Jason Kottke, OG blogger

Jason Kottke
Jason Kottke as an extra on the TV show Halt and Catch Fire.

Jason Kottke launched his blog kottke.org in 1998. That’s right, back in the twentieth century. Seven years later, he went full-time as a blogger and it’s been his professional identity ever since.

What I find most remarkable about Kottke’s story is that he’s never stopped blogging. The blog as an online publishing format is deeply unfashionable now. It was usurped firstly by social media and more recently by email newsletters. Yet Kottke the blogger persists.

When he went full-time in 2005, it was initially with subscriptions. But he was too early for that business model, so after a year he made the switch to online advertising (with some affiliate links too). Then in November 2016, after the demise of the online advertising industry for blogs, he went back to subscriptions and that’s been his primary income ever since.

What has kept kottke.org going all these years, through all the changes in online publishing and the ups and downs of its revenue streams? In other words: how on earth does Jason Kottke still earn a living as an old-school “blogger”?

In this interview, I aim to find out…

Creator Interviews (CI): What do you think of the blog format now, in 2019? Clearly you still use it (and so do I), but running an indie blog is a minority activity these days. Has the blog had its moment in the cultural landscape, or will it re-emerge again?

Jason: Yeah, I think that for me a blog is a good thing to have. It’s a good home base. There’s some upkeep involved, but I really like having a home base that I can just do whatever I want with.

kottke.org homepage, March 2019

I think what changes is the method of distribution. I still rely on RSS, but I also get people in through Twitter, Facebook, the mailing lists, and I have a clone of the site on Tumblr. So all those things kind of cobbled together is a pretty good distribution.

Back 10–15 years ago, you had maybe RSS among the super nerds. You had the blog roll, or you had peoples’ bookmarks – and that was our distribution. So I think in some ways it’s a little bit better now, in terms of different kinds of distribution channels.

CI: But what about the cultural significance of blogs now? I mean there are some people like yourself who are still known as bloggers, but I very rarely hear the word ‘blog’ used these days. The younger generation, it seems to me, are not so concerned about having a home online – they’ll just gravitate to whatever tool happens to be popular at the time. So I feel like there’s some sort of a cultural shift that’s happened, that the blog is almost archaic these days.

Jason: Yeah, I think you’re right. I think in the beginning when blogs first came came around, you would tell somebody you had a blog and it would be like…a what? They didn’t know what it was. And then, blogs had their cultural moment and then everybody knew what they were. And like you said, you had a blog and people would be like, oh cool. But now, people are like… oh, that’s kind of quaint, you still have a blog.

But for me, I like information and links. That works a bit on Twitter too, but I like to write a little bit longer than that most of the time.

kottke.org in November 1999; courtesy of the Wayback Machine

CI: One of my recent interviews was with a young video blogger named Tal Oran, who made his name on YouTube but now favours Facebook as his primary platform – all because Facebook offered him a better financial and promotional deal.

Jason: I think that is interesting you can migrate from platform or platform, because you get a better deal or whatever. When you get down to it though, if you have a blog that you host on your own site – or at least have your own domain name – and you have a mailing list that’s tied to a certain address, and you can take your subscriber list with you, those things are undervalued.

So if you switch from YouTube to Facebook, how do you get all of your viewers on YouTube over to Facebook? That’s gotta be tough.

CI: Back in 2005 you were one of the first to adopt the patronage model for funding your blog. A year later you dropped that, because you “hadn’t managed to attract enough readers or developed “a sufficient cult of personality” to support the subscription model.”

But nowadays your site is a kind of “cult of personality,” in that it’s based on your worldview and status as one of the original bloggers; and loads of people follow you. When did this change? Was there a tipping point or two when kottke.org jumped in popularity and number of readers?

Jason: As far as inflection points for the site, the biggest one was 9/11. I was out of work at the time, and there seemed to be this genuine need or desire for information about that [9/11]. That’s where a lot of blogs were born, in the aftermath of 9/11. A lot of the political bloggers – the war blogs, if you remember that term.

And my traffic increased significantly because I made quite a few posts around that time, and people really seemed to like them.

kottke.org a few days after 9/11

Then, from about 2005 to when Google Reader shut down [2013], traffic went up steadily. But after Google Reader went in the tank, it started declining. I guess it’s levelled off in the last couple of years.

CI: After 2005, was there anything significant that happened to build your traffic, or was it just an organic growth?

Jason: No, not really, just kind of an organic growth. I can’t remember exactly what the heck I meant when I said I hadn’t developed a sufficient cult of personality. If I had to guess, I’ve always tried to put myself in the background of things and elevate whatever it is that I’m talking about. If you look at other people, the host is more front and center. And I think that those kinds of sites and those kinds of endeavors, they build more rabid fan bases I guess. And I’ve never really been interested in that, probably to my financial detriment.

CI: As you’ve noted in the past, the online ad model is no longer viable for most blogs. I myself lived off this model with ReadWriteWeb, until I sold the site at the end of 2011. Nowadays you use Memberful and seem to be doing well from the subscription model. Are subscriptions a growing business for you and are you making a comfortable living from it?

Jason: It’s not growing. I would say it’s sustaining. I think that what happened [when he started with Memberful in late 2016] was there was a lot of pent-up demand. I would get emails all the time like, why can’t I pay you? So I finally did the membership thing, and all sorts of people came out of the woodwork.

kottke.org patron levels

The traffic for the site is pretty level now. I get some people dropping off, but I get new people – probably from Twitter mostly. Maybe Reddit, whenever I get on the front page – which is very occasionally. The membership numbers follow that [pattern], that they’re kind of level as well.

And then it becomes a matter of… like public radio and public television in the United States, every few months or whenever, they have pledge drives and they say “hey, your membership helps,” and all that sort of stuff. And now, being in that same boat, I have to do that too. I have to advertise the memberships, which is not my favorite thing to do – because I don’t wanna bug people about it constantly. But at the same time, year over year you get 5% attrition, maybe 10%. And so you look five years out, that’s not great.

So I have to figure out what the right balance is there. I’m definitely making a comfortable living. I have Tim Carmody doing a newsletter for me and also blogging on Fridays, which is great. It’s freed me up to do some other stuff, and so I’m not in panic mode. But it’s something I do need to think about it going forward.

CI: I’d like to talk a bit about your blogging process. Is it a systematic thing, where you check certain sites or feeds every day, or is it more serendipitous?

Jason: I think it’s a little bit of both. What I make sure to do every day, is I have my Twitter feed that I read and that’s where a lot of this stuff comes from. I also have a few sites that I go to. I don’t use an RSS Reader any more. The sites that I read tend to have Twitter feeds as well, so I just switched to Twitter. I’ve been thinking of going back [to an RSS Reader]. Twitter is not the most joyful place these days.

There’s a conversational thing that I’d miss on Twitter though. I really like people talking about current events and things like that. I don’t know that you get the same thing if you’re reading individual posts from all these different sites in an RSS Reader.

As far as a routine, I’ll be in and out of Twitter all day. If I’m on my desktop, I’ll just open tabs. If I’m on my phone or something, I’ll send everything to Instapaper. I’ll go through my Instapaper several times a day. But I have thousands of unread things in there.

I fit in other stuff when I need to do it – like site maintenance, and things like that. I feel like kottke.org is held together with a little bit of bailing wire here and there, and there’s all these holes and stuff that need to be plugged every once in a while.

CI: In addition to the main blog, you run an email newsletter with Tim Carmody. Since that’s just over a year old now, can you tell us how that’s doing?

Jason: Yeah, it is doing well. We just passed 10,000 subscribers. We grew very quickly to about 9,000 within like a month. And then after that, it’s been growing slowly but steadily.

CI: You don’t charge for this newsletter, but Tim also does his own email newsletter – which people do pay for. So have you thought about turning kottke.org into some kind of email subscription paid-for product?

Jason: I mean, not the whole thing. Part of the thing about the membership is that people are contributing to the production of the site with the idea that the entire thing is gonna be free, that there’s not a paywall. Maybe I’m leaving some money on the table, I don’t know for sure. But I feel very strongly about the open web, and I feel like kottke.org needs to remain as open as it can be. And if that means I’m not making as much as I could be, that’s fine. Maybe at some point I’ll need to do that. I hope not.

CI: As far as I can see you have an RSS button on Kottke.org, but no email subscription option [the email newsletter is a separate thing and goes out just once a week]. How do your readers typically see your latest content – an RSS Reader, Twitter, Facebook, another distribution method?

Jason: I think social is a lot of it. Social is the main source of new traffic and new readers. Although I feel like the best readers come from links from other blogs. Which, shocker, still happens occasionally!

CI: After 20+ years, you have a huge archive now. So is Google search a significant driver of traffic to your blog these days? And has that percentage gradually improved over time?

Jason: I would say Google search is not a big driver of traffic. There’s probably some SEO optimization stuff that I should be doing, but have never really done.

kottke.org in December 2005

I think most people, if you look at the stats, visit the site every day or every couple of days or several times a day or once a week. So it’s people just coming back over and over again. I don’t know if they have me bookmarked, or if they just type it in the browser. I have no idea.

CI: Oh, so you get a lot of direct traffic?

Jason: Yep, I do. So a new friend of mine, we were talking and she knew I had a blog but didn’t really know what it was about. She was like, so if I wanna read your blog, how I do that? And I was like…I actually don’t know! You can bookmark it, I guess. She’s not on Twitter, she’s not on Facebook really. So I didn’t even have an answer for her. I felt so stupid. Finally, I was like, oh you should subscribe to the email newsletter – because that way you’ll get the best links in the week and you’ll get a reminder to go to the site as well.

CI: Lastly, clearly longevity is a key factor in your success as a blogger. Do you think this is an under-rated attribute for a creator? It seems to me most people look for quick success on the internet (and I’ve been guilty of this several times in my career too), whereas many blog success stories take years to happen – e.g. yourself, Brainpickings, even my own ReadWriteWeb back in the day. Curious about your thoughts on longevity and patience, in this era of short attention spans and Twitter’s 15 seconds of fame.

Jason: Yeah, I think a lot of what you see in overnight successes is really people who have been working nose to the grindstone for a while and all of a sudden everybody notices. It’s either they do it long enough, or they hit upon a bit of a wrinkle that makes people go, “Oh!”

I think it’s really underrated to just do something, put your ass in the seat and just do it, and do it day after day after day after day.

Jason referenced this video of footballer Marshawn Lynch as inspiration.

That’s a really underrated approach: just do the work and wait for the luck to happen. It might never happen for you. There are a lot of things that go into getting lucky that are completely out of your control, and some people have privilege and some people start with literally nothing. It’s such a crap shoot, but I feel like if you keep at it for several years, something is gonna give eventually.

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