The Tech Blog arms race heats up

The tech blogs of the world are tasked with covering the latest gadgets and, increasingly, technology startups. They write at length about the personnel pilfering, technological one-upmanship and marketshare squabbling occurring between all the thrusting young tech firms in San Francisco, Shoreditch and elsewhere. This is why I find it entertaining that some of the best technological innovation and most competitive head-hunting happens at the publishing companies that own these blogs.

As the world moves towards reading its content on mobile devices and tablets (which these blogs have helped them purchase) and demands more fluid reading experiences, the larger blogs are discovering that their technical underpinnings aren’t up to the task and are developing their own custom (and quite beautiful) publishing platforms. The are two particularly notable examples.

The Verge

The Verge, with a staff almost entirely pinched from Engadget (where Editor-in-Chief Josh Topolsky used to reside), helped parent company Vox Media develop their publishing platform (Chorus) knowing full well where Blogsmith (used by Engadget) would fall down. Their system allows for more magazine-style page layouts and contains far more data than just blog posts – they host a product database and are able to assemble stories on a particular subject into chronological “StoryStreams” to show how a narrative has progressed.

ReadWrite

The website formerly known as ReadWriteWeb announced their relaunch last night under the guidance of former Forbes tech editor Dan Lyons. Their new publishing platform (Orion) has a “responsive” interface, meaning it intelligently grows, shrinks and re-arranges itself depending on your screen size. Most media outlets (even The Verge) opt to have a dedicated mobile site with a different layout more suitable for smartphones and tablets as responsive sites are still in their infancy. ReadWrite’s implementation seems to be one of the best out there though, and they’ve certainly future-proofed themselves as best they can at present.

Having read the new ReadWrite on my tablet for an hour or so last night, it’s a joyous experience. It offers perhaps the most “magazine-like” experience available while still being very obviously – and unapologetically – a product of the web.

All about the benjamins

Monetising content online is notoriously difficult. The Guardian has burned £100,000 per day for the last three years trying to make it work. Both The Verge and ReadWrite are completely clear about their desire to provide easy and profitable solutions for advertisers.

The Verge –

“We have been just as focused on figuring out how to develop and facilitate compelling advertising and sponsorship opportunities in Chorus as we have other components of the stack. Our business is finding, empowering, and paying people who make great content — and, like most media companies, our primary source of revenue is advertising.”

ReadWrite –

“Last year ReadWriteWeb was acquired by Say Media, a forward-looking media company from San Francisco that operates a stable of properties including XOJane, Dogster, Catster, Remodelista and Gardenista. Say Media started out as an advertising network, so it understands the business side of the equation as well as the importance of powerful content that keeps readers coming back for more.”

The desire to provide a platform that advertisers can confidently throw marketing dollars at is at least half of the reason for the development of these all-singing-all-dancing platforms, I’m sure. Readers are becoming more ad-blind and clickthrough rates are demonstrably decreasing, causing a panic among sites which previously made huge stacks of cash just by slapping a few banners in their sidebar.

The rest

The other large tech blogs (TechCrunch, GigaOm, TheNextWeb, even Mashable) all run WordPress. Although WordPress is massively customisable its age is starting to show when compared to Chorus or Orion, and a janky WordPress skin will never offer the level of flexibility and customisation a built-from-the-ground-up system can.

Technicals vs talent

Of course a good publication is nothing without good writers. The Verge has been a veritable hive of hiring activity since Topolsky split from Engadget, taking most of his senior editorial staff with him. As far as tech blogs go, they have something of a dream team right now. Currently, with millions of dollars in VC funding in the bank, they can afford to operate that way. Whether they can balance the books in the long term remains to be seen.

Just today TechCrunch made this announcement:

Which could be a whole article in and of itself, but it’s telling that the on-the-slide blog felt the need to bring back its two most well-known and controversial writers.

Possibly the strongest testament to the value of a talented writing staff is The Register, which has been a stalwart of the British tech journalism scene for years with nary a visual update to speak of (primarily, it should be noted, because of the superb Andrew Orlowski).

Winners and losers

It’s difficult to to say who will come out on top in the long-run – or even if one publication needs to. I have a feeling though, as with the tech startups they cover, that it will be the blogs who can take a smart product (their editorial output) and tie in together in a tidy package (their platform) that will be most successful.

UPDATE

Wouldn’t you know it, mere hours after I publish this post, The Next Web announce they’ve got a new site in the offing. Things are getting interesting.

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