Article originally published in the August/September 2013 edition of The Journalist
A decade ago, Glasgow-based freelance Lucy Sweet, was one of Britain’s top-earning freelance journalists. Her tv reviews for The Sunday Express netted her £650 a week, and with regular work for The Sunday Times, The Guardian and The Herald she appeared well set. Then, one by one, she was hit by budget cuts among her print clients and for a while her outlook was challenging. Today, however, she earns her living almost entirely from blogging.
“My main blogging client is the consumer website bitterwallet.com which specialises in funny angles on consumer news pieces. I source two news stories a day and write 150-200 words for each, into WordPress. I’m paid a tenner a post, which isn’t wonderful – but I like the regularity of that and in these times it’s good to have a regular wage to rely on.”
In addition she writes a weekly celebrity blog for the online magazine Dame, based in Los Angeles, which pays $60 a post, a monthly celebrity column called Travels Through Trash, as well as writing regular features for parentdisch.com which pays £100 for 800 words.
She is one of the growing army of freelance journalists who earn some of all of their living from blogging in one form or another. At one end of the scale is Martin Lewis, who sold his stake in moneysavingexpert.com for £87m in 2012. At the other are hundreds of mainly special-interest bloggers whose income is sufficient only to subsidise their hobbies.
There are no easy metrics to get a sense of how many people are doing this. In the intensely competitive world of parent-oriented sites, however, more than 1,000 blogs were entered into last year’s annual ‘Mum And Dad Blog Awards’ (the-mads.com). Awards also exist for blogs about food, wine, politics, business, fashion – which is indicative of blogging sectors that are both large, and that take themselves seriously.
Easier to find is data about the impact of blogs on the public. Research last year by Neilson, suggests that 70% of consumers trust online reviews (and trust in this medium has risen year-on-year). Trust in advertisements on television and in newspapers is below 30%. In response to this, digital advertising spend is rising – up by 12.5% in the UK last year – just as spending on traditional media is falling.
Maggy Woodley started her blog, redtedart.com three-and-a-half years ago in the hope that it might be a way for her to sell some paintings. Finding that to attract an audience, she needed to regularly add content, she started writing up craft projects that she did with her children – and the site started to take off. “I get around 280,000 unique visitors a month now and the site generates around £1,000 a month from advertising”, she says. Ads are served on her site by both Google and niche agency Handpicked Media – and obviously she is fortunate that there is a close relationship between crafting and focused purchasing decisions.
Considered something of a guru among craft bloggers, Woodley has worked hard to build her audience. “One of the most important things to do when you start blogging, is to network and to find your community”, she advises. Needless to say, this is largely done via social media – getting involved in conversations on Twitter and joining discussions and groups on Google+. She has some specific technical tips – like taking part in ‘Linky parties’ where bloggers exchange bits of code to allow a small sample of their site to be displayed on those of others in the ‘community’. “Pinterest made a massive difference to my audience too”, she says.
In common with many bloggers, Woodley did not start out in journalism. With a degree in mechanical engineering and a career in management consultancy, blogging was something she came to during a career break necessitated by children. “I describe myself as a freelance writer these days. I am a blogger and I am proud of that, but the title rather belittles us, I feel.”
Advertising in not her only source of income. With her blog as a shop window, other freelance commissions have come her way from Tesco.com and The Times among others. And, impressed by the footfall her writing attracts, Woodley was commissioned to write a book based on her blog by Square Peg – an imprint of Random House. Her first quarter results are not yet in, but according to her publisher, sales are ahead of expectations.
Lisa Pearson, aka mummywhispererblog.com, is another blogger who started out for fun, but won the ‘best business’ category in the ‘Mads’ in 2011. Concentrating on strategies to make parenting fun and effective, her first posts were written as much for cathartic effect as anything else. Fortuitously, she started to find her voice just as her husband lost his job and consequently decided that a more commercial approach might be appropriate.
“I tried advertising, with Google ads, but the returns were not great”, she says. “The easiest way to make money, I found was with sponsored posts”. These are a little like advertorial features, in that manufacturers generally approach bloggers with products that they want reviewed. Some simply offer the product, in return for coverage. Blogs with decent traffic, such as mummywhisperer, command fees of around £100 a post. Pearson’s approach was laudably ethical – not sparing her critical judgment, and always signposting sponsored posts. Elsewhere in the blogosphere, things are not quite so cut and dried. Some bloggers keep quiet about what they have been paid to feature, others hide the sponsored posts.
With 300 – 500 daily visitors, however, Pearson has recently decided that her brand is better served by concentrating on writing books, which can be sold from her site. Her first, ‘Six Steps To A Sparkling You And Enjoying Being A Mum’ she self-published on Kindle and is currently selling enough copies to generate around £50 a month. On the strength of this, she has been commissioned to write a second book by a commercial publisher.
Of course some bloggers set their sights much higher. In the case of Paul Staines, the man behind the Guido Fawkes blog, ‘serious money’ would mean a six-figure annual income – something he comes close to. Advertising on the Guido blog nets around £4,000 a month and he makes as much again selling stories to the conventional print media.
“We have become a must-read for people involved in politics, across the spectrum, and advertisers value that. We attract advertisers who want to get their message to opinion formers so big, national campaigns tend to be particularly good for us”. Fortunately for Staines, he partially owns Messagespace, which serves ads on to political blogs. Nevertheless, his earnings are determined only by the click throughs that ads on his sites achieve.
How the market for blogs will develop in the future, of course, is no more known that what the future holds for newspapers. Most British bloggers who are serious about the commercial success of what they do seem to agree, however, that we are several years behind developments in the United States. There, elite political bloggers have significant sway over national politics and there are reportedly more than 30 blogs that generate revenue in excess of $5,000 a month. Given the famed guile and resourcefulness of British journalists, it is hard to believe that some won’t join the ranks of superstar bloggers in the next few years.
Skeleton crew – the boy who is big in bones
Eleven-year-old Jake McGowan-Lowe (pictured above – photo Nick McGowan-Lowe) is proof that age is no barrier to blogging success. He started jakes-bones.com nearly four years ago because he thought that it would be ‘really cool’ to have a website on which to write about all the bones that he had collected.
“I spend around an hour and a half each week working on a new post, and then replying to comments can take quite a lot of time too”, he says. He professes not to be sure why other people find his hobby interesting, save that he is quite young to have amassed a collection of more than 1,000 bones (most of which he keeps in his bedroom). Last year nearly 80,000 people visited his blog and he receives around 500 emails a year and a similar number of web comments.
As his site has grown, not to mention his collection and expertise, he has become something of a media sensation. Stories about him have appeared in most national newspapers and there was a package devoted to his story on the BBC’s Autumnwatch program. Indeed, as well as the bones that he finds in the fields and woods around his home, near Dunblane in Perthshire, Scotland, his growing reputation has led more and more people to donate bones to his collection.
Until this year, jakes-bones.com was not commercially exploited. Last October, however, children’s publishers Tic Tock approached Jake to work on a book about bone collecting that will feature cartoon images of Jake explaining different parts of the skeleton. The terms of the deal are confidential, but it was the result of a quite lengthy negotiation.
“When Jake first asked me if he could do a website, I agreed, so long as he committed to taking it seriously for at least six months”, explains his father, photographer and NUJ activist, Nick McGown-Lowe. “On that basis, I agreed to do some of the technical stuff and to make it look nice. The surprise was the way that it took off – partially because he initially did not have much specialist knowledge, he explained things in a way that lots of people found accessible and interesting.”