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Ad Age Digital A-List: All Things D

Blog Thrives by Competing -- Aggressively -- Against Other Blogs, as Well as Parent Dow Jones' Flagship Wall Street Journal

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You might not think it sounds like a big scoop: A post last Tuesday revealed the date of a tech company's next publicity event.

But this one regarded the world of tech, the land of gadgets and the not-insignificant nation of Apple. "Exclusive," the post announced in the headline, "Apple iPad 2 Event Set for March 2."

Digital duo: Founders of the blog, Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, have seen their idea pay off in spades.
Digital duo: Founders of the blog, Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, have seen their idea pay off in spades.

Notch another win for All Things D.

Since the brand began as a conference in 2003 and added a news site in 2007, All Things D has become a particular sort of powerhouse in the overheated space devoted to tech news. It's part of Dow Jones, so it's got that gravitas, not to mention the talent, reputation and influence: Its first conference attracted speakers including Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Sergey Brin and Larry Page. But it's got the speed and humor of a blog.

It's hard to imagine the Journal publishing an article entirely about the date of Apple's event to introduce an upgraded iPad in the first place -- although it might -- but the All Things D post got to write it in a style that the Journal simply doesn't: "It's not clear when Apple will begin sending out its famous invites for the gathering, but I am guessing soon, in order to get the Apple faithful to the proper level of froth."

That post was by Kara Swisher, who co-founded All Things D along with another longtime Journal writer, Walt Mossberg, initially as just a conference. "Just" a conference, the idea went, but also a good one.

"We both went to a lot of conferences and we thought they mostly sucked and they didn't have real journalistic value," Mr. Mossberg said last week. He spoke from his house, where he was testing a competitor to the iPad in his capacity as personal technology reviewer. "The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones had a conference division we didn't know much about. We went to them and said, 'Let us do this.'"

This was years ago, of course, before changes in the media landscape forced some variation of "entrepreneur" or "business development" onto the modern journalist's job description. "They looked at us funny because we were columnists, we were reporters, and that was it," Mr. Mossberg recalled. "To their credit, they let us do it."

It may have helped that, even though this was also before "paid content" became a bit of a grail for the news business, tickets to the first D conference would begin at $2,495 and rise to $2,995. It sold out.

The news site, which now pumps the All Things D brand into the ecosphere every day all year, took a little longer to sell. But the tech space was crawling with upstarts of varying degrees of quality. The Journal was missing an opportunity.

"I'd seen a lot these blogs, especially these tech blogs, which were just not done by professionals with standards and ethics," Ms. Swisher said, minutes after posting her iPad 2 event exclusive. "It irked me that they did so well."

The "previous administration" at Dow Jones, meaning those in charge before the Bancroft family sold to News Corp. for more than $5 billion, didn't leap on the blog idea as quickly as it green-lit the conference, Ms. Swisher said.

"It took awhile to explain blogs to a mainstream media company," Ms. Swisher said. "We started with the conference, which was immediately profitable, which they get. Eventually we had such a well-known brand we could kind of explain what we wanted to do with the web."

The site went live in April 2007, coincidentally right around the time Rupert Murdoch was making the Bancrofts an offer. It began with four writers: Mr. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret, who also continued to write for the Journal; Ms. Swisher; and John Paczkowski. Peter Kafka, focusing on the media piece of the tech world, joined in October 2008. And however far and fast last week's iPad 2 exclusive traveled, the site has often produced meatier scoops. Traffic is on the rise, averaging 1.4 million visitors a month last year, up from 887,000 in 2009, according to All Things D.

The conference has, meanwhile, become a tech touchstone of its own. You may have seen the video of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sweating and blinking as he struggled to answer questions about user privacy at D8, the eighth D conference, held last summer. The ninth iteration of the D conference, this May 31 through June 2, sold out weeks earlier than anticipated. Standard ticket price: $4,795. Sponsors include Microsoft, Lenovo, Qualcomm, Ricoh, Advanced Micro Devices and NYSE Euronext.

It's less clear, because Dow Jones won't say, whether the site is profitable in its own right. While the conferences, including the first D: Dive Into Mobile conference last December, benefit from dual revenue sources of attendees and sponsors, the site has only ad sales. Dow Jones points to recent hires at All Things D as a sign of the site's strength, including Ina Fried on all things wireless, Tricia Duryee on e-commerce and gaming, Liz Gannes on social media and Arik Hesseldahl on the enterprise beat, all new since October.

"We really don't talk about profitability, but sometimes actions speak louder than words," said Kelly Leach, senior VP-strategy for Dow Jones. "The fact that Dow Jones felt strongly enough about the site to essentially double down and make a significant investment in the journalism, that was done because there's a belief that this can be an even bigger contributor, that this has the potential to scale in a way that the conference can't."