Bill Gates and the alternative future of news

Bloggers don't often get a chance to formally interview C-ring executives at major companies -- time is a thoroughly managed resource at that level of things and bloggers don't provide predictable (if at all measurable) return on investment.

So it comes as a bit of a surprise to see a blog -- Engadget -- featuring a lengthy one-on-one interview with one of the world's most time-managed executives, Bill Gates.

But before members of the weblog community celebrate yet another victory on the credibility front, it's important to take a look behind the scenes at what Engadget really is.


Last week, the Otago Museum hosted the launch of a new tool designed to interest kids in science, Scicards. It's a national programme, and a good one, that uses established viral marketing techniques to put the "wow" factor back into science for what it calls "tweens" -- kids between 8 and 12.

Engadget is another form of "tweening" -- it looks like a blog but commands the resources and production values of a media organisation.

Published as part of a "network" of websites configured to look like blogs, Engadget has been online for just over a year (it turned 1 on 3 March) and has a "monthly readership" -- to use its own somewhat ambiguous phrase -- of over 1.5 million.

A masthead staff of 17 is headed by well-known internet writer Peter Rojas, who claims the title of editor-in-chief and content is broken down into sections.

If that sounds like a magazine, it should. Although it looks like a blog and acts like a blog, Engadget is a webzine (web-based magazine) dressed up like a blog.

It is also one of the core publications of a newish attempt -- Weblogsinc -- to make blogging commercially viable and is sustained by the resources of the group behind that effort, which means the content areas are covered by people who treat content production as a job.

Apart from the layout, permalinks and open interactivity of Weblogsinc titles like Engadget, what's really on display here is a modified version of, especially in its early incarnation as The Mining Company.

To wit: An expert writes alone or in conjunction with others about a "hot" topic (gadgets, say), links to outside material and solicits feedback from the readership.

Like the labyrinth that has evolved into, the "blogs" on Weblogsinc are tied together by technology that lets a major story on one -- the Bill Gates interview, for example -- populate out very visibly into all the others, ensuring cross traffic.

Weblogsinc has 75 "blogs" working now, with titles covering a genuinely eclectic gamut -- and the founders, one-time high school buddies and bubble high-fliers Jason Calacanis and Brian Alvey, are looking for even more.

Nick Denton, the internet seer who revolutionised news distribution through his Moreover aggregator service, was also a startup partner, according to venture capitalist and internet content pioneer Fred Wilson (LinkedIn profile), who writes extensively and insightfully about Weblogsinc (and the genre) on his own blog, A VC.

Mr Denton is invoved in yet another "tween" enterprise now, Gawker Media, which is unrepentantly a collection of webzines using blogging tools and formats.

Business cases

The key to the "business case" in these enterprises is apparent in the layout: advertisements, lots of them -- more than 50 per cent of the page space on every page, in Weblogsinc sites. What's new is that the advertisements are served up "intelligently" on the basis of content and incoming IP. That is, if you visit from New Zealand, you'll see New Zealand advertisements as well as ones that deal with the very specific content of the story inside its permalink (permanent link) "home."

In the still-existing olden times, advertising was sold as banners and tiles and appeared on a website regardless of content. The brand was the selling point -- and that doesn't work well for most web-only content, especially blogs, because there are so few predictable editorial controls.

That's no longer true -- and perhaps the best demonstration of how this new order works is seen through the now nearly ubiquitous Google-based advertisement links.

Ultimately, the new tools mean that an advertiser buys association with a topic (or a location, such as a browser based in New Zealand) rather than a brand and so achieves maximum bang for the buck. If one is selling widgets to an audience reading about widgets, the click-throughs should be higher than normal -- and they are, by a factor of about five.

Bill Gates

So when Microsoft's PR managers granted that interview, it probably had little to do with the legitimacy of blogging and more to do with the audience it would reach.

And that audience, because of the way Engadget is built and promoted, includes an enormous share of all the internet content surfers interested in "gadgets" like the X-box.

It takes a visionary company (yes, Microsoft is a visionary company) to realise just how effective this artificially-viral networking concept is -- at least, right now.

But even as the growth of newspapers was made possible by advances in the technology that makes and delivers advertising for print, it may be new advertising models that enable blogs -- or blog-like, content-specific, web-only publications -- to gain the access they need to generate news.

Without that capacity, blogs tend overwhelmingly to be either parasitic or mere commentary: interesting, amusing, even useful, but not central.

With it, the future of news could be in the first person.

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