Blogging for Cash, or pondering the zero sum game of funding

Apple Cider Mage has a very thorough post this morning on the practicality and morality of making money off of content, specifically gaming-related blogs, podcasts, and videos. It’s a good write-up, and you should probably go read it.

It was also a very timely read for me, as this is a topic I’ve thought about a lot lately. Let me be frank — I live off a very tight budget, and due to some real life circumstances it’s been a lot tighter than usual lately. I also put roughly 20 hours a week on weekends and evenings into content under the “Totally Legit Publishing” banner, whether it’s this blog or Cat Context or making videos about movies or whatever.

And I do this strictly because I love it. When I was a small child one of my favorite activities was borrowing my parents’ tape deck (yes, I’m old) and recording myself doing “radio shows”, and although technology has moved along honestly running a podcast about video games is not that different in spirit from sitting under a table and making up weather reports.

But it’s also time consuming, and I definitely spend a little money each month on things like a web server or an extra Humble Bundle for future giveaways. During my recent budget crunch I realized that I couldn’t really afford to keep doing all the hobbyist things I do because that time would be better spent being paid for things. It was an intensely frustrating realization.

I have a relatively successful blog and podcast! And I put a lot of work into them! Surely there must be a way to not give up any of that but still scrape out some pocket money each month, or at least break even. Or, as it turns out, maybe not.

(Actually, that is not entirely true as recently some friends gave surprise donations to the server fund. Those people know who they are, and I hope they also know how much I was moved by their generous spirit.)

Anyway, Apple Cider wrote that “[content creators] should be compensated for their time and efforts” and while I agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of that I’m not sure it’s a terribly practical approach. Unfortunately, content funding is a zero sum game. Readers and listeners and watchers have limited wallets just like the rest of us, and financial support received by Blog A is financial support not received by Blog B.

That doesn’t mean that content creators who are soliciting donations or patronage should feel guilty, but I think it’s worth reflecting before considering monetization. Is your content actually valuable? Is it more valuable than Blog B’s content? A couple of years ago I was asked to edit someone’s Kickstarter pitch, and my first question was “Why is your idea worth someone’s money?” If you don’t have a good answer to that, you may want to reconsider your quest for funding.

Honestly I’m not sure what my conclusions are for this post. (Good thing it was free!) I am a passionate advocate for the idea that everyone can start a blog and say what they have to say to the world. I am perhaps just not an advocate for the idea that everyone can and should be paid for said blog, particularly in a reality where there are limited dollars and an almost literally endless numbers of creators.

Author: Jessica Cook

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20 Comments

  1. I don’t think it is immoral, but I am not a big fan of bloggers who want direct compensation. Ads are one thing, occasionally soliciting for a donation is another, but paywalls are dumb and I wouldn’t even pay a sub to read my own writing.

    My payment is community, better mental well-being, personal fulfillment, an open avenue to practice my talents, etc. I am here because of passion and I’ll leave when that flickers out.

    We’re all expendable and frankly that means we probably aren’t the best investment for expendable budgets.

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  2. I’m a big believer in natural selection and free market competition. If a blog or website or video or whatever-content creator can garner enough of a community that likes its products enough to pay for it and turn it into a sustainable business, all power to it.

    And for the rest, they’ll remain failed business ventures or hobbyist labors of love (depending on the creator’s intended goals), funded with time and money out of the creator’s own pocket, as they are able to spare.

    Both are okay and can co-exist in my book.
    Jeromai´s last post: GW2: Battle For Lion’s Arch – First Thoughts (No Spoilers)

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  3. I’m in it for basically the same reason as Murf; I started blogging mainly because I found enjoyment in the idea of putting my thoughts out there. I don’t think that necessarily entitles me to compensation. Put that way it sounds almost egotistical “I am so awesome you should pay just to hear my thoughts,” though I doubt that was the original intent.

    One of the issues with paying up front for content these days is that there is SO MUCH content out there (a lot of it free) that users want to know they are going to like what they pay for before they are willing to commit. For the same reason people like open betas or demos for games.

    But I also think this discussion highlights the variety of people in the blogger community. There are people like myself who blog mainly as a hobby and treat it as such (so I blog when I feel like it, I talk about what I want to talk about, I consider myself “successful” when I get comments/linked). There are also people who treat it more like a job (have regular schedules, go for professional presentation, lots of branding, etc). I’d be willing to bet that for every person who treats it like a job, there’s at least one (if not more) like me who is putting out things to read for free. It means the people treating it like a job have to work that much harder to be worth giving money to. Because relatively speaking there is almost no barrier to entry into the blogging world there is little value in content in and of itself; the content has to meet certain levels of quality and to be worth more than a negligible amount it has to stand head and shoulders above the rest.

    So I am trying to say that I simultaneously agree with Cider that content has value; the problem is that unless your content is extremely high quality, the value is “almost nothing” (and I do not meant that as an insult to any blogger’s skill, there are just a LOT of us, which reduces the value of any individual writer).
    Clockwork´s last post: [D3] Diablo 3: A Game Reborn?

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    • There are also people who treat it more like a job…

      Oh, this is totally me, even if it is a volunteer job. I can’t help it: “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing” is my family motto. And I totally agree about the value of any given content being “almost nothing”.

      I also agree with you and Murf on the reasons for creating stuff, and I get a great deal of personal satisfaction from doing it. However, to be perfectly gauche, I’m also in it for an audience. I like communicating, and I like it when people respond in kind. I like having my stuff read/watched/listened to. I don’t know if I’d still be doing the things I do if they just got thrown into the silent ether for years on end. Perhaps that’s a different form of “payment”.

      Upon reflection I think it’s really interesting that I find 99% of paid writing about games to be boring and have the same tired industry voices, whereas unpaid blogs (videos, podcasts, et.) are where the real gems are found. They’re goofy and passionate and occasionally infuriating, but word for word they’re also the best content out there right now about games.

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      • I listed community first for a reason: I know people read my stuff. Sure, it’s the same ten to fifteen people, but hey, they get into it. Sometimes they write big comments or their own response posts. Other times we chat it up on Steam. Either way, community!

        And totally agree on paid writers. Reviews especially are meaningless to me. It was cool when we were all reading magazines and you saw the writer’s name clearly before the article every time, but I am never too sure who is writing what and what they’ve done before these days.
        Murf´s last post: Guest Blog: Thoughts on Aztec Philosophy | The Archaeology of Tomb Raider

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      • I think there’s a reason why art/music/written creations have either needed to be supported by a patronage or with the “starving artist” models for centuries. It isn’t right, and I do think people should be compensated for what they create as much as for anything else. But on the other hand, it’s hard to figure out any kind of model that works: pure survival of the fittest capitalism doesn’t – only rich/rich enough people can afford to pursue their hobbies; corporate-sponsored/regular job-paid writing feels contrived; kickstarting feels wrong; paywalls don’t work; asking too often as an individual feels gauche.

        It’s a puzzler, that’s for sure.

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  4. “… particularly in a reality where there are limited dollars and an almost literally endless numbers of creators.”

    I understand why it feels like that, but in actuality it’s the other way around: there are a limited number of creators and almost limitless dollars. Readers and viewers can support any content industry like they support public radio, comics, etc. It’s a matter of whether and how much it is culturally acceptable to pay for any specific content.

    Direct funding is a technological and business innovation that fundamentally changed the market and its effects are still in motion, so it’s not a zero sum game – the game keeps growing. Content viewers are paying creators today more than yesterday, and will probably pay more tomorrow. It’s true that content creators are competing on a fixed pool of viewer attention, but the pool of money – today – is not fixed but rapidly growing. It’s quite possible that future technological and business innovation will keep fueling this growth for some time.

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    • It’s a matter of whether and how much it is culturally acceptable to pay for any specific content.

      Hmmm. My instinct is to argue the counter, but with the creation and rapid acceptance of Kickstarter and Patreon and such .. well, you have a point. I hope your prediction for the future is correct, and thanks for the comment!

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    • I was thinking the same thing here as Url. It is NOT a zero sum game and there are an INFINITE number of dollars out there (we PRINT IT …literally). But that there is the obscured truth hiding in plain site: scarcity of money is *manufactured*.

      It’s entirely possible to have *every* content creator make a living off of their work. Just not in the system we all agree to support.
      Doone´s last post: Fantastic Four: Changing Faces in Geekdom

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      • “we PRINT IT …literally”

        Well, go ahead and start printing it yourself and let me know how that works out for you.

        While there is certainly no theoretical limit to the amount of money in circulation, it is still effectively a zero sum game because I am willing to be nobody reading this blog has access to infinite financial resources.

        And should we convince a government… pick your favorite… to create money from nothing (electronically, we do not even need to print the stuff any more) and hand it out without limit, what value would it then have. Money has no inherent value, and it is only our shared belief and the scarcity of money that allows us to give it the value that allows us to exchange it for goods or services. Take away scarcity and you take away the value.
        Wilhelm Arcturus´s last post: Show Me The Planets Contest Results

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        • @Wilhelm: Yes you understand my point. As Url pointed out, it is the opposite of what Liore says the article. People are finite, money infinite. And not to get into a debate about it, but money already doesn’t have a value. People would like it o represent labor, but that’s simply not the current state of affairs.

          Anyway, I was simply agreeing with Urls assessment, apologies for the slight derail, Liore.
          Doone´s last post: The Repeater: Rally for Justice

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  5. I’ve been seeing lots of posts lately about costs related to blogging. I run 4 websites, under one monthly fee (8.99?). I could add 100 blogs under that and my price stays the same. I realize you mentioned a tight budget and all, but what costs above the monthly hosting fee are you talking about? Or is it the single monthly cost thats causing concern?

    We have a fairly regular blogging community amongst the MMO/gaming community and if people are really in a tight spot, I’d be very happy to extend you hosting on my server. I use a paid service, but I have unlimited add on domains and can set you up with your own logins/passwords for each domain.

    I have held scree.org since 1999 and only had actual content on it for a grand total of MAYBE 3 years. I pay for it whether or not I use it.

    I don’t typically donate to any site (let alone a kickstarter project), but donating services is much more up my alley. If the monthly hosting service would help you out, I’d be glad to extend the invitation to anyone who wants a self-hosted wordpress (or whatever) install.

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  6. Have you considered getting a sponsor for your podcast? I know a lot of podcasts have advertising deals with sites like Audible, Typefrag etc., and while the ads get a bit repetitive it always struck me as a relatively small price to pay for the content creator to at least have their costs covered (I’m under no illusion that they make big profits from that…)
    Shintar´s last post: Operations Progression

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  7. I would honestly love to get a little compensation now and then for the blog, I know having that completely cover a full time wage would probably never happen but if I could get enough to maybe go down to a 4 or even 3 day week I’d be very happy.

    Time is definitely valuable but like clockwork said, when there are a wealth of free hobbyists competing for attention you have to be able to stand above them in terms of quantity and quality

    The problem is, when I think about doing that I get the impression I’d more be equivalent to those crazy smelly homeless folks that get up on there box and start raving about inane things and conspiracies. Sure you might give them a buck but only to get them to stop yelling in your ear
    j3w3l´s last post: Buying Blocks and Burning Bridges

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  8. “I think it’s worth reflecting before considering monetization. Is your content actually valuable?”.

    I am content to leave that decision to the readers and listeners. If they feel that the content that I produce is of some merit, then they can choose to show their support via the donation button.

    Why should I do anything to discourage that?

    Also, although it’s useful to consider the quality of ones own content, chasing “value” may rob your blog of the very charm that attracts readers.

    It also helps to remember that blogging is sadly not always a meritocracy. Sometime good writers are simply drowned out by those with a bigger marketing budgets or individuals that prefer to seek infamy.

    This is one of the reasons why so called gaming journalism is in such a poor state at present.
    Roger Edwards´s last post: Returning to Rift

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  9. I never envisioned making money off of my blog, and in fact, probably never will. I won’t even try. Rather, I use it as a platform to talk about things I wanna talk about, and if I happen to get engagement from others, hooray!

    Basically, I agree with Clockwork pretty well entirely.

    It’s funny, though, because the video game industry actually suffers this problem pretty acutely with respect to developers. You have a large number of college kids and other passionate people banging on the doors of video game companies to work for them, and because it is their undying passion they’ll work long hours (80+ hour weeks) for peanuts, pushing out the more seasoned/experienced developers who would demand higher wages and/or more reasonable work hours. Same concept, basically. You have to be REALLY worth the money for someone to actually hire you over the more scattershot approach of sifting through the (cheaper) masses.
    Talarian´s last post: [WoW] The Talented Mr. Holy Paladin. Did They Live up To Blizzard’s Ideals?

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  10. Personally, am not so sure it’s a zero sum game either but I have mainly 2 points I’d like to add, mostly in reply to other comments:

    I’d be very careful not to mix up “quality content” with relevance; blogs that get a lot of hits (and can therefore make money off them) aren’t automatically high quality (as suggested by for example Clockwork). the blogs with the most steady hits are in fact guide blogs; guides are relevant to a lot of people. guides are cool btw and imo it’s cool if anyone wants to monetize – but yeah, relevance =/ quality. :) our small blogosphere delivers a load of quality content every week and from respected bloggers who could still not effectively monetize due to hits. that’s just the reality of this niche we blog in.

    Now for my very personal choice, my biggest misgiving with the whole ads on blogs is that the question often doesn’t arise before a blogger feels they’re “successful” enough. I can relate because my blog generates a different kind of traffic nowadays than two or three years ago and would probably fall into a monetizable category by now. and yet – what has truly changed since I started? am I delivering different or better content today than in 2011? why was I happy to blog in this community for free before but not anymore?

    I don’t feel different and that’s why I don’t want to monetize my blog just “because I can”. you don’t have to monetize just because you can. there’s a weird pressure on the internet imo when it comes to this matter (and sure, artists gotta live but that’s a different topic entirely imho).
    Again, I’m totally cool with the bloggers who have started doing this and maybe struggle with server costs etc. despite the fact that I think ads on blogs aren’t aesthetically pleasing, but as long as my own blog doesn’t allow me to quit my day job or something thanks to monetization, I see no reason whatsoever to make that shift just for a couple of bucks every month. I would probably start writing for one of the bigger sites if living from game journalism was my ultimate goal and keep my own blog free the way Syp does. also for reasons of well, freedom.

    my 2 cents :) 
    Syl´s last post: Battle Bards Episode #22 – Guild Wars and a Winner!

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  11. For me, at least, the zero sum argument extends beyond blogs. I tend to pay for things I use, be it music, videos, or whatever. Like most people these days, my entertainment budget is tight. Contributing to a blog competes with music, movies, going out, even WoW and beer (sorry, if I need to choose between your blog and beer, you’re going to lose).

    Why don’t you put up a Paypal contribution icon. What’s the worst that can happen? No one uses it.

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    • Hiya Idie! Thanks for the comment. Honestly if I had to choose between my OWN blog and beer… well, I’m not sure the blog would win. ;)

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  12. While I agree with the sentiment of the zero-sum assertion, it is technically false. Yes, the more content that is produced on the back of donations or crowdfunding, the more often some will miss out due to funders being more choosy with their support. However, it does not follow that funding A takes away from the funding that B would have received. If a supporter was not interested in funding B anyway, then it doesn’t matter if they fund A or not: B was never going to receive anything from that supporter.

    So it seems to approach a zero-sum game, but actually I don’t think more widespread crowdfunding/donation solicitation will negatively impact many content creators at all. Some might feel that way though, and I hope that those people don’t take it out on other creators.

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