Conrad Quilty-Harper – www.engadget.com

Engadget ‘owns the niche’ it occupies – it got there first and now up to 10 million unique visitors a month read around 50 new blog posts each day

  • Engadget’s unique selling point is live blogging at events like the Consumer Electronics Fair
  • Its writers are paid per post – some start on as little as $2 a post (which take 10 – 20 minutes to write), successful writers might earn $15 per post or $40,000 pa
  • The founders of the company – one of whom started the company writing 15 posts per day – all became millionaires when they sold out to AOL

The main thing that qualifies me to talk about making blogs pay is the time that I spent working for Weblogs Inc.  I worked for two-and-a-half years on Joystiq and Engadget.  Engadget is one of the biggest tech sites out there.  I also worked on Mahalo in San Diego.  Both were founded by Jason Carlacanis, a serial entrepreneur who made a million in the first dot com boom with the Silicon Alley Reporter.

Engadget is a gadget blog started in 2004, by Peter Rojas, Jason Carlacanis and Brian Alvey, doing the behind-the-scenes programming. Peter was the journalist and he made his name writing 15 blog posts a day from the Consumer Electronics Show.  At that time, the operation had no money and no office. When the company sold to AOL, all three made a million.

Today on Engadget, you can see 50 blog posts a day.  It attracts round 10 million unique visitors a month or 150 million page views a month.  That is around the same readership as the Daily Mirror’s site.  Engadget is now the official blog partner to Consumer Electronic Show.  And it was recognised as Adweek’s ‘blog of the decade’.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in 2005, there was just Peter Rojas.  The next year he had a small team, and the year after that, 25 writers.  Now, they have their own trailer.

I was with the company from 2005.  I wrote over 2,000 posts or a quarter of a million words. I did features, interviews, reviews, the lot, including live blogging, photos, videos.  Whatever covered gadgets the best, Engadget did. I covered the iPhone launch.  My first experience of San Francisco was sitting outside the Apple Store for 8 hours to buy one of the first phones, and reviewing it the same day.

Engadget ‘owns the niche’ it occupies.  The site achieved this by finding an area that was not being reported.  There was nothing about gadgets in 2004, except magazines that were full of scantily clad women.  Engadget put the gadgets at the centre.  They found a good niche, got there first, and they used a load of familiar web techniques. For example, they use descriptive titles, all the posts have lots of great links, and they use keywords to link back to previous posts.

Being first with news is far more important that spelling and punctuation. It is important because if you are first Google will rank you top.  Being first to post about the iPhone was probably worth more than $1m to Engadget.

The company also organises reader meet-ups.  They would get sponsorship, but essentially do the event for free.

Weblogs Inc started with $500,000 start-up money which Jason got from Mark Cuban, a billionaire friend of his.  But they never really had to use that money.  They started on a shoestring with no office and did everything possible to save money – relying on instant messaging rather than phones, for example.

Also, they didn’t pay their writers very much – although what they paid was proportionate with what the company was making.  I started on $6 a post, and each post would take me 10 or 20 minutes.  Generally I could make about $20 an hour.  By the time that I finished, I was on $15 a post and I had a tentative offer of a job.  Had I taken the job, it would have paid approximately $40,000 a year.  When I started, I was earning $500 a month, I finished earning $2,000 a month.  As the company grew more successful, it paid more.

At the Consumer Electronics Show, we would finish working at 2am, and start again at 6am the next day.  I was pretty dead at the end of a week working like that, but that is the kind of drive that the company had.  It was insanely good fun.  At that time there was not that much advertising, so the company could not pay much – it had to keep its costs down.

There are a lot of writers who started on £$2 a post – the perception was that it was worthwhile to get on board with something that was growing so fast.

Right now, AOL is hiring a lot of journalists – maybe 500 – just working for Weblogs.  They want to recruit 5,000.

The Weblogs business model works because the company never went into debt.  All their sites, like tmz.com, gawker.com and boingboing.net are very low cost. It also dovetails well with Google Adsense.  It is unlikely that a more local site would work so well with Adsense because there is just not the scale of traffic. Engadget’s traffic grew by 30% each year during its early years.

Its content is searchable and the ads are next to content.  Weblogs used Adsense, sponsorships of gift guides, banner ads and so on – none of which were unique.

Everyone who wrote for Engadget was already an enthusiast for its niche. I started off reading and site and loving it, then I found out about the editors, then I found a way to join them.  Nearly all the people who worked for them started off as readers – there was a really strong community.

Weblogs also had very high ethical standards – basically they plagiarised the New York Times code of conduct.  As a result, the company does not accept freebies, or free flights.  There were no junkets. Everything that they test has to be paid for by the company.

Live blogging is Engadget’s unique selling point.  It works because the mainstream media was doing nothing in that area.  Their readers were obsessively checking and rechecking updates on stories as they happened.  That level of interest is worth a lot of money.

Engadget is never going to go through a paywall.  Everything is free.

I joined the NUJ before I moved on to Mahalo.  After AOL bought Weblogs, the company decided to focus more on traffic, but they would not give staff benefits.  That is where I thought the NUJ could help.

Conrad Quilty-Harper is a contributor to themediablog.co.uk  Previously he worked as a contributing editor at Weblogs Inc (an AOL Company). Most recently he was associate producer on the web show Mahalo Daily. He blogs at spalpeen.co.uk and his Twitter handle is @Coneee. He is also studying for an Investigative Journalism MA at City University.

About the Author

www.tim-dawson.com