If National Review Online were a prison gang, we’d be yanking the animal crackers off Howie Kurtz’s lunch tray everyday from now on. In this morning’s Washington Post, our friend pens an article “Online Media: Old News” in which he states the obvious: The party is over for dot-com journalism. I have no quarrel with this, indeed I’ve been saying similar stuff for a long time, even when a lot of party-goers still had lampshades on their heads. No, the reason NRO’s migrant-worker interns are whacking a giant Howie Kurtz piñata this morning is that he does not give NRO our due props. We hear about that journalistic prairie fire known as Joshua Micah Marshall’s “Talking Points” column as well as Andrew Sullivan’s daily intellectual diary, but save for a scant throwaway mention of National Review Online as a “conservative outlet” we don’t merit much discussion.
As it’s my duty to be a jealous guardian of NRO’s turf, I cannot allow such disrespect to go unchallenged, even from someone we like. Otherwise, pretty soon people will be eating the animal crackers off our trays and we’ll need to use the buddy system just to go to the bathroom. So let me say a bit about the Web world and how NRO fits into it.
Requiem for Bad Ideas
Earlier this month, Voter.com shut down its operations. As a “strategic partner” (or something equally ludicrous) of National Review Online, I suppose we should be sad they departed this mortal coil. Personally, I was relieved. Besides the schadenfreude one naturally feels when an arrogant competitor — partner, whatever — with 100 times your budget goes belly up, it’s a relief to know that no matter how much money one throws at a dumb idea it won’t work for long. You can strap a rocket to a cat, but that’s a bit different from saying you can make a cat fly.
“We set out to build a fully integrated political communications and consulting company,” declared Voter.com CEO Justin Dangel in his death notice cum press release, “and we succeeded.” Maybe, maybe not. But one thing is certain, their definition of success didn’t include staying open. Which is to say that when your kitty face-plants into the pavement you might want to avoid claiming that you’ve “succeeded” in making cats fly.
What most Web enthusiasts have only recently figured out is that common sense does not vanish in the vacuum of cyberspace. Not too long ago, lots and lots (and lots and lots) of people assumed that if you hung a shingle in on the web — ToiletpaperEmporium.com, WhatIThinkoftheNews.com, DoesThisLookInfected?.com — you’d make millions. It’s as if someone whispered, “If you post it, they will come,” in the ears of thousands of otherwise sane people.
But, as any Jiffy Pop-helmeted psycho with a mimeograph could have told you decades ago, the truth is that just because you offer content, even good content, it doesn’t mean people will read it. More important, it doesn’t mean anyone will pay for it (which is why, despite suggestions to the contrary, vanity sites like AndrewSullivan.com and the Kausfiles.com — as great as they may be — will never be huge financial successes according to normal business models as long as they are stand-alone operations. More on that another time, if anybody cares).
So now we’re witnessing the demise of APB.com, Voter.com, Pseudo.com, and a zillion other dot-coms both in the editorial-content world and in the retail world. Of course, all failures have unique excuses, but one universal is that brand names matter. As Kurt Anderson of Inside.com tells Kurtz, “What the mania and hysteria and over-optimism did was make people forget how hard it is to build a brand. It takes years. Coming back to earth is the realization that for all the power, magic and novelty of this medium, certain facts of life haven’t changed.”
Well, we at National Review Online always knew that. This may seem obvious now, but for a long time it wasn’t to lots of Webbies. Brand names matter because consumers need something to gauge the trustworthiness of a product. And, perhaps the most important ingredient to NRO’s success — besides the porn — is the fact that we are standing on the shoulders of a giant.
Say what you will about numerous print and Web publications out there, National Review is the best brand name in conservative journalism. More people have heard of National Review, I’d wager, than any other conservative publication — or Slate or Salon for that matter. And in a cyber world filled with bizarre and untrustworthy stuff, and in a real world where the media giants have all been reliably liberal, National Review’s name was code for two invaluable attributes: reliability and reliably conservative.
I am not editorializing about the comparative merits of other publications, just that NRO never had to spend the untold millions that Slate and Salon did just to get their name ID and to assure consumers they weren’t fly-by-night operations. It takes a lot less money and work to expand something old and successful than to create something new and successful. In fact, I don’t think there’s any denying that the cost-per-visitor ratio at Salon or Slate must be 10-20 times what we spend.
I should say I’m very proud that we’ve done a hell of a lot while standing on National Review’s shoulders. With spit, rubber bands, and a blind eye to thousands of labor laws, we’ve created, with your help, something very special and… Why…I…just love…you…guys…
Sorry, I’m getting all choked up, so I’d better stop (no, not in the sentimental sense, some pizza just went down the wrong pipe).
More to the point, we can legitimately argue that National Review Online makes a profit. Those contemptible vile weeds known as “pop-up” ads have helped us increase the circulation of National Review OnDeadTree so much that we save piles of money we’d have to spend on much less efficient and much more expensive marketing methods. Whether this business model will prove enduring we don’t know and we are constantly looking to test other models. Personally, I’d like to sell organs through our online store.
Nonetheless, say what you will about the filthy-lucre grubbing suits back at NRHQ, how many stories have you read lately about Web ventures hiring more people and making a profit? Not many, I’d wager. Well, that’s what we’re doing. In fact it won’t be long before we borrow a trick from the former dictator of the former Zaire and rename the site “Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu waza Banga,” which roughly translates into “the all-powerful rooster who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake.”
Of course, www.MobutuSeseSekoKukuNgbenduwazaBanga.com might not be the best URL from a marketing standpoint. Still, it might convince Howie Kurtz that we are the man bites dog — or rooster bites everybody — story of the Internet. Until then, we’ll keep the interns on a short leash.