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Elizabeth Spiers: Blog Publishing is a 'Traditional Media Model'
















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Elizabeth Spiers: Blog Publishing is a 'Traditional Media Model'
The aspiring blog empress behind Dealbreaker, a new online business tabloid, says that the economics of blogging are very attractive. Media companies could use blogs to test concepts for "print, broadcast, anything."

I Want Media, 03/27/06

Elizabeth Spiers, the founding editor of the infamous media gossip blog Gawker, is planning to launch her own network of blogs. The first title, Dealbreaker, a Wall Street gossip blog, is set to open Wednesday.

Spiers, a veritable pioneer of the snarky blog, is backed in her new venture by Justin Smith, president of Dennis Publishing's newsweekly The Week, and Carter Burden, president and CEO of the Web hosting company Logicworks.

Dealbreaker's focus on the finance world won't be new territory for Spiers. She worked as an equity analyst for hedge funds before pal Nick Denton signed her up to be Gawker's first editor in 2002. She left the site a year later to write and edit front-of-the-book features and a short-lived blog for New York magazine. Then she was hired as editor in chief of Mediabistro, a job site for journalists, where she oversaw the launch of several gossip blogs. She left the site late last year to write a novel, "And They All Die in the End," a satire about Wall Street, slated to be published by Riverhead in 2007.

Spiers spoke about her new blog business last week with students in a digital journalism course at New York University instructed by I Want Media founder Patrick Phillips. The students had many questions for the new blog impresario.


Q: What is Dealbreaker?

Elizabeth Spiers: Dealbreaker is a Wall Street gossip blog. It's sort of an online business tabloid. It will be essentially the platform for what's going to be an extended network of blogs. It's the same kind of media model we used for Gawker -- creating voicey online content and selling ads against it. It's really a traditional media model.

Q: What will be the subjects of the other blogs in the network?

Spiers: I can't talk about that yet. We're planning on doing three to four blogs by the end of the year. They will be in development over the summer and won't launch until fall.

Q: Who is your audience?

Spiers: Mostly people who work in finance. But it's going to be broader than that. Dealbreaker is for a highly educated, urban audience. Demographically, it's comparable to the former Manhattan Inc. magazine, which was the precursor to New York magazine and was kind of about the New York power elite.

Q: How will Dealbreaker differ from other financial news sites?

Spiers: Our editorial approach will be something like "The Daily Show" does CNBC -- very sophomoric. We'll be wrapping finance news in entertainment.

I had drinks with Jim Cramer a few weeks ago. His "Mad Money" is one of the highest-rated shows on CNBC. I explained Dealbreaker to him. I think he thought it was going to be a lot more serious.

I thought he would intuitively understand it, because "Mad Money" takes dry financial information that people don't want to digest naturally and wraps it in candy coating. And that's kind of what we'll be doing with Dealbreaker. Jim's show is engaging because it's entertaining and people learn something in the process.

Q: Do you think your editorial voice will be well-received on Wall Street?

Spiers: It's wrong to assume that finance people are nerdy and aren't interested in this sort of thing.

When we started Gawker, we did a reader survey early on and found that something like 25 to 30 percent of the audience worked in financial services. Wall Street guys were reading Gawker before 90 percent of the media people I know.

Bankers in the mid-to-lower level are in the office 12 hours a day, and they kill time between meetings looking around on the Internet.

Q: Are you the sole writer of Dealbreaker, or do you have a staff?

Spiers: I'll be writing a lot of Dealbreaker initially. Not because I have to; I actually like the subject matter. I'm much more familiar with Wall Street than I was with media when we started Gawker. I didn't know anything about media at all. Or celebrities. For me, Paris Hilton was a hotel in France at that point.

The economics of blogging are very attractive. The publishing costs are really low. I think it's entirely affordable to hire people full-time to do blogs. Our model is different from what [Gawker publisher] Nick Denton and [Weblogs Inc. publisher] Jason Calacanis are doing. I'm going to hire a full-time editor to do each of our blogs, and then hire contributing writers who get paid for posts on top of that.

Q: How many people are you hiring?

Spiers: One primary full-time editor on each blog. Depending on the topic, we may hire two for some of them. I just hired a sales guy. Right now I'm hiring infrastructure people mostly. Editorial will ramp up over the summer when we develop the next two or three sites.

Q: What will be the pay scale for your editors and writers? Is it comparable to what someone would be paid at a magazine?

Spiers: It depends on the magazine. If you're working for Vogue, probably not. If you're working for the New York Observer, it's going to be higher. It will be like a mid-level newspaper reporter job. And I'll pay more for people who have more reporting experience.

I hesitate to hire mainstream journalists. They always assume that blogging is easy to do. Then they agonize over 100-word blog posts as if they're going to be published in The New Yorker.

There are many really good mainstream journalists who try to blog, but the output just kills them. They'll say, "I can do eight posts a day." Then they'll do three posts and are like, "This took me six hours." It just doesn't behoove me to go looking among mainstream media people for bloggers.

Q: Where are you finding your bloggers?

Spiers: Mostly people who already have blogs. I'm looking for people who are already writing about finance, but in an interesting way.

Q: Why do some mainstream journalists have problems when they try to become bloggers?

Spiers: If you start out at a mainstream publication you're cognizant that your magazine has a quarter-million circulation. You have all these inhibitions because if you get something wrong you feel there's going to be some sort of backlash.

With blogging, many mainstream journalists are afraid they're going to make a mistake. And so they agonize over small things that are frankly just going to scroll off the page by the end of the day. It's a mental block that they have trouble getting over.

Q: Will your bloggers fact-check their work? Gawker has been criticized for posting any information that's emailed to them.

Spiers: The current incarnation of Gawker is not exactly what it was when I was writing it. Parts of it are better, parts are worse. When I started the Gawker Stalker feature, I put a big disclaimer on it: "I have no idea if any of this is true."

I had zero reporting experience when I started at Gawker. And partly because of my own paranoia, I was afraid people would try to manipulate it. Somebody could open a new restaurant and send in 30 sightings of Lindsay Lohan there licking Nicole Ritchie's ear. If I posted them then the restaurant would get bombarded with people. So for the regular items, I would try to make a good faith effort to check them out.

There's a big gray area about reasonable standards with blogs. But there's also kind of a common-sense applicability. If you study law and talk about what constitutes a good faith effort, there's no black line about what that means. But there is a sort of spirit of law standard -- you know it when you see it.

Q: Has Gawker changed much since you left?

Spiers: The editorial part has not. But the tone changes with different writers. Nick and I had different ideas about what creates buzz.

For me, I like funny things. Nick likes controversy. And with the current two writers, Jesse Oxfeld and Jessica Cohen, I get the sense that Nick is like, "Turn up the level of harshness and make it meaner, and people will pay more attention." Sometimes that's true. If you are going after people really aggressively, of course people are going to pay attention.

Since I've left Gawker, they've covered me really aggressively. And a lot of times they run stuff that's just categorically not true. Or they take a not-good piece of information, spin it negatively and print it as fact. It's their shtick now, and I sort of understand it.

Q: Do you believe that you created the Gawker voice?

Spiers: I don't think there is a Gawker voice; I think there's a Gawker editorial formula. Jesse Oxfeld and Jessica Coen don't sound like me, and I don't sound like them. When [my immediate successor] Choire Sicha initially started writing it, he tried to parrot my voice, and it was awkward initially. Then he started writing like he writes naturally, and it was so much better.

Blogs are cropping up now that try to parrot the same territory as Gawker, and I just don't think they work. People have to write in their own voice.

Q: DealBook, a financial newsletter published by the New York Times, recently expanded into a blog. Is it similar to what you'll be doing?

Spiers: Not really. Andrew Sorkin, the editor, is insanely talented. But Dealbreaker is totally different. Sorkin's DealBook is utility driven. You go there so you don't have to read 40 different newspapers. It's kind of an aggregator; it summarizes stories. Ninety percent of the stuff Dealbreaker's going to do the New York Times would consider really frivolous.

Q: Can you give an example?

Spiers: [Microsoft co-founder] Paul Allen threw a party a few months ago on this enormous boat that you first have to get on another boat in order to get to it. It's almost a Monty Python thing, where you have the 50-foot boat that carries you to the 150-foot boat. And he reportedly has an enormous, several-story guitar in the atrium of the boat. Three or four people told me about this.

That's not a New York Times business section story. But it's definitely a Dealbreaker item. There's a voyeuristic appeal and an entertainment value to it.

When you put people in an environment like Wall Street and give them a lot of money, it does strange things to them. The number of eccentric characters in finance is much higher than in media.

Q: Do blogs need to be entertaining to be successful?

Spiers: No, I think there are a lot of blogs that are useful. I just can't do service journalism. When Nick and I started Gawker, he wanted it to be more service oriented, like have restaurant recommendations. But I was like, "Nick, I don't know where all the cool restaurants are. I can't do this." So we started going in a gossipy direction because that's what I thought I could do.

Q: Do you recommend that young journalists starting out should be bloggers?

Spiers: It depends what you want to do in journalism long-term. If you want to do commentary, absolutely, because that's the only way you're going to get in. Otherwise, it's a very "pay your dues" kind of thing, where you have to be a reporter for 40 years. But if you're a good writer, you can go straight into it if your work is good and getting read.

Q: Can blogging be a good business?

Spiers: I think it's a good business if you do it correctly. I also think that blogs could be used for testing editorial concepts. For print, broadcast, anything.

I'm surprised that more big media companies don't use the Web for concept testing. Especially in broadcasting. They put millions of dollars in a TV pilot, don't know if it works and waste all that money. Many pilots are thrown away that don't even go into syndication anywhere.

Now that we have iTunes syndicating old CBS shows, I think there's a model there where people could produce really cheap TV pilots and get better user data on what viewers actually think.

Blogs are starting to integrate with social networking apps, which is very interesting. That's the next generation -- the user who thinks of the Web as this necessary kind of way of life and sculpts his entire social world around it.

Questions by:   Zack Barangan · Christine Caro · Travis Carter ·
Paul Colarusso · Jacqueline Colozzi · Leslie Ann Nacario ·
Andrew Nusca · Carolyn Okomo · Ivan Pereira · Adam Raymond ·
Rebecca Ruiz · Dan Smith · Julia Song · Tracy Steel ·
Wei Man Tang · Joe Terranella · Tracy Wong




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