The Dawn of the MicroPubs

Please do not get confused by the headline – there are not musings about microbrews or pubs, though both are god’s beautiful creations. Nevertheless, I am ruminating about the rise of micro-publications. This past week, I had a chance to meet Kevin McKenzie, founder of JIWire, a combo wi-fi directory and Wi-Fi news site. It was a delightful meeting, and as we discussed the JIWire business model it came to me that we are seeing the dawn of micropublishing. (In case you were wondering why? Click here for the real reasons behind this tiny essay.)

JIWire, Gawker, Gizmodo, WiFiNetNews, PVRBlog, Always-On Network, and PaidContent are examples of these micro-publishing efforts. Close examination of these publications and you see the following common traits.

* Micro-pubs have a narrow and extreme focus on one niche category
* Micro-pub editor/founder is an expert in his chosen arena
* Micro-pubs use open source tools and a content management system like Moveable Type or pMachine.
* Micro-pubs all command very high CPM rates because of their narrow focus.
* Micro-pubs are more than just a blog, I.e. they have a mix of links and original reporting.
* Micro-pubs only work with a skeletal crew – add more people and the business model of these micro-pubs breaks down.

In short, micro-pub is a combination of old fashioned newsletter, blog and a directory service, managed by one to ten people.

This is a model which is sustainable and perhaps makes more sense than some of the idiotic models proposed by hype meisters of the dot-com era. (Ironically now that I think back, it was one of the conversations I had with Nick Denton, but then he is a doer and he managed to turn the talk into a growing business.) Weblogging as a business model has very few barriers to entry, and weblogs devoted to certain subjects can be easily replicated. However if an editor can mix this with original reporting and occasional scoops, then the micro-pubs have managed to create value that readers and industry insiders will pay attention to. WiFiNetNews, PaidContent and Gawker (with its exclusive Gawker Stalker) has managed to create value, and as a result have put distance between themselves and johnny-come-bloggedlys.

This is exactly what the JIWire team is striving to do. Kevin quit CNET earlier this year and decided to start JIWire. He roped in Glenn Fleishman of WiFiNetNews and put together a cracker jack team. McKenzie has raised $600,000 from friends and family and once corporate backer, CNET. (He is currently looking for another $1 million but feels that should be more than enough for JIWire to turn a profit.)

By roping in WiFiNetNews, JIWire managed to limit its content creation costs (and who could do a better job than Glenn) and built a directory service, a hot spot locater, that the company is now syndicating to the likes of USAToday, Intel, Yahoo and CNET. This allows the company to make money. In addition, it has become a one stop shop for all hot-spot operators to list their offerings. It is a very simple model which sans the excesses of the dot-com era could revive online publishing.

Our friend, Rafat Ali, who runs the PaidContent site is making money (more than he was making as a journalist) and his site also has similar offerings including some niche email newsletters. Always-On is beginning to get revenue traction, just like Gawker and Gizmodo.

There is one little similarity in the forementioned publications – they are all managed or run by journalists. What does that mean? It means (at least to me) that journalists can harness the power of web logging and build self-sustaining publications and be independent. Should I take the plunge? After all I have broadband as part of my domain portfolio!

Om Malik

Glenn Fleishman weighs in with his views…

I couldn’t agree more with what you’re saying. A couple of additional points:

* Each of these sites started as either an experiment or a labor of love by one or two people. Nobody anticipated the success precisely. Nick Denton funding Pete at Gizmodo is the closest example of speculation based on the potential for it to turn into something. But even there, Nick found a fellow willing to be obsessed on the topic.

* The funding for the sites isn’t coming from subscribers: it’s coming from affiliate programs and advertising. So we have the motivation of bringing more bodies in, but we’re not selling services directly to our readers. Our readers support us just by showing up. Google AdSense turned Wi-Fi Networking News from a time sink that led to article assignments by publications into an actual
revenue generator.

* Google drives traffic to us. 45% of the traffic to Wi-Fi Networking comes from search engines (about 20% is unclassified and 25% people typing in the URL or coming from bookmarks). Google US is 66% of all search engine referrals and another few percentage points from all the other Google international sites.

(There’s a good article in Google flow…Google drives traffic in and then reaps a % of traffic out from the Google AdSense ads.)

* It takes a while to get the ball rolling. It was probably a year into Wi-Fi Networking News that I started to have an impact and a real regular readership. It was about that time that CEOs call me up to get my opinion, tell me they quote me, and cite entries back to me when I meet with them.

* The subject matter is niche, and often somewhat ignored by mainstream media. There’s no Wi-Fi magazine, and it took until the last year for publications in and out of the computer world to become as obsessed with it as they are now. Gizmodo is unique: there’s gadget coverage everywhere, but
nothing comprehensive. There’s no room for a million magazines on the newsstand any more and it costs $5 to $10M to launch a national one. It costs a couple hundred bucks to run a Movable Type blog for a year.

* Blog flow leads to expert status. We’re all being seen as experts partly because other people are giving us their Whuffie votes through links and references.

It’s a very interesting process. I still believe in editors and massive distribution, but there’s so much room for niches.

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