It Takes Serious Money to Scale an Online Pub

Back in the golden days of tech blogging, there were a handful of intrepid entrepreneurs who started successful tech blogs. It was an easier undertaking back then. Today, it takes cash to scale, and even strong brands struggle to keep up.

There was something intoxicating about the idea of being able to start a publication at your kitchen table with a laptop and a credit card. Prior to the development of blogging platforms, you needed millions to buy the buildings and the printing presses, and even more to get the trucks to distribute your work on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. For writers, that meant you worked for a print publication or you didn't work at all.

When blogging platforms started to appear in the early 2000s, it put publishing within reach of nearly anyone-and several people jumped at the opportunity. Folks such as Michael Arrington at TechCrunch (where I currently work), Om Malik at Gigaom, and Rafat Ali at paidContent started their own publications with little more than their computers and their wits. Arrington reportedly got $25 million for TechCrunch when he sold it to AOL in 2010. Ali pulled in $30 million from The Guardian for paidContent (which was later sold to Gigaom), and Gigaom raised more than $22 million in funding from investors.

TechCrunch got the money to grow with AOL. Gigaom, however, closed its doors suddenly in March, showing that even with strong financial backing, it's getting increasingly difficult to run a successful publication alone. (It's worth noting that Gigaom's assets were purchased by Knowingly in May.)

If you want further proof of just how hard it is to grow in the digital age, look at Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, who spun out the highly successful All Things Digital. The site, which had been part of The Wall Street Journal, relaunched as Re/code in January 2014. Just 18 months later, the pair announced they were selling it to Vox Media-a startlingly quick turnaround for a pair of high-profile journalists.

If folks with the brand equity of Swisher and Mossberg have difficulty making it on their own, it shows just how much the market has shifted since those heady days a decade ago. Today, it's harder for an independent publication to hire good journalists and sell enough ads to make it alone without a deep-pocketed partner to help.

In all of these cases, there is also an event business that is helping to finance the editorial side. TechCrunch has TechCrunch Disrupt. Re/code has the Code Conference. Gigaom had its own events calendar. All of this helped supplement the base site.

Publications such as Re/code, PandoDaily, and Skift (the travel publication Ali launched a couple of years after selling paidContent) required external funding to even get off the ground. PandoDaily, the tech blog launched by Sarah Lacy, has raised $4.7 million to date, while Skift has raised $1.1 million. Re/code had backing from NBC-Universal and Comcast Ventures.

These sites proved you could no longer launch (or grow) a serious digital media contender without some financial clout. Ironically, the big guns such as Comcast and Verizon (Verizon recently bought AOL, which owns TechCrunch) are increasingly seeing the value of content to drive their businesses. Meanwhile, it is more and more difficult for standalone sites to compete on their own. Publishing is no longer the exclusive territory of the rich and famous, but you still need a significant chunk of cash to keep a publication going-and that takes strong financial backing from investors, partners, or a deep-pocketed corporate parent.

There is no question that the advent of blogging platforms put publishing within reach of anyone with a computer and an internet connection. In that regard, it changed publishing forever, and that dream is still within reach for individual writers. However, scaling that dream in a significant way is becoming less of a reality without the help of some serious money.   

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So I came up with a new resolution for 2016: instead of deleting these accounts all together, I will take small steps to limit how much time I spend on these sites, and will therefore reduce the amount of energy I expend sifting through hundreds of tweets and statuses a day. Honestly, after about 2 weeks of curtailing my social media appetite, I'm feeling pretty good, and the time I do spend online feels less meandering and unguided.