Palate Press, A Fresh Experiment In Wine Blog Monetization

Ξ July 9th, 2009 | → 5 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Technology, Wine News |

On July 4th, Independence Day, I received a curious email invitation. It read, in part,
‘We are starting up a new only wine magazine, “PALATE PRESS: The Online Wine Magazine.” The idea is not to replace wine blogs, but to empower, and hopefully even monetize, them.’ By a curious coincidence I was preparing an article on this very subject, the monetizing of blogs. There certainly has been no shortage of news on that front, most of it discouraging. Indeed, the article I was preparing to write had as its framing device two recent posts. Days before receiving the Palate Press invite I read a good piece in the Independent, a UK paper, titled How Can YouTube Survive?. Good question in this era of ‘freeconomics’. From the article:
 
“Innumerable jaded web entrepreneurs will tell you how easy it is to get thousands of people to glance at a site, but how tortuous it is to get people to stick around or even come back again the following day. Not only do you have to fulfil a desire that people didn’t even realise that they had, but it has to be done with such style and panache that your service becomes indispensable. While the internet may have dismantled many of the traditional barriers to reaching us, the general public, if your idea is anything less than sensational, we will flatly ignore it.”
 
In the body of the article is referenced the work of Eric Clemons, Professor of Operations and Information Management at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, a piece that appeared back in March 2009, Why Advertising Is Failing On The Internet, my second reference. Though Prof. Clemons’ point of view is very complex and deserves a complete reading, his principle argument is that advertisement, whether broadcast or on-line, will fail for three reasons:
 
Consumers do not trust advertising
 
Consumers do not want to view advertising
 
Consumers do not need advertising
 
So, in light of this material what was I to do with Palate Press’ optimistic tone, no doubt informed by its highly qualified stable of wine writers? I put aside my work and took a look at Palate Press itself. Now in beta, it was begun by David Honig, the writer of the playful wine blog, 2 Days Per Bottle. W.R. Tish is the general editor. Other editors include Jeff Lefevere, Lenn Thompson, Remy Charest, Hardy Wallace, Russ Beebe, and these are only a few of the people whose work I am familiar with. The tireless Joe Roberts, too, is associated. Intrigued by such a strong line-up I agreed to take a closer look. I was sent a gloss on the project which read, in part:
 
“How will Palate Press work? It will be published on a “weekly” basis. Well, not really, but we will schedule everybody and archive in a weekly basis. The website (it’s just beta now) will have a front page with a featured article (selected by Tish, the Editor), and below that a box for each Editorial area, with an excerpt from whatever that specific Editor chooses to highlight. Click on that box and you go to the Editor’s “page,” which will have a featured article (selected by the individual editor), as well as excerpts from other stories, and a subject archive. [....] [W]e want to keep it fresh. [....] Also, this allows us to be fresher than a weekly magazine, but to keep stories alive for a while, instead of just being a blog-collecter scrolling mess.”
 
Of course, this was not enough detail. So I contacted David Honig. He was on the road. Our connection was not ideal but the transcript of the conversation below is, I believe, faithful.
 
Admin How did you come to this project? What was your thinking behind Palate Press?
 
David Honig I think that the whole idea of something like this has been bouncing around the blogosphere for quite a long time. And in some other areas it’s been made to work. Recently there were some new discussions about what is it going to take for blogs to become…? And then fill in the blank, depending who is writing the comment; more relevant, relevant, profitable, depending on how people look at the blog before it’s changed? But ultimately the question is really the same, which is: how do you go from hundreds and thousands of little blogs with a few of them that a fair number of people look at, a lot of them that very few people look at, and turn what is really a universe of quality content into a viable product?
 
I consider Palate Press, really, an experiment. The hypothesis is if you take the very best of the blogosphere, some is of the best writers, because there are people who produce terrific product each and every day; some of it is the best product, because there are people who sometimes write something which is fabulous; there are people who are tremendously knowledgeable; but if you can put all of that in one place, add some original content, will you have something that people will flock to read? Will you have something people will want, and that is attractive enough, of interest enough that people would start to either pay for it or, since I don’t particularly like the subscription model, pay to advertise on it?
That is the hypothesis. Palate Press is the experiment.
 
Indeed. The fine writers at Appellation America have recently embarked on the subscription model. It was explained to me in an email exchange that if they get just half of their ‘loyal core of readers’ to sign-up, hovering at around 23,000, they will be in good shape. I don’t know their thoughts on the advertisement model.
 
DH Yes. The advertising model is one we would like to try. It is part of the reason we are constructing Palate Press the way we are. It is to allow advertisers to carefully focus what they do. And what I mean by that is if you look at the Beta site you’ll see that it has a couple of featured stories and then each of our editors will have their own page, their own stories. So, Russ Beebe, who’s known on-line as the Wine Hiker, he’s going to be our Wine Life editor. So if what you had [as a company] was bicycle tours through Napa, you could advertise on his site because his page is going to be dedicated to wine life, hiking in wine country, bed and breakfasts, going to where the wine is made…. So if you advertise on his page, when somebody opens it they’ll see many stories about wine life. And your advertisement is going to be there. It allows an advertiser to focus on what the reader is looking at.
 
If you are regional, if you’re a retailer who’s local, you can one go to one of our regional editor’s pages and focus your advertising. That’s the experiment.
 
Yes. Navigation of the general site becomes absolutely critical, how to find the proper page. How is that being helped along?
 
DH We’ve got some people working on website construction who are far more technically savvy than I am. We’re looking at tying in with social media much more than any of the main stream magazines. We’re going to tie into Twitter, Facebook etc. to bring people back. When they see us there they’ll come back to see what we have. Also, obviously, you have to be creative and work on search engine optimization, that optimizes access to all the different modern social sites.
 
Recently one of the big magazines, I don’t remember which one, and I’m not just being coy, they did a survey on their average reader or average subscriber. Those were people who were, if people told the truth about their numbers, they were in the top percent of the top 1% [one percent] of income in America. And yet there are a whole lot of other people out there who are interested in wine! Now, those people are not reading the Wall Street Journal and they’re not picking up one of the wine magazines. They’re reading about it on Twitter and Facebook, and on Palate Press.
 
Mutineer Magazine began in somewhat a similar fashion. They then additionally moved into paper publishing. What is your thinking about Palate Press in this regard?
 
DH Well, I think you have to go back to the original statement which is that this is a hypothesis and an experiment. As that hypothesis gets tested we may ask additional questions, if we disprove it, we’re done! I don’t take anything off the table. One of the really exciting things about an on-line format, an on-line magazine format, in other words, it’s not just a scrolling collection of blog writing, but an edited magazine format. It gives us a tremendous flexibility. If something happens this morning we can have it on-line by the afternoon.
 
How did you secure the participation of Tish? That sealed the deal for me!
 
DH (laughs) I asked him. I thought I’d have to beg him! I think, though I don’t want to speak for him, I know he said ‘yes’. I must think that the model made sense, or at least he was as excited about the experiment as I am.
 
How do you answer those folks who’ve been in the business for a very, very long time, who view the blogosphere generally as a threat, who believe wine bloggers in particular are corrupting wine writing? I am thinking of Robert Parker, though there are others, a hostile, self-interested fringe. They share a considerable contempt for wine blogging, though it is clear to me they do not read many. There are more sophisticated voices, of course, often in print. Yet they, too, remain critical of wine bloggers because they claim they exhibit considerable short-comings. The older, more seasoned, more wizened writers, the more experienced writers, claim to speak about the blogosphere as a whole. Again, I see no evidence of their mastery of this space. What do you say to them?
 
DH I would say to them several things. The first thing I’d say is you are certainly etitled to your opinion. The next thing I would say to them is I believe that there are people who are not putting great product on their blogs. And I believe there are people who are. And then the final thing I have to say to them is watch. We’re going to keep moving, and your model is dying.
 
Couldn’t be more succinct. When is your formal launch? When is your official launch?
 
DH We don’t have an official launch yet only because we are still working on the website. I’m going to distinguish between ‘formal’ and ‘official’. I don’t think they really have a meaning. We’re launched, officially, we’re launched. We are accepting submissions, we are accepting contributors; we are reviewing new articles every day. I don’t even know how many people sent me whether articles they would like us to consider for posting, stories they’d like to be the subject of, a lot of material. With the Beta we’re comfortable with how everything works, with how everything looks. We’re going forward. This is new media. This isn’t old media. Here, you learn by doing. We’re going to learn by doing.
 
The whole idea is that the wisdom of the 1000s of people out there about wine, who love writing about wine, is greater than the wisdom of any one person or any room full of people.
 
Delightful. Any last thought?
 
DH We’re excited. I was going to do this slowly. Get all our ducks in a row. But as soon as I mentioned it, it just started rolling. Because of the interest. People want to be a part of that. It’s taken on a life of its own. It’s tremendously exciting.
 
Were you surprised at the response when they were contacted?
 
DH Stunned! I was stunned. I thought I would get one of three responses. ‘You write your blog, I’ll write mine’; ‘That’s a really dumb idea because…’; or third, ‘I’m going start my own because it’s a great idea and I’m going to try to do it’. And didn’t get any of those! Instead it was ‘That’s terrific! Let’s all do it together.’
 
A closing thought is, I guess, is the word together. The key to this whole thing is not exclusivity. It’s not, well, we’ve got the twelve people on the editorial board, we’re in; we’re now closing the door behind us. Or maybe the 20 contributors we’ll end up with who are basically full-time staff. No. It’s open to everybody. I think there is just an amazing amount of content out there. And we want to look at anything anybody has written. This door is not closed. Anybody out there interested in wine and interested in seeing their work published we will consider. We won’t publish everything, but we are an edited on-line magazine. We’ll look at everything. And what we don’t post we’ll try to help the writer do better the next time.
 
You’ll be at the Wine Bloggers’ Conference later this month. You’ll be making a presentation. Will it be about the Palate Press?
 
DH It will not. The presentation I’m going to make is about legal issues in blogging, something I think is important, which people lose track of because it is so easy to blog. Copyright issues, ownership issues, the sorts of issues that if you’re writing a blog that only you and your three friends are reading are meaningless. But the more successful you are the greater risk you bring. It actually comes full circle to the beginning of our conversation: One of the risks of monetizing a blog is you go from being a personal diary to being a commercial enterprise. And that significantly increases your liability on copyright issues, on trademark issues, but also on defamation issues. I’ll discuss the matter fully at the conference.
 
I look very much forward to meeting you.
 
DH I do too! It will be fun.
 
Have you met most of the people associated with this project?
 
DH I have not met a single one of them! Think about that for a minute. We had this incredible conference call last night talking about how this thing is going to move forward. And these are people who’ve never met each other! They just have the same interests, are excited about the same ideas. We were instantly on the same page moving forward together. Right there, that’s the power of the blogosphere, to bring people together in common interests and in common goals. It was an astounding thing to see.
 
Wonderful, David. Have a safe drive. I’ll see you at the Wine Bloggers’ Conference.
 
DH Thank you, Ken.
 
Can it work? I don’t know, but I am very pleased to be a part of this experiment. Let’s get to work.
 
Admin

 

5 Responses to ' Palate Press, A Fresh Experiment In Wine Blog Monetization '

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  1. winehiker said,

    on July 10th, 2009 at 9:05 am

    It’s going to be an interesting experiment, alright, but I, too, sense a collective passion among us that makes this experiment a worthy one. I was pretty astounded myself after Wednesday night’s conference call. Great article, Ken.

  2. Peter May said,

    on July 11th, 2009 at 4:23 am

    “and hopefully even monetize, them.” What’s wrong with pay them?

    This model, of getting other people to supply free content to a website on the possibility of getting a cut of future advertising revenue, has been around almost from the start of the web.

    Some people do well, such as the ‘editors’ at about.com and bellaonline.com . Let’s hope Palate Press will soon be able to pay their contributors.


  3. on July 26th, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    Palate Press certainly has a formidable lineup of folks who would contribute. The model is interesting for a startup, and is likely to sustain itself for a while if it does not burn up a lot of money in the process. Ultimately, the folks who contribute for free are going to want to get paid. Why do all this work for someone else’s benefit? And when that happens, they become journalists–professional journalists.

    Mr. Honig at one point refers to “full-time staff” of 20 people. That is close to the size of the Wine Spectator. And in another section, talking about legal issues”, he says when you monetize your blog you are no longer only writing a personal diary.

    I would not presume to tell anyone how to run his business. After decades, I am still trying to figure out how to run mine. But, a magazine is more than a bunch of personal diaries that have been monetized and purified. It is a directed business that controls its content by choice, not by what comes in over the transom. At that point, folks like Joe Roberts and Tish and anyone else who contributes loses his or her independent voice. If that is what they are willing to do to make a living in winewriting, I am in no position to judge that pejoratively. I am just happy to be my own boss. And I will miss those independent voices if they get caught up in the directed tangle that a good publication must be.

    But, I also know that others will take their place just as Palate Press or some other journal and writer or writers is going to take mine one of these days.

    Just be careful what you wish for. (Sorry for ending a sentence in preposition, Ken).

  4. Administrator said,

    on July 26th, 2009 at 8:57 pm

    Good to hear from you, Charlie. Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful comments. To ignore your advice is to invite disaster.
    I heard a rumor you might do a bit more blogging. I do hope it is true.


  5. on July 27th, 2009 at 8:41 am

    Hi Ken–

    Rumors are such ugly things. Problem is that they often turn out to be true. I think that all the existing writers and pubs will have blogs at some point if we want to survive because there is no denying the fact that print is shriveling in size and online communication is growing.

    There are all kinds of blogs. Some of the winery blogs, written by insiders, are wonderful reading. Your blog is among the more “intellectual” offerings, by which I mean that it makes its readers think rather than just react viscerally. Others like those of Steve Heimoff and Tyler Coleman split the difference. And then there is Ron Washam who makes me laugh out loud and respond with my own little bits of humor.

    I can’t write as well as most of those folks so if and when I start a blog on my pub’s website, it will look a lot less like an act of creative writing but will be more content, user-oriented because that is what I do.

    I will have the occasional rant, and the occasional vintner interview, but I won’t come close to the depth you have covered with Ken Burnap, for instance.

    That’s the beauty of communication. We each will have our own shtick and can enjoy doing what we do.

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