Syntagma Digital
Editor, John Evans

The day of the Eclog is coming

It’s not often I introduce a new word into the world of communications. Well, I’m going to now.


Have you noticed that many local newspapers are called the “Echo” in some form? There’s Exeter’s Express and Echo, and The South Wales Echo, and many more across Britain. I can’t ever recall a national called by a variation of it, though.

So “Echo” is probably the best single-word describer of a local newspaper. It’s a pity that most locals seem to be a dying breed, or soon will be. The costs of printing and distribution are overwhelming even the “river of gold” of small ads and classified advertising.

Where Craigslist led the way in America, so many British locals are being gradually replaced by online alternatives.

Now imagine a hybrid between a quality blog and an Echo — online, of course. What would you call it? An Eclog, naturally.

That’s not to be confused with an eclogue, which is a poetic pastoral dialogue. The Greek origin of the word means “selection” or “pick out”, which is rather apt, I think.

Here at Syntagma Towers we have spent the last three months creating a new business. It will shortly produce the world’s first Eclog: Devon & Cornwall Online. You will find it on a screen near you in June.

May I suggest you rummage through your loft and find all those forgotten objets d’art you might want to flog to the good people of the West Country of England.

Alternatively, if you are a solicitor, accountant or estate agent, you may like to advertise your services locally. If a tourist, letting agency or general holiday company, it will not harm your interests to book a presence on the English Riviera, bearing in mind that the site will be visible across the country and may well become the first port of call for people wanting to vacation in the area.

Other Eclogs in the pipeline include, Somerset (with Bristol) and Dorset (with Bournemouth). In fact, there’s no limit to the possibilities.

So here’s to the Eclog, a brand new feature in the news and views industry of British publishing.

John Evans

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Internet dead boring says Mark Cuban

The internet is dead and boring according to Mark Cuban, internet A-lister, venture capitalist and TV impresario. He believes it has become a “utility” and therefore a bit like electricity or water — yawn-inducing!

As always this kind of argument concentrates on the medium not the message. For example, ten years ago childrens’ books were dead in the water — today’s kids are “visual”, brought up on screen games and videos. They couldn’t get into textual stuff at all.

Then the Harry Potter books arrived on the scene. Not only did they revolutionize the sales of children’s books, they also hugely boosted another old medium, the movies.

We’re always saying here in Syntagma that the medium is boring — it should be. All mediums should be unobtrusive, allowing creativity to flourish. The message is the thing. Find exciting new content and even the most ancient technologies, like books, magazines, television and film, come to life in a splurge of fresh excitement and initiative.

The internet is a platform. At present, there’s nothing to match it as a pipe for instant content. Most content is rubbish, of course, but the opportunities are there for anyone who can grab the public’s attention or imagination.

The medium is not the message. The message allows the medium to thrive. Quality content makes the internet valuable. Find that, and you’re in business.

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Syntagma Network upgrade

As part of our ongoing upgrade and improvement of the network, we now have a new feature in the sidebar :

The 38 sites in the network are listed by topic instead of by name, and sorted into broad niche groups. The aim is to create a menu rather than a list, and to make it easier for visitors to find what they want.

It still needs a bit of tweaking, especially on the loading side. We will be rolling this out across all the other sites in time.

The three experimental portals are now positioned below the contents menu, and will be subject to further changes and extensions over the summer.

Feedback would be welcomed — as always.

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The business of blog networking

Gordon Gecko We’ve been looking carefully at the Syntagma network over the early summer, thanks to Gerry Reynolds, a business consultant specializing in the retail sector. Like all such exercises, much of what emerged was already known to me from the experiences of the past two years, but two thoughts in particular were illuminating.

Gerry’s first insight, which I was aware of, is that the online content business is a small margin trade — unless you’re prepared to invest heavily ($20m). By that he means that there are few big payouts for individual sales — i.e. of ad space. Big bucks have to be accumulated over time from small sum payments.

Drawing on his retail knowledge, he likened the business to little corner shops, which make margins of around 2 percent. To make that sort of business pay it has to be run almost around the clock. Most small shops are owned by immigrant groups and open between 8am and 10pm. Moreover, they are family run, with the kids roped in for shelf stacking after they’ve returned from school. Teenagers and grandparents also take turns behind the counter.

The owner may also import exotic foods from Asia or elsewhere and wholesale them to other outlets. Other shops may be opened in different parts of town. Everything is optimized to lift that slim margin to an impressive return.

Similarly, a digital (blog) network needs quantity and variety to make the business pay. For example, some of our sites do well on text link ads, selling out in a couple of months. A few are Adsense magnets drawing clicks from heavy, regular traffic. Others attract different types of advertising, while one or two specialize in affiliate sales. Often you simply can’t tell until you try.

The attraction of multi-domain networks is that they can contain a variety of advertising magnets, which allow many fingers in different pies.

All sites need time to mature, of course — around 18 months — before they reach their potential and start contributing to the pot.

Rarely will one site make a living salary for its owner. It does happen, of course, usually for quirky, semi-commercial blogs which catch on for reasons known only to visitors, or sites using below the radar techniques for hoovering up Adsense clicks.

By accumulating sufficient inventory in the right niches, and optimizing it for profitable trading, network owners can make a good living from the business. In some isolated cases, they can even sell off the company for seven or eight figure sums, but that should not be taken as read for the vast majority.

So, that’s one of Gerry’s insights : the need, like corner shops, to work with low margins through quantity, while not compromising on quality. A hard call, and only for the determined. But does anyone think it’s easy winning a gold medal in the Olympic Games?

Another aspect of the business our consultant stared hard at was the use of branding. He looked at our basic brands and assessed their worth.

On his advice we closed down our Allusionz network magazine last month as it was going nowhere. The brand last in, Moneyizor, has already overtaken LifeTimes, but is slightly behind Phi still. It could end up in front of both.

However, one brand stood head and shoulders above the remaining three, and it’s not hard to guess what it is : Syntagma. The whole network should be pulled together more tightly like a drawstring, he suggested, to emphasize the Syntagma brand, while retaining the three subsidiary brands as “sections” of one online publication — with their own portals as now — instead of separate “magazines”.

It makes a lot of sense, and marks a retreat from the long-list method of presenting a network, which we partially moved away from with the network magazine concept. It’s simply the logical next step along the same path.

We’ll be working on this project over the rest of the summer.

There are other profitable elements in this package too, but those are confidential and for my eyes only.

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Newspapers and magazines as blog networks

I’ve long been writing here at Syntagma about the “wide” version of blog networks developing into a “deeper” model more in tune with print newspapers and magazines.

This has been the basis of our “network magazine” structure over the past six months. However, I’ve not yet had the time to develop this concept as I originally set out to do. That is still to come.

We now have three broad niche “magazines” with the next stage pulling them together into one online publication, albeit distributed between multi-domains and topic verticals.

I’ve just read Scott Karp over at Publishing 2.0 — writing from the opposite direction — in which he puts the case for print newspapers converting their online presence into multi-blog networks and it certainly rings a bell with me. This convergence is undoubtedly the way forward.

A single “brand” umbrella title, with print credibility, utilizing the flair and flexibility of weblog software by employing a range of contributors, amateur and pro, while maintaining the standards, professionalism and sense of mission of the best newspapers, is clearly the future of news journalism and commentary, especially for local content.

Quote : “What’s becoming clear is that blogs are now the organizing principle for newspapers’ original online content. And these are ‘real’ blogs, i.e. driven by one or two individual bloggers, with (often active) comments, RSS feeds, the whole nine yards.”

In other words, the weblog software platform is capable of far more than we normally expect from “blogging”. It’s capable of a full range of journalistic output, linked through the tools used by the top blog networks and the quality and depth associated with the best print newspapers and magazines.

Maybe there are three tiers of journalists at these blog network “newspapers”:

1. Full-time reporters and editors, who ensure breadth of coverage, quality and standards, and public mission
2. Paid freelancers who write on a regular basis, but not full-time — these can be stay-at-home parents looking for supplemental income, retirees looking for extra income or to keep busy, college students, etc.
3. “Witness” reporters (avoiding “citizen journalist” on purpose), who contribute to the reporting effort when they witness news in some form.

As I wrote here recently, “The medium isn’t the message, the quality and form of the writing, or broadcasting is. Good reportage is just that, wherever it appears. So is commentary. So is any other form of expression. We’ve been confusing the medium with the message for too long — since Marshall McLuhan in fact.

For example, some newspapers incorporate an occasional poetry spot, where decent poets can publish their verses. Does that make the poet a journalist? If writers use blog platforms to publish the kind of article that could easily appear in a broadsheet paper or specialist magazine, does that make them bloggers?”

What is certain is that this convergence is moving fast — look at any of the online newspapers as example. Print titles are crossing over between platforms to give their audience a richer, and more updated, service than ever before.

Will the print format disappear eventually? Only when the online experience matches the depth and utility of a major print publication.

I suspect print will be with us for quite a time yet.

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