On Blogging, On Gawker, On Dethroner: An Interview with Joel Johnson

Dethroner

A week or so ago, I ran into Dethroner in my web surfing and I was instantly hooked. There was attitude, great original tips, pointers to cool stuff I hadn’t seen anywhere else, and there was tons of it. I soon realized it was written by one of my favorite writers, longtime former editor of Gizmodo, Joel Johnson.

I knew he took off from Gawker Media recently and I wanted to know more about what he was working on these days and how he was finding the time and motivation to do Dethroner, so I chatted him up a couple days ago to get the scoop. Joel didn’t mind that I wanted to publish it directly from our chat, so here it follows.

If you haven’t checked out Dethroner, by all means add the feed to your reader and follow along. For me it hits just the right spot between fashion maven and sports jock, between fine wine and homemade beer, and between step-by-step tutorials and basic tips. I can already tell the site is going to go far and anyone looking to support themselves by blogging should take notice because this is exactly how it is done.

Matt Haughey: What prompted you to start dethroner?

Joel Johnson: A couple of stand-out reasons: I really wanted a place that I could archive a lot of the little bits of wisdom that come into play as a man, but in a way that actually encouraged interaction and even dissent from other guys. Also, I wanted to see if it were possible for a single writer to run a quasi-professional, daily-updated site and actually make a living at it.

MH: It clearly looks like something you should be doing professionally. Are you ok with it making nothing at first? How long do you project until it starts paying for your time writing it?

JJ: I better be okay with it, because there’s no real projection of when I might actually turn a profit. I’m sort of internally budgeted about six months, but there’s no math behind that. My needs are pretty modest, though; It’d be nice if it paid my rent, but there’s a lot of satisfaction in just starting my own little micro-business, even if it’s never going to be anything more than what it is right now.

In fact, I sort of hope it doesn’t get super-big…. well, maybe not ever, but not for a while. I like things when they’re small and just getting started.

MH: So how do you find the motivation for it? I know lots of people (myself included) that might leave a professional writing gig with a book, blog, or magazine and say “fuck this mere pittance they’re paying me, I’ll do it on my own, and it’ll be better, and I’ll have complete control and make way more money” but then they can never muster the energy to even begin. This is why I wanted to talk to you — you have come out of the gate just killing it! And I can’t imagine what it takes to muster up that kind of productivity and motivation.

JJ: See, that’s so funny to me, because I feel like I’m just barely puttering along.

MH: Really? I signed up to read the feed and I’m amazed by how much original content is popping up every day. It’s almost too much, but it’s useful and good.

JJ: I’ve come to realize that I’m a pretty fast writer, which helps. I also am extremely self-critical, so if I don’t get six posts up a day I feel like I’m a horrible person.

Also, the more you blog, the better and faster you get. (Which applies to all writing, sure, but so much of what is important about blogging is just getting it out there and worrying about polish later. Or never.)

Suffice it to say, I’m glad to hear that you’re not feeling like it’s lacking!

MH: Do you want to talk about Gawker at all? How and why did you leave Gizmodo, and what else are you doing these days?

JJ: Sure, it’s no big secret. I actually left Gizmodo (and Gawker Media) about a year ago, having pretty much lathered myself into a minor psychic meltdown. I was writing 20 to 30 posts a day, on average, plus managing a couple of interns and fielding public relations calls and emails. I hadn’t taken a vacation in a year-and-a-half. When I finally did, I didn’t really feel like coming back, so after a couple of weeks I threw in the towel.

Then Lock and Nick enticed me with a low-pressure job starting The Consumerist a few months later, which was a site I’d always wanted to do. (Bad customer service crawls up my urethra and lays eggs in my scrotal justice sack.) Then I ended up getting promoted to Executive Editor, Technology, running Kotaku, Lifehacker, Consumerist, and – yes – Gizmodo. After a few months of that I just sort of realized I didn’t like working at Gawker, for various reasons. So I quit.

(Geez, this is getting epic.)

So now! I’m spending most of my mornings working on Dethroner and my afternoons working for Wired as a consultant.

MH: That’s awesome. I spent the summer working on a talk about Pro Blogging for a Living and talking to friends about how they could do it and I always need good examples of great writers with good ideas that can create a business from thin air, and Dethroner looks perfect for that.

Also, I like that most of your content is original, it’s not just a shopping guide or links, it’s like “here’s how to use these things and feed yourself and clothe yourself and be a better person.”

JJ: I feel pretty strongly that people are missing the whole fucking point of blogs and micro-publishing.

MH: That’s what I hammered Nick and Lock on whenever we talked about Lifehacker — that it was pointless as a link blog to cool stuff, that it should be a source of new information instead.

JJ: Gawker, god love them, is part of the problem, because everybody thinks you need to grow your site into some huge vertical behemoth. But if you talk to Nick, even he will remind you that Gawker.com and Gizmodo.com started out as little niche sites, not magazine fighters.

I started Dethroner with a $20/month hosted plan, a logo I made in 15 minutes in Illustrator, and a free CMS. Granted, I’ve got a lot of blogging experience, but nothing I’m doing is rocket science. It all boils down to just putting up good content on a consistent basis, but nevertheless people think you need VC and an ad campaign and press releases and all this other horseshit just to start a professional blog these days.

(When obviously all you need is a really high horse.)

MH: Yep. That’s what I keep telling people, that you can do this on the side at first if you’re passionate about it and have the motivation to write everyday and that taking money is rarely necessary. Thanks for taking the time to talk.

JJ: Thanks for the encouraging words. I’m glad you’re enjoying it.

11 Comments

  • I feel pretty strongly that people are missing the whole fucking point of blogs and micro-publishing.
    I’d like more on this please! In what way? Examples?

  • Heh … between your urging and this interview, Dethroner is officially snagged in my reader. :D

  • Meg: I’m guessing, but I think he means a lot of people that set out to do a blog as a business tend to just post links to stuff, which often reflects other similar blogs.
    I know with say, tivo/pvr blogs, there are like 7 or 8 of them that are all basically the same and I realized very few of them post reviews they write themselves and most posts don’t offer much in the way of opinion even. They’re just repeating the latest press releases on engadget and google news, several times a day.
    When I set out to do PVRblog, I really wanted original content and ideas to be the mainstay. Because of the time commitment and my other projects, that means I only post a couple times a week, but it’s often an original op-ed or review piece.
    I think Joel means that blogging is all about personality and writing new stuff you think about instead of just regurgitating press releases.

  • Meg: Once upon a time in the web, people were getting excited about Web 2.0, which if I recall correctly through the mustard haze of Business Week cover stories past, was about running small, easy-to-develop, easy-to-sustain web companies that would make a modest about of profit, in large part because they had no VC debt or multi-month development overhead to earn back.
    And it’s the same thing with blogging, except in that case the blogging is the product, which can be easily produced by a single person who can expect, if the winds are right, to make a modest, sustainable income from their work. Instead each blog is a land grab, hoping to make tens of thousands of dollars in revenue from gullible advertisers, etc.
    So I’m just saying, I wish more people would just be happy making a modest living on the web, because I think that it’s pretty neat that it can be done.
    That said, I’m fully cognizant of my hypocrisy: Not only did I help grow some of Gawker into the force it is today (in my own obligatorily modest way), but I’ve taken money from others to help them try to spin blogs up into fully-operational revenue machines. Oh! And if someday Dethroner made me a boatload of money, I would not refuse it out of a starry-eyed hope that the web and blogs should remain small.
    Really, I just like the idea that people can run small business on the web with just a little start up capital and a little gumption, and get frustrated that every idea must pas acquisition muster or be worthless.

  • The problem seems to be patience. If somebody starts a new blog with all original content, the money trickles in. If somebody starts a new blog with all link content, the money trickles in. If the money is just going to trickle in, why put so much work into it?
    What’s hard to see is that two options that seem identical really put you on two different tracks. In one, you’re publishing. In the other, you’re just pointing.

  • What’s hard to see is that two options that seem identical really put you on two different tracks.
    In my mind, the low effort approach puts you on a track to having yet another blog, the high effort approach puts you on the track to bigger and better things.

  • First, I think Dethroner is great. Which hasn’t surprised me at all, but does make me happy.
    Second, to Matt’s critique of linkdumping (he cites Lifehacker), an obvious thought comes to me. I’ve been reading two new blogs from New York magazine as of late: Grub Street, a food blog, and the Daily Intelligencer, a new NYC-digest of sorts (edited by Gawker alum Jesse Oxfeld) that launched today. Both blogs do multiple original items a day, and yet reading both of them, I find something wanting.
    It’s hyperlinks. The posts are ends unto themselves, transporting you nowhere else. Well, hyperlinks and a distinct lack of encouragement for reader involvement (no comments, no call for reader submissions, etc). The blogs aren’t really blogs at all; they’re magazine sidebars, posted daily and presented in reverse-chronological order.
    I guess this is all pretty obvious, as I said, but just something that occurred to me while I was thinking about what makes Dethroner so instantly good. And why short linky posts on Lifehacker work just fine for me (alongside Gina & Co’s authoritative features, of course).
    Also I’m still pissed Joel left Gawker. And that Meg never comes and works out of our office anymore. Hrmph.

  • This is a great conversation… link dumps without explanation are generally boring, unless I feel like the person/entity doing the dumping is someone who is always spot-on in terms of pointing me to something of interest.
    OTOH, I’m often surprised at how many positive comments I receive when I point people to something that I feel like I’ve seen anywhere, but hey I just want to throw my hat in the ring and say “Yes! I like it!”
    It’s easy to become myopic and assume that everyone who reads your blog is just like you and has a hundred some-odd feeds in their reader, but lots of people just have a few blogs that they look at regularly. So, providing pointers to links much cited isn’t always a waste of time. Contextualizing those links with a bit of pithy commentary on why you think it’s notable is even better.
    I’ve noticed lately, especially as more and more trad. media concerns get to the blogging, lots of posts that read like news articles, as Lock describes above – they don’t lead you to anything else, and yea, that misses one of the essential elements of blogging and of the internet itself.
    There’s a balance to be struck. Link dumps can be good if they’re not all you get. Thinky original content pieces that stand are their own are awesome too. A homerun to me is something thinky that also has clever linkage within, but jesus, posts like that are really time consuming to create. On many occasions I’ve gone to post something up, real quick like, and found myself finally posting something an hour later (or more!) after slogging through pages and pages of Google image search results and spending lots of time trying to find just the right example of one thing or another.

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