A blogger spends 16 years writing over 3 million words and 11,000 articles mostly for blogs like Gizmodo and TechCrunch, and what is the lesson they take away from it? In their words, “You learn that the media is broken and you are mostly the cause.”
When I saw John Biggs’ honest and vulnerable reflection of his time as a blogger and tech reporter last week, I knew I wanted to talk to him. He and I had met and interacted a few times. Once, when he was the producer of a TechCrunch show I appeared on. Occasionally interacting on email, arguing over Twitter as well. But you never really know what’s going on with a person, what their life or job is really like.
I was certainly guilty of that. So when I read his reflection on years in the blogging game, I wanted to ask him all the things I should have asked him over the years. What is it like to shove “crap into the great gaping maw of the media consumer?” (his words). What kind of impact does the daily grind of the digital sweatshop have on the people who work in it? What can he tell us about how the sausage is made? What can media consumers learn from that knowledge?
John was gracious enough to reply and share his experiences below. I was also excited to hear about his projects outside of journalism. For all the tech writers who sit safely behind computer screens criticizing other people’s projects, John has taken the risk to start his own company Freemit, building a way to send, spend, and get money anywhere in the world. He’s written multiple books. He’s an interesting fellow.
I hope you enjoy what he has to say below.
Your writing has appeared in some of the biggest outlets like the New York Times and Men’s Health yet you started as a programmer. Why the switch? How did you get into journalism? What were you hoping to do?
When I was a consultant I built one project over five years. When I was a writer I wrote about 500 projects in one year. I always loved writing and melding tech and writing—first at a magazine, then at a blog—made perfect sense. It was a dream come true. When I started writing about tech I wanted to wrest tech writing away from the deep nerds, the folks who would argue technical points incessantly, as well as the dilettantes. I’m from Ohio. I wanted a happy Medium. I also wanted to wrest watch writing away from the fashion writers. In the watch industry was the exact opposite of the tech industry. Instead of writing about why a watch was amazing they would write about how the band matched your shoes. So, again, I wanted to bring balance.
In your big media piece, you reflected on what you’ve learned writing some 11,000 posts. Something I’m curious about, how many of those pieces do you really remember? Or is it like an assembly line where at a certain point, everything looks the same and blurs together?
It’s hard to tell. I remember a few of my favorite pieces, the ones I researched intensely or the ones that meant a lot to me, but the rest were just work. There is a pernicious lie that writers believe: all writing is memorable and important. It isn’t. Writing is a job and writing is a mode of communication. You remember just a few conversations you have in your life so why should you remember every post? Blogging, in a way, is a chat with the reader. “Hey, did you see this cool thing?” If you make it something more you’re going to fail because you won’t write enough and if you make it something less you will fail because the reader comes away thinking there is no one on the other end.
Related to that, if you could go back and un-publish one piece, or let’s say substantially edit one piece, which would it be and why?
Not really. One of the benefits of writing about tech is that you usually come down on the right side of things. I said that Palm would be a failure. It was. I said Microsoft had a shot with the Surface. It did. I don’t recall any specific piece that makes me think I’d need to go back and edit it.
Note from Ryan: Here’s a related excerpt from John’s post as well:
I worked for Gizmodo where we started a new, flippant version of the standard tech writing that once graced the pages of actual paper magazines. We wrote so much that we got cocky and conceited and annoying and we hated our subjects for their earnest desire for coverage. We invented the listicle. We invented the gift guide. We mostly invented the sponsored post. We brought about the move from media to social media and we reacted by creating awful headlines and writing terrible prose. I tried to stay above the fray but it was really hard. Now everything is broken and sucks. I’m honestly really sorry. When I left Laptop Magazine to go to Gawker I didn’t think we’d end up with all these bullshit click-bait headlines like “This Woman Pulled Her Guts Out Through Her Belly Button. What Happens Next Will Give You Chills.” Seriously. Sorry. This is what happens when you monetize over all else.
One of the things I liked that you talked about in the post is the effect that some of bad practices in the industry—bullshit content, clickbait headlines, the listicles, etc—have on the writers themselves. That you’ve gained weight, that you feel burned out. It reminds me of the Frederick Douglass quote “a man is worked on by what he works on.” Would you agree that the way the industry operates has that effect on people like yourself?
What I happened to me is not new. Everyone in the “content” game, from Ben Franklin to Gawker bloggers, suffer the same fate. You’re exhausted, you feel the endless urge to create more, and marketers try to use your energy to their own ends. When you get things right you are rewarded by silence and when you get things wrong—or even say an unpopular thing—you are rewarded by days of derision. You are living a dichotomy: the desire to produce good writing and the need to produce endless streams of content.
I suspect the Douglass quote is a bit melodramatic to use for people who write jokes on the Internet but I’ll bite: writing is a sedentary, lonely life even if millions of people read you each month. The people who do it eschew the limelight, spend hours behind keyboards, and interact with the world electronically. It can be immensely rewarding but each reward comes with a converse curse. Stress, weight gain, anxiety, a sense of purposeless go hand in hand with the excitement of posting things for people to enjoy. You have to shovel more stuff into the great gullet every day until you collapse. It kind of sucks. The industry rewards quantity. The more you write the better your traffic. That’s an immutable law. Drudge isn’t popular because he’s an amazing writer but because he learned to aggregate early on. Now, interestingly, some amazing writers have popped up in the world of blogging including a lot of folks at TechCrunch, Motherboard, Gawker, and The Awl. The quality falls precipitously from there.
As someone with long history in media, what do you wish the average reader knew about how the sausage was made? I feel like there are so many open secrets in the industry that media folks assume the public knows but doesn’t. What would you urge people to think about?
For every journalist trying to tell the truth there is an army of PR people trying to press an agenda. And those PR people are getting smarter. Access is given and taken away and lack of access can destroy a powerful site. Gizmodo lost all access to Apple when it posted on the lost iPhone on and it changed the face of the site. There are a few sites that stay away from this sort of work but they are rare.
It’s also important to realize that not every journalist is on the take. There are a few weird interactions—brand ambassador garbage and the like—but assume that every blog makes far less than you’d assume. Some industries—the fashion and car industries come to mind—fly their journalists all over the world for events but they don’t pay for coverage. Another interesting point? Apple pays no one for positive coverage. Assume the same is true for everything from gaming to publishing. There’s no upside for the PR agency to pay some schlub to write nice things when they know they’ll get a good review just by supplying a review unit. Also assume that all review units go back, incidentally. When you review tech you don’t want any more high end laptops in your house, as odd as that may sound.
Further, PR is about to supplant independent voices with its own story. Look at social media. That torrent of garbage is being flooded by real-looking updates that are specifically designed to capture your attention and follow you around the Internet. Marketing technology is amazingly complex and journalists don’t stand a chance. Once PR can route around journalists then we’ll all be in trouble.
Note from Ryan: John’s original post has a very insightful bit on this, I’ve excerpted below:
PR people have learned to game blogs the way record labels used to game radio DJs. Because there are so many outlets you make each one feel very special and then force them to post at exactly the same time. This makes a perfect funnel cloud of useless knowledge. Think about that next time you read five reviews of the same product at the same time: the bloggers basically are advertising that product for free and, because they think they are doing the world a favor, they feel special. They shouldn’t.
You say that “a blogger like [you] can get you hundreds of thousands of pageviews.” What do you mean by that? That you can spin a story? That you just have a sense of where the angle is and how to get it? Can you tell us how that works? How that skill is developed and what it means?
If you do this long enough you know what resonates with your audience and the wider world. I can be wrong, but most of the time I’m right. There is a certain umami in a good blog post that can at once please and intrigue the reader. You develop that skill by deciding what people would read. I try to imagine my ideal reader scrolling through the Internet looking for something cool. If I think the reader will stop on a post or topic then I do it. If I think it will be uninteresting then I ignore it.
Of all the outlets out there—and you’ve written for many of them—who do you feel like is the most egregious? Who would you never work with or for?
I don’t want to call anyone out, even marketing-driven site like Buzzfeed. Everyone is trying to do the same thing: monetize content. If someone figured out a better way to do it then god bless them. The one thing I hate, however, is the reduction of writer to content generation. Outlets that ask people to write for free—HuffPo and Forbes are two—are ridiculous. Unless you are a CEO flogging your product then writing for free is a sucker’s game.
I hate the garbage viral sites that seem to pop up like fungi on the dead log of the Internet. I honestly don’t know where a lot of these sites come from and they seem to be dedicated to reposting viral content and hoping that readers don’t realize its been stolen. It’s baffling to me that anyone makes money that way.
Any advice for the next generation of writers? Or someone like you, that wants to write books or start a company and sees blogging as a way to get there. If you were doing it again, what would you do differently?
My advice? Write and then write some more. There are no shortcuts. Write for the school paper then for the local alt weekly (if you still have one) and write online. Don’t ever write for free unless you’re writing for your own site. Make your own online presence beyond social media. When you’re starting out do not send a single thing to an editor that you haven’t had professionally edited. I have seen the worst pitch letters—misspelled subjects, nonsensical text—and the idea that some idiot is sitting in front of their computer saying “Yeah, this is how I’m going to make it big in writing” is ludicrous. The world owes you nothing as a writer. You have to make all of your success.
If you’re writing a book remember that it is not a solitary endeavor. Before you send it to an agent or publisher you have to have it read and edited. Also assume that all of the good things that existed for writers—paychecks, royalties, advances—are going away. You have to make your own luck.
What’s next for you? It seems that you have shifted gears and are running a tech finance startup? And writing books as well?
I’m running a startup now, yes. It’s something I wanted to do. I haven’t built anything for a while and I think it will be a wild ride. I’m also writing some fiction and non-fiction. I basically need to get back into the hustle and this is one way to do it.
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and two other books. He is an editor-at-large for the New York Observer and his monthly reading recommendations are found here. He currently lives in Austin, Texas.