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?

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.

(MORE AFTER THE JUMP.)

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)