From blog to brand: Russell Brown (Public Address)

As a published author, ex-TV host, leader of a Twitter army and avid blogger, Russell Brown is something of a quadruple-channel threat in the sense that his appeal isn’t pigeon-holed in a single domain. His career is one largely forged out of expressing his opinion on topical matters and, judging by the 14,000-strong crowd of social media followers he has accrued, he has an evident knack for penning ideas that are both relevant and insightful.

Having maintained and grown his online readership for over 20 years, Brown has consistently evolved his approach to ensure that it continues to remain appealing to the fickle audiences that pervade the online environment. And given that his blogging career arguably spans the entire history of Kiwi blogging, he is in many ways a veritable sage of New Zealand’s blogosphere.            

How and why did your team decide to start Public Address? 

Public Address has its origins in the original format of Hard News as a weekly radio commentary on 95bfm, which was broadcast from 1991 and was distributed on the internet in both text and (later) audio form from 1993. So it was a blog before there were blogs. I was tapped out with that by 2002 and decided to continue Hard News as a blog. I thought that if I was going to go to that effort, I should create a group blog, which was Public Address. The original site was built for me gratis by CactusLab and the old Hard News mailing list gave us momentum from the start.

How has it changed since the early days?

Since the radio days? It’s way more restrained! My language could be quite salty in the radio version, but the tone now is befitting of my age and station in life. Since the launch of Public Address? The addition of reader comments in 2006, initially as a separate community site called Public Address System, has been the big change. We’ve always been about a reader community and the discussions immediately reflected that.

The most significant addition recently has been the functionality associated without our excellent photoblog, Capture, which allows readers to basically have a conversation in pictures. I don’t know of anything quite like it.

How do you go about financing the site? Do you make enough to live off the site?

Ha ha. Once, about eight years ago, I made $9000 from advertising in one month. It never happened again and it’s pretty clear that internet advertising has turned away from independent sites like ours. I still have Scoop Cartel selling and serving ads, but we make relatively little from them. On the other hand, last week’s crowdfunding appeal brought in about $5000 in direct donations and — for the first time — will deliver hundreds of dollars a month in ongoing voluntary subscriptions. That will help make my time worthwhile and cover the development costs with CactusLab. If you have an audience that really values you, voluntary subscriptions are an effective way to go.

What type of advertising do you think would work best for your website?

Our successes have almost universally been with comms companies rather than advertising agencies. They’re more likely to get what we’re about and to value our upscale, highly engaged audience and our ability to get a discussion going. Particular credit should go to Deborah Pead, who brought us together with successive sponsors for our Great Blend event series (Karajoz Coffee Company and then Orcon). The events were both creatively and financially successful. The Law Commission also spent money on a package of ads and sponsored posts aimed at generating discussion of its media regulation paper. It grieves me enormously that I have a food blog concept that’s going nuts (150 comments in the first 12 hours) and I can’t get a sponsor.

Quite a few bloggers (Farrar in particular) have managed to lift their credibility through writing online. Has this been the case for you?

Not really. I’d won awards as a working journalist and was fronting Radio NZ Mediawatch by the time Public Address launched. Although I am proud to have won the first Qantas Media Award for blogging.

Do you find that broadcasters are more likely to feature your opinions because of the content you’ve produced on the blog?

Do I get called for comment because I’m a blogger? Yes, although it’s probably a combination of the blog profile and my conventional media work.

What do you think makes Public Address so popular among Kiwis?

Google Analytics says we have 61,000 unique readers a month, but of course, analytics routinely overstates that metric. I think people come for the writing, the discussion and the sense of community. We really do have some stunning writers on the masthead.

Do you collaborate with any other websites?

Lots. Notably, NZ On Screen and Audioculture, because I’m on the trust board that oversees them. I try not to see publishing as a competition—that’s the main reason I don’t participate in any blog league tables. (Also, those tables contain a few people I don’t like to think of myself as being in the same game as.)

Has anyone ever offered to buy your site? Would you mind sharing some stories. What is the most you’ve ever been offered?

No. I have a particular talent for coming up with great creative ideas that don’t work without my constant presence. Sigh.

Have you got any funny anecdotes about running a new-related site in NZ? (Any ridiculous comments from trolls?)

Our annual Word of the Year vote is usually good for a few laughs. I like to think that we have, at the least, bequeathed the word “twatcock” to the world.

What advice would you give to newbies wanting to make it in the online industry?

Be creative, be engaged—and have a day job.

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