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Making It Pay

February 10, 2009

As more and more conventional media outlets oust their staff arts writers and reduce the fees paid to / number of articles commissioned of freelance contributors, I've been starting to wonder how one might turn an arts blog into an income-generating opportunity.

So far, I haven't thought of my blogging activities as a way to make money: I mainly blog to get the juices flowing in the morning and share thoughts and ideas about culture that I think might be of interest to other arts-savvy readers. As such, I've been cheerfully contributing posts on a variety of cultural topics for free for over two years. I have yet to see a cent generated directly from my posts, though money has emerged from peripheral activities along the way such as giving talks about blogging, being assigned paid articles on the basis of blog posts etc, which is lovely. I didn't give the idea of making money from my blog serious thought until last month, soon after my editor at the alt weekly where I serve as chief theatre critic called to announce that my weekly theatre column would, as of the start of February, only appear in the paper every other week. That sure got the cogs turning.

I've long imagined that arts blogs could provide a steady, albeit probably small, source of income at some point down the line. Though I'm hard-pressed to come up with an example of an arts blog that currently earns anything near the income of some of the big political and news blogs such as Daily Kos. Four ways of generating income for an arts blog spring immediately to mind, though none of them provide really satisfactory solutions in the current climate.

1. Paid Advertising: This may provide an income stream in the future and I admire ArtsJournal for pioneering the concept for culture blogs. But for now, with arts organizations -- the most likely sponsors -- in dire financial straits themselves, it doesn't look like advertising will provide much, if any, revenue in the coming months. It could in fact be a couple of years before ads start to turn a profit for arts bloggers. Plus, there's an aesthetic issue to posting ads on blogs. Google ads just don't look very good on the page. Until someone comes up with a better looking way of presenting ads on blogs, aesthetically-minded bloggers such as myself may think twice about posting ads. Of course, if I thought I could get some decent cash out of ads, I would probably overcome my aesthetic scruples :)

2. Donations: Some bloggers set up Paypal accounts and solicit donations from regular readers. Usually, this takes the form of a small note posted on the site along the "Enjoy this Post? Donate Now!" variety with a link to the blogger's Paypal account page. This is probably quite effective for bloggers that have loyal readerships no matter how small. But I'm not quite at the point where I feel comfortable about begging for financial assistance. If I were a non-profit or collective of some sort, it might make more sense. There's something slightly icky about doing this as an individual though.

3. Subscriptions: Unless you have a massive track record and huge brand-name recognition as an arts journalist -- and I'm not sure any arts writer working in this country today, save perhaps Ben Brantley and Alex Ross, can claim this sort of level of fame within their specific fields -- I don't think subscriptions will fly as a revenue generating model for the foreseeable future. Even brand name recognition isn't enough: You would also need to be able to churn out brilliant posts five days a week in order to solicit and make any real money from reader subscriptions.

4. Grant and Foundation Money: I've heard that a few bloggers are securing fairly sizable grants ($30,000) to fund the service they provide by writing their arts blogs. In the short term, applying for grant money could be a good way to float a blog, particularly if you've been in the game for a while and have strong user comments and good statistics. But it's a bit of a crapshoot, as arts blogs cover very niche areas and most foundations and grant givers, if they're set up to help individuals at all, are often more interested in underwriting artists than journalists who write about the arts. Plus, with endowments going down the tubes, even foundations are tightening their belts these days.

I don't mean to sound so pessimistic: The above thoughts represent early musings on the theme. Hopefully viable solutions will emerge from thinking in more depth about these four ideas and scoping out new ones. I've no doubt that arts blogging represents the future of arts journalism. Sooner or later, more people in the field will find themselves able to support their writing through direct funding rather than by working at other (writing) jobs.

But for now, we're in a bit of a grey area, with conventional modes of support (ie traditional journalism activities such as writing for newspapers and magazines) dwindling and new modes not yet being viable. As such, it's high time to think carefully about what opportunities might open up now or down the line.


  • do you have a sense of how many readers you have? would running google ads be unseemly? might be worth an experiment as a low-cost way of putting ads on your site without having to invest much in selling the space....

    By Blogger Unknown, At February 11, 2009 at 7:30 PM  

  • Hi Marc
    I do know how many readers I have both at this site and at, for which I am a syndicated blogger. I have ads on the ArtsJournal version of the blog, but they are very inexpensive so I have yet to see a single cent from ads on that site. I would rather not put ads on my blog at as I think that would ruin the look of the site, plus the likelihood of generating income that way at the moment is ridiculously slim.
    Thanks for weighing in

    By Blogger Unknown, At February 11, 2009 at 8:05 PM  

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