Clay Shirky Debunks the WSJ's "Bloggers For Hire" Feature

("Origami dollar t-shirt" photo by Flickr user Vaguely Artistic, under a CC license).

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a breathless "microtrends" piece by Mark Penn and E. Kinney Zalesne titled, "America's Newest Profession: Bloggers for Hire," which begins:

In America today, there are almost as many people making their living as bloggers as there are lawyers. Already more Americans are making their primary income from posting their opinions than Americans working as computer programmers or firefighters.

Paid bloggers fit just about every definition of a microtrend: Their ranks have grown dramatically over the years, blogging is an important social and cultural movement that people care passionately about, and the number of people doing it for at least some income is approaching 1% of American adults.

The best studies we can find say we are a nation of over 20 million bloggers, with 1.7 million profiting from the work, and 452,000 of those using blogging as their primary source of income. That's almost 2 million Americans getting paid by the word, the post, or the click -- whether on their site or someone else's.

And went on to talk of $75K/year incomes, and $200/post pay rates. More bloggers than bartenders! A permalink in every pot! I asked Clay Shirky to analyze the piece and its findings. He kindly obliged. His essay follows.
Blogging for Dollars
Clay Shirky

Picture you chillaxin at home, flipping through stories on Digg, and just cold bloggin' those links. It's fun to share your opinions about Susan Boyle or the coup in Antananarivo, but can you do it for a living? Mark Penn and Kinney Zalesne say yes! The co-authors of the book Microtrends, put together a Wall Street Journal story about a hot new microtrend, blogging for dollars, and the news is good: "It takes about 100,000 unique visitors a month to generate an income of $75,000 a year." Sweet, no?


The Penn and Zalesne piece is worthless as a guide to the economics of blogging. For starters, it's methodological garbage. They take their figures from "[t]he best studies we can find", without noting whether these studies are the crème de la crème, or simply the least lousy parts of a bad lot. (Hint: Lousy.) They never note that their key figure -- 2% of bloggers claim it's their primary source of income -- would be well below the margin of error for data collected by a serious polling organization, much less for self-reported data, making that figure useless as an input. (And Penn was a pollster, no less.)

Never mind the bad data -- there's a microtrend to invent! -- and so they press onward, taking that 2% and multiplying it by a bigger self-reported number of bloggers making any money at all, concluding that 452,000 people blog as their primary source of income. (As Kevin Marks says "Any anecdote times a made-up number can be a big number.")

Then come the weasel words. They write about people making serious money from "posting their opinions", but later make it clear that many of these bloggers are flacks, paid only to post the opinions of the PR department, not their own. (The inclusion of employee-bloggers also complicates their later assertion that barriers to paid blogging are low. Where the barriers are low, the pay is minuscule, and where pay is high, the barriers are enormous.)

They also use "profitably" without meaning that revenues exceed expenses, they say "Americans" a lot, even though the report they reference covers Europe and Asia as well, and, most egregiously, they deliberately confuse "primary source of income" with "making a living." They never explain that students running AdWords could have blogging as a primary source of income without coming close to making a living at it. How many bloggers do make a living at it? I have no idea, and neither do they, but it is a much much smaller number than 452,000.


Worst of all, they present completely atypical figures as normal. By focusing on blogs with 100,000 monthly unique readers, they are already excluding over 90% of blogs that generate revenue, and even reaching an audience of that considerable size doesn't get you anywhere near $75K a year.

Penn and Zalesne are observing a power law distribution, normal in the blogosphere for years now, and either misunderstanding or misreporting the results. Because the few people making the most money from blogging are making so much more than anyone else, the average blogger's revenue has no more descriptive power than if the average wealth on your block went up because Bill Gates moved in. What matters instead is the median revenue, which is to say the revenue made by someone in the middle of the distribution.

In fact, the very Technorati report they draw many of their numbers from notes that the median reported revenue for bloggers with 100K+ audiences is less than a third of the average revenue, and that number itself is dominated by employee-bloggers. Average revenue for bloggers in the top 10% of revenue is even lower than the 100K median, and the median income for all bloggers running ad-supported weblogs is (wait for it)...

...$200. A year.

When half of ad-supported blogs generate less than $200 a year, it only takes one blogger making $350,000 (the highest number reported to Technorati) to drag the average far away from anything remotely resembling the normal case.

Penn has added an update to the original article noting that, yes, average and median differ, something he declines to quibble about (his word), presumably because such quibbling would involve telling his readers why median numbers are meaningful and average ones aren't, say, or how tiny the median numbers really are, or explaining how rare 100K+ readerships are, and how much his numbers rely on bloggers with corporate salaries.

There was no way to rescue this piece, since the argument rests on incorrect extrapolations from selective readings of suspect data; the Wall Street Journal should be embarrassed to have published it. (The dispositive critique of the "Bloggers: Livin' Large!" meme remains Chris Anderson's Don't Quit Your Day Job, useful as an antidote now.)

Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet: Economics & Culture, Media & Community, Open Source.

(thanks, Richard Metzger)


  1. Thank you for this, seriously. As a professional writer who gets paid to blog occasionally and on the side, I laughed so hard when I read the WSJ piece that I almost peed my pants. Who are these people blogging full time, anyway? Aside from a few lucky and prestigious, much of the content out there (that folks are getting paid to write) is total junk.

    I’d rather blog for free than write what someone expects me to write.

  2. Give it up, Xeni. We all know you’re secretly making millions in sweet BoingBoing cash. Did you really think we’d believe a “debunking” story posted by bloggers?

  3. That’s the same Mark Penn managed the Clinton presidential campaign. We know how that one turned out.

  4. whew. that’s a lot of words to say: “i believe the columnist confuses mean with median.”

    did you reach out to penn/zalesne for a response? i’d be interested if they ack their mistake or have a counterargument.

  5. I make my living by blogging, but the $200 a year figure is about right for MY blog. In order to get by, I also work for FOUR other bigger sites. And I’m not getting rich by any means. I knew the article was BS, since even the people who pay me have other jobs.

  6. Man, I love Clay Shirkey….the thinking person’s Malcom Gladwell (hope I did not insult Mr. Shirkey with the comparison).

    Mr/s. Moriarty, I too am interested, but would like to see that in a graph over time. What say you it is beginning to resemble a bell curve? No, jk ; P

    But so few of us are “unique” anymore.

  7. I know that it’s considered rude to ask, but it’s relevant in this case. How much do the Boing Boing bloggers make? Do guest bloggers get paid?

  8. Any article with Mark Penn as author more appropriately belongs in the Wal-Mart Street Journal…..

  9. Also a writer and paid blogger here. I devote about 20 hours a week to my site, which in turn nets me about 20% of my yearly income, and that’s before taxes, so the actual profit is waaaaaay lower. It’s not a sweet deal financially, and nothing I’d do were it not something I loved.

  10. I knew that this “2 Million Bloggers making a living from their blogs” report was total BS as soon as I read it. I write a pop culture and music blog that gets about 1,000 unique visitors a day, but it generates virtually zero income, even from those Google ads you see everywhere. And if Miss Cellania is chiming in that it’s BS then you have to believe her, because that lady is EVERYWHERE. I think that to really generate income as an “independent” blogger, you have to be selling a product of some kind and also be selling ads to vendors who pay you to blog about their items. The only blogger I know of who makes any kind of a living from his blog is Frank over at the OMG Blog, who has the Gay market niche down. Good for him.

  11. Don’t get me wrong, I like Shirky’s screeds, but he could have saved a whole bunch o time if he just wrote:

    Mark Penn wrote something about blogs on the WSJ. Bwahahahahahahahah!

  12. Ahh, ’tis a sweet and frabjous day when Boing Boing pwns the Journal. Thank you Xeni & Clay for so handily dispatching that steaming mound of humbug. I bask in the sublime sunshine of your truth….

  13. Nice article. I’m a little saddened the editors at the WSJ didn’t raise a higher eye brown at this. It seems badly reported.

    I think there is a bigger issue here and that is the career path of the modern day journalist. Blogs that are businesses (like Engadget, etc.) and do hire full-time staff are hiring a constantly rotating stream of 20-somethings for low wages that are fine for just-out-of-college grads, but not for people entering their 30s and starting families, etc. The business model of media-outlets is turning journalism into hobby, not a sustainable career and I find that frightening.

    When I started out ten years ago as a writer I learned a great deal from older, more experienced writers. Now, the respect for that is diminishing—don’t get me started on the importance of the editor/writer relationship. I have watched these great people leave the industry one-by-one because media outlets both online and off do not want to pay them a livable wage (and, no, they are not expecting six-figure salaries). And I’m not talking about people in their twilight years here, I mean folks in their late 30s and 40s.

    But NOBODY seems to want to talk about this. Everyone’s head is in the sand. The New York Times just won a bunch of Pulitzers, but is going bankrupt at the same time. Meanwhile, blogs rip off their stories and practically take the credit. Who will they link to when the people actually leaving their house and doing real interviews not longer can stay in business? We cannot expect a quality flow of information in a world of only part-time journalists.

    I don’t mean to get down on blogs, I love them! I just worry about what their affect on what was once a real career.

  14. Great response…but I can’t find a permanlink at…srsly! Am I just missing it? Perhaps a “latest” section (and a RSS feed for something other than “Here Comes Everybody”) would be a good idea…

  15. I bet that Cory, David, Mark and Xeni make a ‘living’ from their blogging, as long as you define ‘living’ as subsistence!

    However, other than them and a few very-high-profile others, it’s not enough to eat!

    The “weasel words” involved in this article are particularly telling — ‘primary income’ from blogging actually translates to unemployed. After all, if you’re flat broke, isn’t $10/week begging your primary income?

    Also, the tendency to present exceptional examples to protect the elite, and suppression of genuine mathematical analysis of population and economics, is breathtaking in both its oppression and brazen disregard of human needs. Notwithstanding, the MO of the American finance industry. (You know, those guys who got billions from taxpayers who lost their homes anyway?)

  16. I have been a fairly prominent paid blogger; given its pay scale, I don’t see how I could have made more than about $15,000/year doing full-time work for the well-known company I wrote for. There are people doing better working behind the scenes, but not many of them, and they don’t usually do the actual blogging itself.

  17. I have ~225k monthly uniques on a 2.5 year old blog with only me and 2 volunteer writers, and I can assure you, I don’t bring in even a fraction of $75k/year. If I did, I wouldn’t be blogging – I’d be paying my writers and taking fun trips.

    And yes, I have adsense, as well as several direct advertisers.

  18. Naysayers. I’ve found a way to make money as a writer, paid steadily. You have to work for it. As somebody above said, “. .. nothing I’d do were it not something I loved”. Or even better, as the crippled Big Lebowski said, “My advice is to do what your parents did; get a job, sir. The bums will always lose.”

  19. @Anonymous, April 30, 2009 2:17 PM

    Certainly you must “bring in even a fraction of $75k/year”. A small fraction is still a fraction..

  20. Let them quit their day jobs to blog. Anyone who believes Mark Penn, deserves the consequences.

  21. Good Lord – so the WSJ basically allowed the authors of a book to create out of whole cloth the supposedly-lucrative “trend” their book is about? How is this any different from the Journal donating adspace to Penn and what’s-‘is-face to hawk their wares?

    I think this sort of journalistic shenanigan is far more dangerous to the WSJ than to other newspapers, simply because the Journal’s insistence on maintaining a demonstrably-batshit editorial board for decades already calls their judgement and integrity into question. A few more “mistakes” like this, and people will realize that it isn’t just the banks on Wall Street that are an Enron waiting to happen.

  22. There are a lot of points of view written here on the forum. There are thousands of bloggers trying to make money online every day. I still think it is hard to say what the average income would work out to. Many people are learning that one of the only ways to make good money from blogging is by either having numerous blogs, or blogs promoting affiliate products/programs combined with article marketing.

    If you do a pay per post blogging job you can earn some money but nowhere near enough to buy a home or anything of the sort.

    I have a few blogs, a few info products for sale, and do pay per post blogging. All combined allows me to say I make a living online as a blogger but none of them on their own would support my family.

    As long as the new beginner does not think they will get rich, or have visions of quitting their day job within a year, they will not be disappointed.

    I would still encourage others to blog for cash if they choose, especially staying focused on topics of interest. There are many ways you can add to your original blog site to increase your monthly income chances. You never know how well things will go unless you try.

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