The Online Photographer Turns One
An Interview with Michael Johnston
By David Emerick
On November 19th, Mike Johnston’s photo news website The Online Photographer reaches the milestone of its first anniversary, and, coincidentally, just passed two million hits. Will it go on from there? David Emerick interviews Mike.
David Emerick: Why did it take so long to start TOP? You have been writing about photography for many years and a blog is such a perfect venue as we now see.
Mike Johnston: I resisted it for a long time. It seemed like blogging would be too much of a chore. At the time, I had several outlets for what I wanted to say. I had a monthly column in Black & White Photography magazine (U.K.) that I still write, and an online column based at The Luminous Landscape that was published as well on Steve's Digicams, photo.net, and the Polish site fotopolis.pl. It was called The Sunday Morning Photographer, and at its peak was actually published every Sunday morning. Actually I still publish a column on fotopolis; my friend there, Lukasz Kacperczyk, takes my B&WP column and translates it into Polish. They're able to pay me for it, so it makes sense for me, and Lukasz is a good guy to work with, very bright and friendly. He's very fluent in English, and many friends who speak Polish have spoken glowingly of the excellent quality of his translations.
The blog really was instigated by my friend Oren Grad, who is another very interesting guy. Oren is some sort of deepthink policy wonk in the medical field – he's one of those guys who do things all day that I'm not even smart enough to describe. I think he's actually the most highly degreed person I know. He's also a longtime photographer and camera buff – he essentially learned Japanese so he could read the Japanese-language photography magazines. Anyway, Oren loves blogs, and always wanted to do one himself, but he knew he would never have time to provide content on a daily basis. I think Oren knew I'd be a good fit for blogging before I did.
DE: Yet you began blogging with “The Quotidian Meander” which was more politically based. I was certainly surprised to see TOP’s readership shoot through the roof so quickly; were you?
MJ: Yes and no. "The Quotidian Meander" had about 20,000 visitors in the year it was being updated, and "The Online Photographer" gets that many visitors every two or three days, depending on the day of the week, the content at the top of the page, the tides, and the will of the Great Pumpkin. TQM was almost entirely political, and I still think that's very important. The problem is that, with a political blog, you're just talking to yourself. The people you’d like to get through to aren't reading it.
TOP's one-day record for hits is just short of 27,000, and we passed 2 million hits a few weeks ago. So you could say it's a little more popular than TQM was [laughs]. But while I'm gratified by that, I'm not really all that surprised. I'd established a readership among photographers long before that, and we were, and are, helped by occasional mentions on much larger sites like Steve's Digicams, Luminous Landscape, and Rob Galbraith. In a sense we've really just piggybacked on the traffic those sites get, although I’m sure we have our own loyal following now.
DE: Many of the readers of TOP comment positively about the fact that entries sometimes range from television to music, and have nothing to do with photography.
MJ: Yeah, I’m guessing very few phtotgraphy websites ran an obituary of Popeye when the contaminated spinach scare hit the nation. Or how to curse Chicago sports teams. I can’t help it.
DE: Somehow you have managed to capture a sense of sitting around the table in casual conversation. How have you managed to achieve this?
MJ: I think it's a strength of my writing style. My history as a writer is entirely as a writer of letters, first, and then, since 1988, as a writer for magazines. So I'm not an academic writer or a book author or a jobber wordsmith. And that encourages a particular style, breezy and familiar and maybe a little confrontational, sort of pungent. Sally Mann once was reading something of mine and she said, sort of half to herself, "Your writing is so tasty." I really liked that. I still think it's one of the best compliments I've ever gotten.
I like variety, and I like to be entertained. I always try to imagine what I'd like to find at TOP myself if I were a reader coming to it cold from somewhere else. One of the inspirations for TOP was my own frustration with the news feed pages of the big digital camera review sites. Day after day could go by with nothing new appearing, which I hated, and then something new would be posted and it would be, like, ‘new firmware for some skanky camera you're never going to own.’ As Oren would say: bah! I wanted a site where people would know they could always reliably find something new every day, and it wouldn't just be every last little dull dry fact about one narrow topic.
I'm also motivated significantly by enthusiasms. Maybe even a little too much so, because sometimes I go veering off into something else and it’s hard to rein myself back to photography. So we try to cover the waterfront on the topic of photography, and then throw in some other things that people might find interesting, whatever that might be. But first and foremost this is done with the readers' interest at heart. Because I think that no matter what, you know that occasionally you're going to be surprised, occasionally you're going to be amused, and you also know that if you hate something I write, or it makes you mad, it’s not going to continue. You can tune in tomorrow and there will be something totally different.
DE: How many hours a day do you spend on the computer slogging through e-mails of comments, suggestions, and posts, or scouring the web for interesting items?
MJ: I would say between one and two hours on average, with outliers at twenty minutes and four hours. It's funny – sometimes things just pop out, and other times it's like pulling teeth.
DE: So how many countries has TOP touched now? I am always amused to find people referring to TOP on mail lists from Australia to Europe. I have also noticed an increase in contributors; how many are in your stable now?
MJ: I don’t think very many of the people who have written for me would be happy being described as part of a “stable” [laughs]. And you know, it's funny, but I've never counted the number of people who contribute to TOP, I suppose because everybody's a case unto themselves.
A little back-story: as you know, one of the ways TOP works is to get a variety of photographers and writers to contribute, in return for the links to their websites, assuming they have some reason to want to drive a little traffic to their sites. I think a number of people contribute just because they enjoy doing it. I know you have your Artists' list, and what you post on TOP is just a minor offshoot of that. Oren is a co-writer of the blog, although he doesn't have time to contribute as much volume as I do. Carl Weese, although he contributes only rarely, has written some of the best entries. Ken Tanaka has made a number of significant posts. Ctein contributes roughly three times a month, and Chantal Stone does her "Photobloggers Exposed" feature twice a month. Eolake Stobblehouse contributed for a while. Joe Reifer just wrote a nice book review, and John Sexton wrote one post for us early on.
One of the people who really contributed mightily to the site was Paul Butzi, who I worked with as an article author when I was editing Photo Techniques. Paul made lots of really excellent contributions. I put that in the past tense only because he's been on hiatus recently, obviously a condition I hope will prove temporary. Paul's an excellent photographer and writer and his perspective is significantly different from mine in a lot of ways, which adds an extra dimension. We've also had some good contributions from people I don't know who write one or two posts and then disappear. I know I'm leaving a lot of people out, which isn't good!
As far as where readers come from, we did some postings about that. People visit literally from all across the world, with the fewest visitors coming from sub-Saharan Africa – although there are some. By the numbers, we get the most visitors from the U.S. and Great Britain, but the countries where our popularity seems particularly high, I mean out of proportion to the populations, seems to be Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands. Of course we have lots of visitors from all over Europe and South America, and lots from the Pacific rim.
DE: I think the post Great Photographers on the Internet back in June has been passed around the most, and rightly so, as it was quite amusing. Most of my favorites have a “satire alert.”
MJ: Yeah, that was definitely the best one I’ve done in term of viral publicity. Two days after that ran was when we set our one-day record, and we still get people coming into the blog through that page. Your comment about the "Satire Alert" reminds me that those are consistently among the best draws. I really ought to do more. Guess I need to await inspiration, though – it's not always easy to come up with that stuff.
DE: So what is next? Any tricks up your sleeve? Branching out? Changing things? Or are you happy to continue down the path?
MJ: As successful as TOP has been, I wish it were more so. I'd say that it gets pretty modest traffic as major photography sites go but really good traffic as far as blogs go. And perhaps I should be happy with that. Of course I'm not.
The main short-term goal is to find a few more regular sponsors. That the blog exists this very minute is mainly due to Fabio Riccardi and the other developers of LightZone, who have been our major sponsors since last Spring. I wish I could impress that on readers – that this is really a little, tiny operation that gets by on a shoestring, and all they have to do to keep it going is click on Fabio's link and try his product. Of course that's the long-standing dilemma of sponsorship – you want to help your sponsors and you want to serve your readers, and sometimes you feel like a mother trying to help two little kids be friends. It helps that I believe in Fabio's product, which really is gaining a following (I understand the last few covers of View Camera magazine were produced with it). Still, it would be nice to have a few more like Fabio. We were really disappointed earlier in the year when Pentax backed out of a promise to sponsor us. I won't say anything more about that, because regular readers know how I get when I start talking about conspiracy theories [laughs]. Upstrap and Alain Briot are our other current sponsors, and both of them have been really loyal and supportive.
I'm futzing with various ideas for improving the site in other ways, mainly to try to get it more resources. Another problem is that it basically replaced my newsletter as a news conduit, but I'm still puzzling over how to deliver some extra value to the newsletter's subscribers. Right along, the plan was to make TOP a pay site, at which point, of course, the newsletter subscribers would be given free passes. But that day hasn't quite arrived yet. It would be great to be able to pay for content, too. It would also be nice to have a custom web page design tailored to what we could be doing for people, instead of the Blogspot default. But beggars can't be choosers.
DE: So now the tricky question...are you going to keep it going?
MJ: Sure. I always think that a year is long enough to do most things, and I never would have thought that I’d be able to tolerate the responsibility of providing daily content for even this long. But the funny thing is, I'm not tired of blogging at all. You'd think it would be onerous to keep coming up with content day after day, but it's like stand-up comedy in that there's perfect freedom – you can pretty much go anywhere you want, as long as you respect the audience. Occasionally I do feel the energy ebbing. But then the energy always seems to return – inevitably, reliably. It still seems like fun, and it still seems worthwhile.
Mostly, I like hearing from people – I get so much really nice feedback from so many interesting and intelligent people from all over. T.O.P.'s many non-U.S. readers help to broaden my perspective – on life, not just photography – and I do feel like the site has kept me in touch with what's going on in the world of photography. It's a nice excuse to be able to investigate things I'm curious about, or write about something that interests me. And since so many people seem to like it, I can’t quit now, can I?
DE: I’m sure a lot of people will be happy to hear that. Thanks, Mike.
MJ: My pleasure, Dave. Thank you too.
A frequent contributor to The Online Photographer. photographer David Emerick is Digital Media Specialist at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. His website is at http://www.smcm.edu/~dnemerick/.