In a time when the PR dilution machine ejects watered-down content on a daily basis, Cameron Slater has established a political blogging niche that's dedicated to telling the truth as seen from his perspective. Often divisive, sometimes incendiary, Slater's writing on Whaleoil over the last eight years has never been short of readers, some of which have simply visited the site to express their dismay at the content.
Although the website has had no shortage of interest over the years, it was Slater's breaking of Len Brown's scandal last year that really catapulted him from the right into mainstream consciousness.
Ever since that moment, he has regularly served as a political commentator for various publications. Most recently, the Herald asked for his thoughts on Howick local board member Steve Udy's disgraceful performance in a restaurant, and he responded with a typically fiery opinion of the debacle.
"Like Aaron Gilmore, Steve Udy should apologise and then resign – we don't need bombastic, tinpot little tossers like him in local government," he was quoted as saying in the article.
His tendency to express his thoughts in such an unfiltered manner offers a refreshing, if somewhat controversial, insight on occurrences in the world of politics. And while we might not always agree with what he says, the fact that he can freely express his opinion stands as testament to the strength of New Zealand's democracy in the sense that it captures the essence of Evelyn Beatrice Hall's oft-misattributed quote in her biography on Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
How/Why did you decide to start Whaleoil?
About eight years ago I was spending most of my days in bed suffering from a debilitating form of clinical depression. I occasionally surfaced to read the news and blogs. I ended up yelling at the screen a lot, mostly because people had no clue what they were talking about. The lies, the ignorance, it was painful to read. Someone suggested I start my own blog as a form of therapy. Get it out of my system, so to speak.
How has it changed since the early days?
Oh, the early days were very raw. When you think you have no real audience, and when you are essentially in a depressed world where everything is very negative, the blog reflected my anger and my pain. And oddly enough, it started to find an audience. People are so sick of PR, PC and BS, a loyal following started to build that appreciated my opinion straight in their faces. I’m told many of them would flinch and shake their heads, but they kept coming back for more. The messages between the crassness were finding an audience.
Things are so different now. I have kept the honesty, and I indulge in baiting the precious petals out there on occasion for personal entertainment, but the blog is building a mainstream audience, so I’ve knocked the rougher edges off. It has been said that nobody will ever die wondering what I think about a topic, and that’s still true. But the blog looks more outward than inward now.
Although it used to be a personal blog, it is now the product created by myself, paid staff, a large group of volunteers and the never-ending feedback and help from the ground crew – my readers.
How do you go about financing your site? Do you make enough to live off your website?
As Whaleoil is largely a political blog, my financing has always been questioned. Critics feel that if they know where the money comes from, they can “prove” I’m a paid puppet for some person or party.
The reality is quite boring. I’ve said it many times, but few accept it as the truth. They seem to want to discover “the secret” that doesn’t actually exist. So I’ve been feeding into that need to reveal the sordid truth by dropping fake hints and it keeps the critics going around in circles. It is very entertaining, but it doesn’t actually pay any bills.
Here it is again for the slow: the blog’s operations have been funded by me over the first years. It doesn’t cost that much. Until recently, I was paying $40 a month for a server to host my site. That was it, really. But over the last few years I’ve poured money into the blog to develop it into what you see today. All of that money, with the exception of some minor Google Ads income, has come from me working as a consultant.
I do political, business and social media consulting. I am a speaker on the speaker’s circuit. I help political aspirants with their strategies. I have been a newspaper editor, and I do frequent media appearances. And that, together with my wife’s income, has been what puts food on the table.
Has your advertising been profitable? (Also, what determines who is allowed to advertise on your site?)
Now that we’re pushing between six and eight million impressions a month, there has been some real money coming in from advertising. But it continues to be a struggle to get a constant flow of advertisers.
Currently our biggest obstacle is that to get advertising to come to us, we need to get agencies on board. Those agencies are hard to get out of their daily habits, and they are probably risk averse.
All the agencies do is place the ads with old media on their internet presence. I don’t believe any of them had an honest look to see if they can serve their customers better by taking advantage of the emerging “new media”.
But that’s OK. Soon their customers’ web sites will hide behind paywalls, and the new media players will be the ones with the audience.
If you build it, they will come, right?
What type of advertising works best for your website?
I’d love to talk to some media agencies that are willing to look beyond what is working today. Whaleoil has some high quality eyeballs, and it would be fun to see what sort of campaigns work best.
Some smart companies have run short sponsorships with Whaleoil providing back links to their business web site. The value in Google SEO for such a small outlay would be easy to quantify.
Would I run adverts for unions and the Labour party? I’d love to be in a position where I’d have to even consider that situation. So far I think I’m safe. So apart from them, I think the relationship is between my readers and the advertiser, not the advertiser and Whaleoil.
Our biggest challenge is to get advertisers to look past Whaleoil content, and realise it isn’t about agreeing with what the articles are about. The opportunities are all about the audience, and getting a mind share from that.
Do you collaborate with any other websites?
Sure. I network as hard with other site owners and operators as I do with politicians and the business community.
Has anyone ever offered to buy your site? Would you mind sharing some stories. What is the most you've ever been offered?
What are some of the craziest things that trolls have commented on your posts?
Most trolls are boring. A troll is generally a person not smart enough to realise they are wasting everyone’s time, including their own. They think they are clever, or are making a difference in some way, but in the end they either run out of energy or they do something so stupid they are asked to leave.
We get two kinds: the idiots and the saboteurs. The latter are generally political disciples of the left and they think they can come and do some damage. Apart from providing some entertainment for some of our commenters, the effort largely goes to waste.
What advice would you give to newbies wanting to make it in the online industry?
Content. Content. Content. Unique. Regular. Engaging.
Engaging is one of those marketing words that sends people to sleep. But it means you make a connection. You make them feel something: anger, frustration, agreement, kinship, brotherhood, joy, elation, pain, grief ...
Unless you can build a connection with your audience, they won’t come back.
Whaleoil has an un-official byline: 'Love us or hate us, but you can’t ignore us.'
We’re not out there to be liked. We’re out there to tell a story and make you feel something about it. So you become a minor participant in, instead of an observer of, the stories of the day.