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Monday, December 17, 2012

The Media Equation: Brian Lam\'s Wild Web Ride

Buffeted by the Web, but Now Riding It

When the consumer Web exploded in the mid-1990s, part of the promise was that it would transform careers and the concept of work. Remember the signs on telephone poles and banners all over the Internet? “Work at home and turn your computer into a cash register! Ask me how.” The next generation of Americans would be able to work on their own terms.

Brian Lam, a media entrepreneur and editor of The Wirecutter,  in Honolulu last week, where he now finds time for surfing.

It didn't turn out that way. If anything, digital technology has overwhelmed those who sought to master it. The Web may be a technological marvel, but to most people who use it for work, it functions like an old-fashioned hamster wheel, except at Internet speed.

Brian Lam was both a prince and a casualty of that realm. After interning at Wired, he became the editor of Gizmodo, Gawker Media's gadget blog. A trained Thai boxer, he focused his aggression on cranking out enough copy to increase the site's traffic, to a peak of 180 million page views from 13 million in the five years he was there.

He and his writers broke news, sent shrapnel into many subject areas with provocative, opinionated copy and was part of the notorious pilfered iPhone 4 story that had law enforcement officials breaking down doors on Apple's behalf. I saw Mr. Lam on occasional trips to San Francisco, and he crackled with jumpy digital energy.

And then, he burned out at age 34. He loved the ocean, but his frantic digital existence meant his surfboard was gathering cobwebs. “I came to hate the Web, hated chasing the next post or rewriting other people's posts just for the traffic,” he told me. “People shouldn't live like robots.”

So he quit Gizmodo, and though he had several lucrative offers, he decided to do exactly nothing. He sold his car, rented out his house, took time to mull things over and eventually moved to Hawaii because he loves surfing.

This is the point in the story where we generally find out that the techie is now a wood carver, or an oboe player.

But leopards don't change their spots, and they certainly don't turn into unicorns. An accomplished technologist and writer, Mr. Lam worked to come up with a business that he could command instead of the other way around.

The problem is that these days, ad-supported media business models all depend on scale, because rates go lower every day. Success in Web media generally requires constant posting to build a big audience. Mr. Lam knew where that led.

With friends - including Brian X. Chen, who now works at The New York Times - he came up with his own version of a gadget site. But instead of chasing down every tidbit of tech news, he built The Wirecutter, a recommendation site that posts six to 12 updates a month - not a day - and began publishing in partnership with The Awl, a federation of blogs founded by two other veterans of Gawker Media, Choire Sicha and Alex Balk.

While there are many technology sites that evaluate and compare products, usually burying their assessments in a tsunami of other posts, Mr. Lam and his staff of freelancers decided to rely on deep examinations of specific product categories.

Using expert opinions, aggregated reviews and personal research, they recommend a single product in each category. There are no complicated rankings or deep analytics on the entire category. If you want new earphones or a robot vacuum, The Wirecutter will recommend The One and leave it at that.

“I was tired of doing posts that were obsolete three hours after I wrote them,” Mr. Lam said. “I wanted evergreen content that didn't have to be updated constantly in order to hunt traffic. I wanted to publish things that were useful.”

He bootstrapped the site, spurning outside investment. “If you take the money, you have to pony up in terms of scale, and I don't want to do that,” he said.

The clean, simple interface, without the clutter of news, is a tiny business; it has fewer than 350,000 unique visitors a month at a time when ad buyers are not much interested in anything less than 20 million.

But The Wirecutter is not really in the ad business. The vast majority of its revenue comes from fees paid by affiliates, mostly Amazon, for referrals to their sites. As advertising rates continue to tumble, affiliate fees could end up underwriting more and more media businesses.

“Brian's insight is that in a world of loudest and fastest, he has turned it down, doing it slow and doing it right,” Mr. Sicha said. “And by being consumer facing, he doesn't have to have monster numbers. The people come ready to buy.”

In fact, 10 to 20 percent of its visitors click on links, a rate that would make ad sellers drool. Mr. Lam hardly invented the model. The Web is full of mom-and-pop shops that live on referral fees for things like pet supplies and camping gear. Many companies also pay for referrals - eBay, Half.com, even retailers like Gap and Old Navy. A business that used to be mired in spam is becoming far more legitimate.

For small businesses like Wirecutter, it's risky to rely so much on a single company, but Amazon seems disinclined to mess with its very successful model.

“We have been working hard to give publishers of all sizes the tools to work with Amazon,” said Steve Shure, Amazon's vice president for worldwide marketing.

But it's not just the little guys. Hearst's Good Housekeeping has commerce links to Amazon, and Gawker Media, Mr. Lam's old employer, is building affiliate revenue and other nonadvertising revenue into a seven-figure business by next year. In a sense, it's back to the future, the days of the Whole Earth Catalog and its compendium of splendid things. Kevin Kelly, its former editor and publisher and now “senior maverick” at Wired, has a site called Cool Tools that will be observing its 10th anniversary.

“Affiliate income is six times as much as advertising by now,” Mr. Kelly said in a phone call, describing the revenue at Cool Tools. “Part of what is attractive about our site and Brian's is that it is a distillation, a trusted friend. You don't find out everything, just what you need to know.”

Mr. Lam's revenue is low, about $50,000 a month, but it's doubling every month, enough to pay his freelancers, invest in the site and keep him in surfboards. And now he actually has time to ride them. In that sense, Mr. Lam is living out that initial dream of the Web: working from home, working with friends, making something that saves others time and money.

“I don't want to get too hippie about it, but surf is bad when it comes in lots of messy waves,” he said. “Our traffic is spaced out in manageable ways that we will grow over time. And even if it doesn't, that's fine by me.”

E-mail: carr@nytimes.com;

Twitter: @carr2n

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 16, 2012

An earlier version of this article said that Mr. Lam's Web site revenue was doubling every month. It should have said doubling every quarter.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 17, 2012

An earlier version of this article said that Mr. Lam worked at Gizmodo for six years. It should have said five years.

A version of this article appeared in print on December 17, 2012, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Buffeted By the Web, But Now Riding It.