World biz and more as seen from India

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Interviewing the "en"gadgeteer

Recently, I got a chance to skype with Peter Rojas, Editor-in chief of Engadget. Engadget is the top most professional blog concentrating on reporting tech stories as they break out. We have also published a few clipping from the interview. So here it goes.

B360: So what is Peter Rojas all about?

I am not an archetypical geek. I wasn’t into hacking or programming but more interested in the social and cultural aspect of technology and not just the hardware specs itself. I am someone who just loves technology and gadgets

B360: What were you doing before blogging?

I have a master’s degree in English from university of Sussex, UK. (B360: he forgot to mention his undergraduate degree from Harvard) After that I moved to California and took up an advertising job (pretty much the first job that I came across) and I was really bad at it. I wasn’t even doing anything fun. People usually think, when you are working in an ad company, you are coming up with crazy stuff and working with around models. I was actually working as a media buyer. Basically, deciding how much money a company should spend on newspaper ads versus radio/television ads. It was just a lot of math. It was definitely more math than I should have been trusted with. So I ended up quitting that job.

I was then hired by Red Herring as an associate editor (thanks to a friend so referred me there). Its funny how they hired someone with no experience in professional writing but it all fell in place. They offered me an option to join the web team or the magazine. I chose the magazine because being in magazine was still considered to be better than on a website (or probably because it had a better job title). Red Herring was a wonderful experience since it was where I developed my journalism and moreover who would send you all over the world to write about technology.

B360: How did you get into this?

I started blogging in the summer of 2001. Blogging wasn’t as popular back then but people were beginning to notice them. I was laid off from Red Herring and a close friend encouraged me to start a blog. So I blogged for a few months and then stopped. I was almost broke then and wanted to do something that would pay my bills. 9-11 had happened and the publishing business was in shambles. Magazines were cutting ad pages etc so work was difficult to find.

This made me think about starting a blog that wouldn’t loose money. That’s how Gizmodo was founded. We didn’t start it thinking it would make millions but something sustainable. As time went on, I left Gizmodo to start Engadget to get editorial freedom and to do something that would be better for me long term.I think it was a philosophical difference between nick and me. (Nick Denton was the co-founder of Gizmodo along with Peter.)

B360 : Was it supposed to be a full time thing?

Well, Engadget was started with the intention of being a fulltime job. From day one, I had decided that this was going to get 100% of my time, no more freelancing. I poured all my energy into Engadget and hoped that it would become successful. It was difficult in the beginning. I just lived off my saving for nine months. Even though we had ads, I didn’t take any money out of the site until this year.

B360 : So can I start a professional blog as well or do you need special skills?

Yes, you absolutely can. But the important thing is that you cannot make blogging your fulltime job or start a professional blog unless it’s something you are passionate about and are interested in. If you are not passionate about the subject matter, it comes out in your writing.

B360 : Any regrets about not having a regular job?

Seriously, I don’t even tell people that I have a job. I love doing this. I write about video games, cell phone and ipods, this is not a “job”. It’s like the 12-year old in me is making all the money. I get to play with all the gadgets for a living but lately I have been so busy that I can’t even do that any more. That can be frustrating sometimes.

B360 : How do you compare blogs and magazine?

Blogging to me is a lot more honest than the journalism I was doing before. (Not that it was specifically misleading). In magazines, you are writing for a mythical reader who is not as familiar with what you are writing and so you have to dumb things down to a certain level. The idea is that you don’t want to leave anyone behind. In some respects it better because then an average person can pick up the magazine and at least understand what’s going on but then it also means that you cant write stuff at a certain complexity. Moreover, blogs share a lot more information between them than magazines do. Engadget frequently refers other sites that might interest the reader as opposed to a magazine. For example, we refer to Om Malik’s blog all the time.

B360 : What defines the ethos of your blog - what you want to write, or what the audience wants to read?

That’s really tough. You definitely feel a pull towards what YOU think the reader would like but it’s a bit of a balancing act. But everyone has their pet subjects like I am really interested in IP TV, smart phones with QWERTY keyboard. But we try to cover the news and what’s going on as best as we can. And anyone who reads the sites knows that it’s not only product announcements but also stories that have been floating around on the web, pictures. But finally, the deciding factor on what goes on Engadget is whether I personally find it interesting. Everything on Engadget is something that I would want to read. For example, we did an Engadget 1985 feature that was definitely unconventional for Engadget.

B360 : Did you ever have to promote your blog: How to promote one's blog to bring more visibility and readership?

When you have a good blog, people will find you and it’s the people that don’t have good content or writing are the ones who have to beg for links. In the blog world, quality tends to rise to the top.

B360 : A big question - Is blogging just a fad? More specifically, has blogging become more of a fashion statement, basically, "demonstration effect" in the weblog arena.

I don’t think it’s just a fad. People tend to talk about blogging as a very monolithic thing but blogging is just a platform. It’s just a tool. Blogging is just a very easy way to publish online, which is incredibly valuable and is very meaningful for a lot of people. As for professional blogging, its fate is somewhat tied to online advertising and if there was a massive crash in online advertising then some of the smaller professional blogging sites will go out of business. But I see blogs going in every direction. More personal blogs will be started and even more professional ones. Soon every topic is going to have a blog on it. Probably the top 2 blogs, a year from now haven’t even been started. We just started last year and we are already the number one blog. That makes me happy but anyone can replace us in a relatively short period of time. We can afford to take things for granted.

B360 : A major feature on your blog is releasing scoops that you get. Do people just email you with this stuff or are these your friends working all over the place.

Engadget has signed no NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) so our hands aren’t tied. Another way at looking at it is that we don’t get exclusive reviews that run on the first day a product is released but they are not as important to us. Those reviews are important but its not worth trading the freedom. Posting leaked photos of a product brings the fun element into Engadget. Occasionally people send us fake stuff to try and trick us. So we have to exchange a few emails before we can trust a source - especially stuff related to Nintendo. So it’s not as easy. We do have to smoke out the fakes. Moreover, bloggers share a lot of infomration amongst them. We always refer to site like Om Malik's blog (The best one person tech blog) and other sites like phone scoop

B360 : PODCASTING Versus BLOGGING - are they complementary or will the former cannibalize the very essence of blogging - writing?

I am not so sure about that. I think they are pretty complementary. At the end of the day they are different kind of media and are meant to be enjoyed in different ways. Engadget views the podcast as a supplement to the site. We get about 60000 to 70000 podcast downloads a week which is nowhere near the millions of hits we get each day. But those 60000 people are really the hardcore Engadget readers. They want to know the story behind the story and that’s what the podcast is for us. It’s a way for us to connect with the reader in a different way and provide some additional background

B360 : What’s next? Engadget Magazine? Are you looking for other business model based on blogs?

We thought the magazine for a while but for now we are going to expand by rolling out Engadget in foreign languages like German, French, Korean and as many foreign languages as we think necessary. Technology is a global evolution so we want to provide the reader information in their native language. We might to something with vid-casts (podcasts but with video). But we still have to figure that out since its more complex than an audio output. We don’t want to start something and then stop it after a month.