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


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.