This week several major bloggers — most politically right-of-center — will see the shuttering of their blog ad network. Pajamas Media, which launched in 2004 and provided advertising for conservative bloggers like Glenn Reynolds and Michelle Malkin, announced earlier this year that it would close down its display advertising for blogs in order to put more focus on its online video component.

When Pajamas Media opened its doors a few years ago it had managed to lure away several large blogs from other networks, but the company failed to gain a firm footing, a situation that likely worsened as display advertising across all blog networks took a dip. Gawker Media founder Nick Denton predicted late last year that online display ads would fall by as much as 40 percent, and a quick survey of most major political blogs shows that ads are few and far between on sites such as Crooks and Liars and Eschaton.

Based on previous off-election years this trend isn’t exactly new. Several bloggers told me that the months after a November election are often fairly slow, both in terms of traffic and ad spending; but everyone I interviewed for this piece agreed that the current economic downturn is certainly exacerbating the situation.

My recent political blog traffic studies found that web traffic is down all across the board for all political blogs, but left-of-center sites have on average taken a much steeper hit (a 58% drop compared to the right’s 36% fall). For the first time since the explosion of the blogging medium, there is both a Democratic administration and Congress in power. Liberal blogs are no longer firmly set within the opposition. Just as Rush Limbaugh came to prominence as an opponent to the Clinton administration, we might see a similar expansion for the conservative blogosphere during Obama’s presidency.

Spending down on blog advertising

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Henry Copeland

Last week I spoke to Henry Copeland, the CEO of Blogads, about the current state of political blog advertising. Copeland founded his company in 2002 and by end of the 2004 elections had collected over 500 bloggers in his network. Though a sizable number of those bloggers are from the political left, the network handles ads for major blogs in just about every demographic imaginable, including entertainment (gossip blogger Perez Hilton is a large money-maker for the company). Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas once said that, “Blogads has been perhaps the single most important component to the rise of the liberal blogosphere.”

Copeland told me that it’s typical to see a slowdown in an off election year, and also a decline during the first quarter, when many companies and organizations ratchet back their ad spending.

“What’s also going on is that we’ve got a recession,” he said. “We all know that, but that’s also very microcosmic. If you’re a book publisher, you’re probably selling fewer titles. If you’re a T-shirt vendor — and T-shirt vendors have always been one of the mainstays of the political blogosphere — you’re definitely selling fewer T-shirts and you’re buying fewer ads.”

But Copeland said there’s a macro trend as well, which goes back to Nick Denton’s dismal forecast for display advertising.

“Everyone looks at the numbers and says, ‘Wow, advertising is growing 20 percent a year online,’ and they get really excited about that,” he said. “But most of that growth is cost-per-click — it’s Google, it’s AdWords, it’s AdSense. So display advertising stopped growing a year ago, and the problem is the number of impressions online doubles roughly every year, and so you have this gigantic overhang of supply, and demand has not only stopped growing anyway but is also definitely down in a commercial sense. Put it all together and it’s kind of a perfect storm.”

I asked him whether the Democratic administration and the billions of dollars in increased government spending were providing any new markets for ad buys. He wouldn’t discuss the specifics but confirmed that they were seeing some strong pockets of interests in affected industries and interest groups.

The closing of Pajamas Media, Copeland said, was definitely good for Blogads. When the conservative network launched, it managed to swipe several major conservative bloggers, leaving only a handful of the larger ones behind. Copeland told me that, starting in April, conservative blogger Michelle Malkin will be returning to Blogads.

“She has a very strong fan base,” he said. “There are certainly bigger conservative sites out there, but in terms of name brand she’s the biggest, and so that’ll be good for us because there are a lot of conservative advertisers that find her to be very effective.”

A conservative blog renaissance?

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Erick Erickson

Erick Erickson, an editor at the popular conservative diary site RedState, confirmed that at least anecdotally traffic seemed to be stronger lately. He said that in the last off-election year, 2007, the site’s March unique visitors were significantly lower than they are now — and speculated that this was likely because of the Obama presidency.

“I joked a lot during the campaign that Barack Obama would be bad for America but good for RedState,” Erickson told me. “It very much is the case that it’s a lot easier to fight against power, and when you control the White House and Congress it’s hard to wage a war against your own side.” More specifically, he said that he’s seeing an increase in both traffic and incoming links to any posts that mentioned Sarah Palin or criticized Obama for what Erickson called “socialistic tendencies.”

Asked where he felt the left-of-center blogosphere would be moving over the next few months, Erickson pointed out several recent organizations that have sprung up targeting so-called “blue dog” conservative Democrats.

“It looks to me like they’re going to be doing what the right blogs were doing when the Republicans controlled Congress,” he explained. “And that is trying to mount pressure on the more conservative Democrats — as we did on the more liberal Republicans — in order to advance the president’s agenda. You can see that they’re putting pressure on a lot of centrist and conservative Democrats, the blue dogs … It’s very rare to find a centrist blog, very rare to find a moderate blog. They are predominantly conservative, predominantly liberal, because that’s where the ideology is on both sides.”

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Chris Bowers

But Chris Bowers, one of the co-founders of Open Left and a former editor for MyDD, had a different take on why conservative blogs seem to be seeing a smaller decline in post-election traffic.

“The best guess I would have is that it’s not a sign of greater conservative energy,” he said. “I would suggest there are many people on the progressive side who feel that the mission has been accomplished and they’re just not going to watch the news as much anymore. That honestly would be my best guess.”

Bowers didn’t want to speak for the liberal blogosphere as a whole — he said it is much too diverse for generalizations — but confirmed that he has been working on organizing against blue dog Democrats, specifically with the political action committee, Accountability Now. He said he had noticed that many others within the progressive sphere were piling onto this issue.

I asked the Open Left blogger whether he felt differently about his blogging now that power has changed hands — if he felt that there is an overall change of strategy and direction.

“Oh yeah, I do feel differently,” he said. “I feel like we’ve made progress…We have some [former] candidates in Congress and there’s actually a chance of them passing some pretty good laws. And they’re talking to us and working with us rather than spinning things; we’re beyond the point of just trying to take control and we’re actually governing and so I find it very exciting actually.”

But with the double whammy of an off-year in politics and the recession, political bloggers may have to look for revenue sources outside of advertising. For instance, many bloggers have been hired on as consultants to campaigns. MyDD’s Jerome Armstrong has done consulting in the past, and he recently joined Brian Moran’s Virginia gubernatorial campaign. I asked Blogads’ Copeland whether this would be a good time for, say, a Newsweek political beat reporter to quit his job and start up a blog.

“I think he missed that boat five years ago,” he replied.

Simon Owens is a former newspaper journalist and an associate editor for MediaShift. He currently works as an online analyst for New Media Strategies. You can read more of his writing at his blog or contact him at simon[.]bloggasm [at] gmail.com.

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