These days, nearly every major news organization employs multiple reporters who aggressively cover the tech industry, but a decade ago tech coverage was dominated by blogs like TechCrunch, Mashable, and VentureBeat. Back then, these blogs churned out scoop after scoop, competed for traffic, and sometimes even went to war with each other.
Among the earliest of these blogs was ReadWriteWeb. Launched in 2003, it was founded by Richard MacManus, a New Zealander who was inspired to launch a site after reading the work of blog pioneer Dave Winer. Within a few years, MacManus began selling ads and was able to hire a global staff of reporters.
I recently interviewed MacManus about the early days of tech blogging and why, for his latest writing project, he decided to eschew blogging entirely and launch a newsletter instead.
To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player, or you can play the YouTube video below. If you scroll down you’ll also find a transcript of the interview.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Simon Owens: Hey Richard, thanks for joining us.
Richard MacManus: Hi Simon. It’s a pleasure.
You played a very important role in the web’s history, in that you founded one of the earliest and most influential tech blogs back in 2003. It was called ReadWriteWeb. What were you doing prior to launching it?
I was actually working as a web manager at the time for a corporation in New Zealand. I was looking after the internal and external websites for this company. It was a local power company. I was also on the side reading up on all the latest technologies and getting really interested in RSS and blogging. Truth be told, my day job was a little bit boring, so I decided to start a blog in order to explore these new technologies. So that was the genesis of ReadWriteWeb.
What was your sense of blogging 2003? Not many people were making money from blogging back then. What did tech blogging look like back then? Were there any precursors to ReadWriteWeb that you were reading?
First of all, there was no money in it back then. So I didn’t start it with the intention of building a business or anything like that. So I was following people like Dave Winer, Jon Udell, and a bunch more tech-focused people to learn about things like RSS and wikis and all this new stuff that was bubbling up at the time. And it was also some people in what they used to call ‘knowledge management.’ I don’t know if they still call it that. But they were less geeky and more about how to use these new technologies for knowledge management in corporations.
So I’d say the main influence was Dave Winer and the type of blogging that used his platform. In fact I used Radio UserLand, which was Dave’s software.
Dave is considered one of the original bloggers and also helped develop RSS, which was a main distribution mechanism for blogs. His blog was definitely influential and you can still read it today. It definitely doesn’t look like what’s traditionally considered a tech news website, something like a TechCrunch or a Verge. Walk me through the launch of ReadWriteWeb. Before it became an actual reporting operation, was it more like Dave Winer’s blog where it was a little bit more personal?
I first started using Radio UserLand in 2002, and at that point I had basically used it as a link blog. I’d write links and a couple comments.
Kind of like what Twitter is today.
So towards the end of 2002, I was thinking I’d like to do longer form stuff. My education background was that I was a graduate of English literature, and I was always interested in writing. I really wanted to go a bit more in-depth in my writing. So in 2003 I relaunched it as ReadWriteWeb, with the intention of writing longer form articles that were analyzing the latest web trends and tracking them. So I’d say my content was maybe like Dave’s longer form articles. But he was also writing a bunch of short form stuff as well. He was very prolific and still is. I’d do one post every couple days. I wasn’t trying to do a blog post every single day. I was trying to track certain themes and dig into the latest technology and trends in each article.
How did you start to find a readership?
It actually happened fairly quickly and organically. What I found was that I was connecting with other bloggers like Dave Winer and his inner circle. So they started to read my stuff as I linked to them, and as I commented on their blog posts. But I was also connecting to an audience of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley who were experimenting with the latest technologies. This was after the dot com boom and bust but before the Web 2.0 thing a few years later. It was kind of an experimental period, and there were a lot of entrepreneurs, particularly in Silicon Valley, who were trying out new things and wanted to learn about RSS and blogging and wikis and all that kind of social software. I was writing about this stuff and analyzing this stuff. I just happened to pick up those kinds of people as interested readers.
My readership in the early days was a mix of techy people and entrepreneurial people.
In terms of how it evolved over time, it started out with your analysis, did you start adding original reporting? Did startups start reaching out to you for coverage? How did it evolve in terms of its coverage?
In 2004 was the first Web 2.0 conference that Tim O’Reilly and his company put on. That was around September or October. About that time, people began to become aware that there was a business in this, that there were startups being built around the technologies that were labeled Web 2.0. That’s kind of when I think I began to sort of write what you’d call news articles. I just reviewed new products. It wasn’t like a journalist type of article. But it was hitting in that direction. 2005 was the year when that started to ramp up. I think TechCrunch started that year. I think it was the middle of 2005, and Michael Arrington actually reached out the week that it launched and said he was a reader of ReadWriteWeb. So we connected pretty early on. And likewise I connected with other early tech bloggers as well.
There was quite a community feel to it back at that time, which I really enjoyed.
Was there a vacuum in coverage that you guys were filling? I seem to remember back then that tech blogs were running circles around the mainstream press. These days you have very aggressive coverage of tech in all the major newspapers. Do you think the mainstream media was slow to pick up on the role that tech would play in all of our lives? Were tech blogs the ones leading the way in covering startups that would later become household names?
Absolutely. I think tech blogs were maybe four or five years ahead of the mainstream media in terms of writing about these topics and understanding the importance of them. ReadWriteWeb was syndicated to The New York Times starting around 2008, and Gigaom and Venturebeat were also syndicated. At that point, The New York Times was thinking that it’d be great to have that kind of content on its website, but we don’t understand how to do it, so that’s why they syndicated our content for a while. Of course today they do it all themselves, and do a great job of it. It did take several years for the mainstream media to understand the blog model, being very passionate about writing this type of content, but also understanding the negatives as well. To be fair, I think tech blogs were a little slow on that point.
My sense was that this second generation of blogs was up and going by 2006 at the latest. You had ReadWriteWeb, TechCrunch, Venturebeat, Gizmodo, Engadget. They were churning out tons of content. They were all competing for scoops and there was tons of curation. My sense was that ReadWriteWeb had a slower metabolism than all these other tech blogs that were churning out dozens of posts per day. Am I remembering that correctly, that you guys were a much slower, more thoughtful blog with a slower posting schedule, versus a Gizmodo that was just pumping out dozens of posts a day?
That’s exactly right. Partly that was to do with the fact that I wasn’t based in Silicon Valley, and neither was most of my team. I realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to get the scoops that someone like Michael Arrington was, or even a site like Mashable. ReadWriteWeb was always a little bit different. Because we didn’t have as many people on the ground as some of those other sites, and because our content was more analytical and thoughtful and purposefully so, the people I hired were very intelligent, thoughtful, analytical people. We just evolved that way and continued to publish fewer articles than most the other tech blogs. But more in-depth articles. That was our MO all the way through.
Do you feel like you got left behind at all? I feel like a lot of the other blogs sprinted ahead of you in terms of traffic and in terms of the first outlets PR flaks would give scoops to. Did you feel like, because you didn’t publish as often, and traffic back then was dependent on how many articles you put out a day, that you guys kind of suffered because of that?
I don’t think so. Our audience was a very influential audience. They were decision makers, entrepreneurs actually building things, and executives, and developers. It turned out to be a really influential audience. Because the business model back then was primarily online advertising, we were able to have quite high CPMs in terms of our sponsorship rights and advertising revenue. And also we were able to branch out into other premium business models. For instance, we did three events over 2009 to 2011. And we did premium reports as well. We were one of the first tech blogs to do that. We found ways to create revenue that was based on the influence of the audience. Although we were doing less content, it was more high value content, and so we were able to create a high value business model to complement that.
Whereas a lot of those other sites, like Gizmodo and Mashable, yes, they were getting loads more pageviews than us, but their CPM rates were quite a lot lower as well, and they weren’t able to branch out into things like premium reports.
What was online advertising like in those early days? Was it all just based on one-to-one direct sales? I’m guessing programmatic advertising didn’t really exist yet. Did you just have an advertising page and startups and other tech companies were reaching out and asking your rates?
My first ads were maybe in 2005. It was through me reaching out to people. A lot of them were entrepreneurs and startups trying to get traction on their projects, so they were interested in being a sponsor on ReadWriteWeb. That’s how it started.
Then in early 2006 I partnered with John Battelle’s company. His company was able to sell high CPM advertising for bigger companies. Microsoft and Oracle and that kind of thing. It ended up being a mix of sponsorships that we would sell directly and they were mostly to startups. For example, Zoho was a longtime sponsor of ReadWriteWeb. It ended up being a nice model.
In terms of the business of advertising back then, do you think it was a better ecosystem compared to today? Do you think it’s improved for publishers, or do you have nostalgia for those days when it was really about direct sales?
I definitely do have nostalgia for those days, because for a while there it was a great way to earn a living as a media entrepreneur. These days, it’s obviously much, much tougher. A site like ReadWriteWeb these days would have to go with a subscription model with premium content and events. It’s definitely a lot tougher to earn a living these days in online media.
What made you decide to eventually sell the website?
I sold it at the end of 2011. I had been running it for about eight years at that point. I wanted to take it to the next level. It was doing really well and had great pageviews. Pageviews were growing. Engagement was growing. Revenue was growing. It was a profitable company. But I kind of knew that to take it to the next level, to compete with the likes of TechCrunch and Venturebeat, I would need to have a presence in America. The options were that I could either take some VC funding to establish a base in San Francisco, or to sell it to a larger media company.
I decided to the latter, mostly because with my own personal circumstances, I couldn’t move to live in the U.S. I thought well, if I can’t do that, I might as well look for a bigger company to take over and take it to that next level. That was the reasoning to sell. And also, to be honest, at that point I was really burnt out because I had been working really hard on this business for eight or so years. It was just time to take a little step back.
Those were the reasons. Eventually we found a good partner in Say Media who wanted to take it to the next level where they would establish a base of operations in their office in San Francisco. That was the perfect scenario, really. We ended up selling at the end of 2011.
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Say Media is an interesting company. It had a variety of pivots and business models. It was trying to be a content management publishing platform and an ad network, and it kind of moved around. At first it was buying up content companies like ReadWriteWeb, where it was producing the original content. But then it closed down a lot of those operations and started partnering with a lot of media companies so that they would produce the content, and then Say Media would focus on just running the publishing platform and finding advertising revenue. How well do you think Say Media managed the site after they took over? Are you sad that they got out of producing original content?
Yeah, they pivoted quite a lot. There were three key people at Say Media at the time they acquired ReadWriteWeb, and two of those people left fairly quickly after ReadWriteWeb joined. At that point I was thinking that this wasn’t looking so promising anymore, because the people who wanted to buy ReadWriteWeb for their specific purposes, to take it to the next level, were now gone.
From that point on, they didn’t put the resources into the site that they told me they would. Unfortunately, the site also had some technical issues. They changed the domain from ReadWriteWeb.com to ReadWrite.com. That apparently caused a lot of problems. That changed happened when I left, which was nine months later. I was told later on that that caused the traffic to plummet and caused a whole lot of problems for the brand in general. Things like that, they were kind of not particularly done well. And also the focus of the site itself changed a lot too.
When they acquired the site, the plan was to expand the coverage, a bit like what sites like The Verge and Recode ended up doing. Technology was infiltrating everything at that point, so the plan was to expand the coverage to cover technology, digital technology, but the resources weren’t put into the site to enable that. We didn’t have enough writers for the site, we didn’t necessarily have the support of the top level management at Say Media. All in all, it was a little unsatisfying. They ended up selling the site to another company. That’s another story.
I think it’s still publishing. Is it still doing robust tech reporting?
It was sold to a company called Wearable World. They were focused on wearable technology. They turned it onto a site that focused just on that and Internet of Things. And then I think they dropped the wearable technology part and now it’s just all about Internet of Things, but as far as I can tell, there’s very few writers, and a lot of the stuff seems to be sponsored content. It’s certainly nothing like what it was back when I was running the site. It’s not a general technology site anymore. It’s very focused on one thing.
I know you recently started a new publishing project. What did you get up to in the years following the sale?
My intention when I left ReadWrite in October 2012 was to write a book. I had always wanted to write a book. I wrote a nonfiction book called Trackers, which was about health technology. That was published in 2013. After that I changed tack again and wrote a science fiction novel, and that was speculating about the future of virtual reality. I wrote two books, neither of them were hugely successful, but I loved doing them.
In around 2016, 2017, I wanted to get back into online media in some way. Since then I’ve done a few different projects trying to find my niche again. Things have changed quite a lot since the Web 2.0 days. I wrote a blog about blockchain last year. The idea was to write about the actual product side of blockchain, and not the financial speculation. But unfortunately I discovered that people were not particularly interested in the product side. It didn’t gain the readership that I wanted, so this year I changed tack and decided well, I’ve always loved the cultural industries and I’ve done an English literature degree, so I’d love to write more about the intersection of technology and the cultural industries, since there’s been so much change in that area. So that’s what I’m doing at the moment, I’m running an email newsletter called Cybercultural.
There’s a certain level of irony here that it’s a newsletter given that you were one of the original successful bloggers. Why launch a newsletter instead of another blog?
I found when I was doing the blog last year that the market just isn’t there for blogging anymore in terms of advertising sponsorship. I also found it’s really difficult to get engagement on social media these days, because there’s so much noise and so many people competing for content. So I wasn’t really reaching the people I wanted to reach with the blog format and trying to promote it on social media. That’s what attracted me to the newsletter, particularly sites like Substack, on which I run Cybercultural. They seem to have basically evolved the blogging model. It’s very similar to the blogging model in terms of the production of the content, because you write in the browser, and they look great in the browser. It’s a blog post and an email. I thought that was really neat as well.
The Substack publishing platform is well designed. Someone could consume your content on there and never realize it’s a newsletter. You could write it like a blog, because that’s what it looks like, but a lot of people who are publishing on Substack, the primary way that people are reading their content is through email. I’ve interviewed several people for this podcast you have launched on Substack. What attracted you to the platform?
I had been reading a few Substack newsletters. Matt Taibbi’s newsletter for example. I really liked the way the content was presented by email. Also I was clicking through and saying that this was a really cool blog-like interface. The other thing that attracted me to Substack in particular was that one of the cofounders, Hamish McKenzie, is actually a New Zealander. I had known him for a while. He had reached out to me, and recently when I was in San Francisco I had a beer with him and we talked about the model and what Substack was doing. They were looking for more writers like me. I thought I’d give it a go. I’m really enjoying the platform.
You said Cybercultural was about the intersection of technology and culture. You’re covering musicians who are using the internet, video creators. Anything who creates content.
Sometimes it’s called the creative industry. Sometimes it’s called the cultural industry. Basically, any personal company that’s creating content, whether it’s music, other audio, media, books, anything really along those lines. One of the reasons I started it was that I felt like the social media era, there’s been a ton of content out there, and this whole Web 2.0 era of user generated content had reached its apex with social media sites. But there’s a lot of noise, but the cultural content gets squeezed out in many respects. I felt like that was worth exploring. There’s so much potential to use digital technology to empower cultural content. And it is being used that way, but we’re not necessarily hearing about it, so that’s why I decided to devote a whole newsletter to it.
Also, some of the leading companies in the space like Spotify, Netflix, and Amazon have transformed the way culture is produced and distributed and consumed in such a deep way that I thought it was worth exploring on a regular basis.
How often are you publishing?
I started out doing three a week. The intention, my original goal, was to launch paid subscriptions on the first of July. I’ve got a great audience so far, but it’s still not quite ready yet for paid subscriptions, so I’ve put that on hold while I continue to experiment with different formats, see what works, see what doesn’t, see what value I can create for an audience to entice them to pay. It’s still in the beta phase where I’m trying to work out how to make this into a business.
I’ve gone back to one article per week model for now while I conduct more research. It’s still early stage at this point.
I think people are getting too enthusiastic about paid newsletters because there have been a few success cases. And I think maybe you’re right to wait and continue to build that brand loyalty, because paid newsletters are a tough nut to crack, to get those 1,000 to 2,000 people to pay up and subscribe. I wonder if people are going into it and launching the paid version almost immediately, and they’re finding that there isn’t as much of an appetite to sign up as they thought there would be.
It’s definitely a difficult nut to crack, and I thinlk the other thing people lose sight of is that the success stories so far in email newsletters, the Ben Thompsons of the world, get cited quite a lot, and he was doing that for like several years at least before he earned some money from it. I believe he was doing consulting to start with, which was very similar with what I was doing with ReadWriteWeb when I was trying to get that off the ground. I think people lose sight over time that it takes time to build a brand and it takes time to build an audience, and also it takes time to find the value that you can actually give people that they’re willing to pay for. Subscriptions are still not mainstream. People might pay for the Washington Post or The New York Times, but there’s still a leap that needs to happen to get them to pay for a niche publication. I don’t think we’re quite there yet as an industry.
Certainly there are success stories out there, and Ben Thompson is making over a million dollars a year on this thing, but those are few and far between at this point. It’s going to take time. I think maybe I was a little optimistic when I launched it and thought I could go to paid subscriptions at the first of July. I’m sort of realizing that it’s going to take a bit more time than that to build the value and the newsletter.
Someone thinking about going that route, they have one of two options. One, they need a lot of runway to be producing a lot of free content for a good period of time so they can really become a regular habit for their readers and build up a sizable subscription base. Or I’m seeing some success from writers who are working for mainstream media outlets and making a salary there but also using those to build up an audience and a following, and then quitting their jobs and launching newsletters and using that following — Judd Legum was at Think Progress for years. After 10 plus years of running that site, he quit and launched on Substack, and I think he was an instant success. But that was after 10 years of publishing and being a very prominent presence on Twitter and elsewhere that he was able to succeed.
I actually listened to his interview on the Substack podcast the other day. You’re right. He already had a well established presence and already had a large Twitter following.
I do feel optimistic about the future for newsletters. Once bundling comes into play — if someone can sign up for a bundle of myself and two other similar tech bloggers, I think might be something Substack is exploring. That might make it easier to gain subscribers as well. It’s still early days. I still think the subscription model is great if you can slowly ramp up and get devoted readers to pay you a little bit every month. It’s got legs, but it just takes longer than people think it does at this point.
You have come a long way in the evolution of tech coverage. Today, the news industry is very aggressive in covering tech. Every major newspaper has top tier tech writers. You also have very robust niche publications like The Verge and Recode. Do you think the way that the press covers tech has evolved a lot? Has it become more sophisticated? I remember it was very scoop driven back in 2007, 2008. Do you feel like it’s become a much more sophisticated beast?
There’s definitely a lot more focus now on the negative impacts of technology on society. And for a long time, in the Web 2.0 era, it was very much an economic focus and about the techno optimism of people like Tim O’Reilly, Kevin Kelly. That was driving that whole Web 2.0 era. So a lot of us had blinders on about the potential negative consequences of all this technology. I feel like now, especially in the last year or two, that kind of coverage and analysis has improved a lot. There’s been a lot of interesting stuff about privacy. I feel like the tech coverage now is more balanced. It’s still driven by the big companies. That would be my main critique of where the technology coverage is at. It’s all about what Facebook or Google or Apple does. Those big companies drive all the coverage. In a Twitter thread recently, Ross Mayfield, who runs a company called Pingpad, said that it’s really difficult for startups to receive coverage these days because there aren’t any TechCrunches or ReadWriteWebs jumping on startups and reviewing them. A lot of what I did and Michael Arrington did and Pete Cashmore did was actually use these products and test startup products and review them. I feel like there’s a bit of a gap in the coverage there. A lot of the startup stuff isn’t being explored as much as it could be. Otherwise, it’s constantly evolving. I still love reading technology blogs. It’s still in a very healthy state overall.
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