Rojas talks about moving from California to New York, starting Gizmodo and Engadget and finding his voice as a blogger.
Question: Moving to New York, Post 9/11?
Peter Rojas: It turned out to be a very auspicious time, I guess, to move to New York. And it’s interesting. No one ever said . . . None of my . . . My parents never said, you know, “Don’t move now.” It was just always assumed that I was still gonna go. And I did. I moved about three or maybe four weeks later. And you know it was . . . You know I spent the next year or so kind of bouncing from like very pathetic freelance gig to freelance gig. And I did . . . I wrote for some trade magazines, and I ended up doing some marketing writing for a Japanese cosmetics company. And I had been friends with Nick Denton from . . . who is the Chairman of Moreover. I had known him in San Francisco. And I . . . You know we had become friends, and I had started a blog. My friend Paul Boutan who was an editor at Wired at the time had encouraged me to start a blog. And he showed me how easy it was to start one. I actually started one on . . . using Manila, which was Dave Wiener’s bogging platform. It was really, really simple. I set it up and got the hang of it, and was writing stuff mainly just sort of . . . Not exactly like a journal. It was more sort of, “Here’s something I saw on the news that was interesting,” and mainly . . . It was almost kind of like a . . . like a scrapbook for ideas for things I might wanna pitch to magazines.
Topic: Nick Denton
Peter Rojas: I had helped convince Nick Denton to move to New York. He was thinking about moving to . . . He was in San Francisco, and he was thinking about moving to New York, L.A. or London. And I was like, “New York. You have to move to New York.” And which, you know, I mean I don’t take sole credit for it, but definitely one of the . . . definitely he was . . . it could have ended up back in London. So he and I were hanging out one day in spring of 2002, and we were talking about blogging, and he was asking me why I wasn’t blogging that much anymore. And I said because it’s literally come down to do I, you know, pay my rent or do I blog? And it’s such a terrible choice, but I live in New York and the rents are expensive. And I’m barely getting by, and it’s spring of 2002 when it’s not a very great time to be a technology journalist. And I had been trying to sell a book actually at that time about remixing, because that was something I was really passionate about – this idea of like digital culture, the shift towards analog to digital culture enabling, like, all sorts of new ways people can recombine, and like consumers sort of becoming “prosumers” who are actively remixing and . . . and . . . and recombining the content of the world around them – whether it’s blogging, or remixing, or mashing up or whatever. And of course that has all borne out five years later; but at the time it was very, very difficult to sell a book that wasn’t about Osama bin Laden or Iraq.
Peter Rojas: We came up with this idea for Gizmodo. And we were actually at a Sweet and Vicious on Spring Street here in New York. And we, you know . . . The idea was, you know, I was a technology journalist and had . . . So if we were going to do a blog, it had to be something about technology. And we were really inspired by Glenn Fleishman’s “Wi-Fi Networking News”, which is a blog that he had done which was almost kind of like . . . like a trade journal about Wi-Fi, which was still a relatively new technology. And he did a really great job of . . . of collecting whatever news and information there was about Wi-Fi in the world. And so if you were a technology journalist or someone in the industry, it was like a great place to go. And it was very focused. And we thought, “Well what if we did that with something like gadgets where . . . There isn’t really a great gadget site.” I mean there’s CNET, but CNET is not really aimed at the enthusiast. I was someone who was an avid reader of a lot of the enthusiast sites out there, but they were very segmented and aimed at the really hard core users; and they tended to be . . . not be very well-written, or written by people who were engineers and things like that. So the writing wasn’t necessarily their focus. And so there were . . . There were great sites that had great information. And the people who wrote them, like, had so much passion for them. And . . . But it wasn’t something that was very easy for like a more . . . I wouldn’t say a casual reader, but someone who was like kind of just broadly interested in gadgets and really passionate about gadgets, but who didn’t necessarily want to, like, have to delve into the intricacies of, like, the pocket PC, like _________ or something like that. And so I felt like, you know, a site where you could sort of point to the best in what is out there, and kind of aggregate it, and kind of help make sense of this world and what’s going on.
Topic: Setting Up Shop
Peter Rojas: So the idea was to like just start it, do it, see what happens. I mean the online advertising market had dropped for the first time ever. So it seemed like it might not certainly make very much money. But the costs were really low, and all you have to do basically is . . . is, you know have a . . . make enough to keep the server up, right? Which is not, you know, wasn’t very much money at the time. I mean a few hundred bucks at most. And we actually had Mina Trott from Six Apart personally designed the site, which is something that’s even hard to imagine now, given how big Six Apart has gotten. And I remember meeting her in San Francisco. It must have been June of 2002, and just sitting down with her and Ben to talk about what the site should look like. And it’s such a . . . I mean it’s just such a different world now. And you know Gizmodo, it . . . it snowballed. It didn’t blow up right away. I mean I remember when we got to 50,000 uniques in a month, and me just being blown away that 50,000 people would be reading this site. And I didn’t even know who they were, where they were coming from, or how they were even discovering the site. But it was just really exciting that . . . that we were getting response, and that the site was starting to . . . to grow. And you know for the next . . . I guess I was at Gizmodo for about two years. And over the next, you know, two years it grew and grew and grew. And I started to figure out what worked, what didn’t work.
Topic: Finding a Voice
Peter Rojas: It took me about six months to really find my voice because, I had come out of like a technology journ . . . kind of like a traditional journalism role. And so I realized that I didn’t wanna write that way. And one of the things that I didn’t like about freelancing was always having to kind of, you know, write to the voice of the publication. Which, you know, goes without saying you have to do that. When I, you know, would write for the New York Times, you try to write in the voice of the New York Times. I mean that’s . . . that’s fine. But I had my own voice, and I wanted to . . . to express that and . . . And it actually took me a while to loosen up and actually do that, because you kind of feel so . . . When you spend so much time trying to write in someone else’s voice, you forget what it’s like to write in your own natural voice – I mean except for maybe in an e-mail or something like that. And so I kind of realized, I was like, “Well I’m just gonna write things that way I write it, and I’m not gonna dumb it down. I’m gonna assume that the audience is really smart. And I’m not gonna try to make it really broad. I’m actually gonna go very deep with these people – with people who are really passionate about gadgets.”
Question: When did you decide to expand?
Peter Rojas: When I started Engadget, I said I wanna take what I’m doing with Gizmodo and do it full time. Because Gizmodo was only supposed to be a part-time gig for me. That was the arrangement we had. That was Nick’s model. It was part-time editors – one editor per site, doing it sort of in their spare time, doing six to 10 posts a day. And I said you know, I see the potential to do something much bigger and do something with a team of people; for me to do this . . . to be . . . for this to be my life; to not be distracted by freelance work; to really dedicate the resources, and energy, and attention to . . . to . . . to taking this medium to its . . . I guess it’s almost sort of its logical extensions. And . . . and that’s what Engadget became, which was a group blog with a great team of people doing sometimes as many as like now, 50 or 60 posts a day; but also doing a lot of original content. So it’s, you know, interviews with people in industry; and reviews; and live blogging conferences; and like really insane, over-the-top, in-depth coverage of events like CES. And you know doing podcasts and video. And really sort of trying to push the . . . the genre, or sort of the format as much as we . . . or as far as we could take it without forgetting that the whole point is to be very deep. Rather than going . . . trying to flatten it out or water it down, that we needed to just go even more deep and more in-depth with that audience because that’s what they want. They don’t want . . . I’d rather have, you know, five million . . . you know the five million most committed, passionate early adopters and readers than 50 million kind of really casual, watered down readers. And I think, you know, there’s a natural . . . I think that in some respects, there’s a natural limit to how many people want to read about gadgets in the depth that we do it every day. But fortunately like, you know . . . you know, keep good . . . Traffic keeps going up. I mean we’ve hit about nine . . . nine or 10 million unique a month last month. So it’s kind of crazy how . . . Every time I think it’s gonna plateau, it just keeps growing.
Recorded on: 10/2/07