bureaucracy. I’m still in the blogroll and glad to be, but it’s too bad they forgot that the iconic magic of words is where it’s at.




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  9. Sissy Willis says:

    I hate the vagaries of trackbacks.

    The big mistake was dropping trou




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  10. nickpicker says:

    Officially, and no doubt partially, this was for technical reasons. This change was associated with the departure of the founder most associated with the advertising and technical aspects.

    Just lately I had a brief conversation with Roger where I pointed out a major security risk in the way OSM wants to maintain communication within the staff. Roger responded that he “talked to his tech-guy, and they see no problem in this.”

    Now it makes sense.




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