They opened up their lives, took over news sites and won awards for their daily musings. But former bloggers say you couldn’t pay them enough to do it today.
At the beginning of 2009, a Christchurch librarian found herself in the hot seat. On a whim, Moata Tamaira had entered a blogging competition run by a national news site. Called Blog Idol, dozens of entrants had been whittled down to a top 10, and, after a week-long series of daily blogs, readers voted for their favourite.
With her dry musings about Outrageous Fortune, the All Blacks and supermarket layouts, Tamaira found herself an early favourite, and eventually emerged the winner. She sent in a stunned selfie taken in her living room, and told a journalist she found inspiration by “getting wound up” about things.
The prize? A steady gig writing four times a week for Stuff.co.nz. The pay? Just $25 per post.
Tamaira threw herself into her new mission, spending several hours every day writing blogs, as well as working full-time at Christchurch’s central library. “I’d just finished my Masters, my boyfriend of four years had just dumped me,” she says. “I had all of this spare time and energy.”
Called “Blog Idle,” Tamaira turned “all of the random thoughts that would pop into my head” into near-daily online musings. “It was, perhaps, the blog about nothing,” she says. When she struggled to persuade a movie theatre to play The Princess Bride for her birthday, it became a blog. When the Christchurch earthquake struck in 2011, she wrote about the portaloos on her street. “It was mining my life and experience for content,” she says.
It worked. Tamaira quickly rose to be ranked among Stuff’s most popular bloggers, one of a stable of writers with communities of committed readers forming around them. It seems unbelievable now, but back then it was safe – and enjoyable – to dive into the comments and participate in discussion threads.
By the end of her first year, Tamaira had scored a Canon Media Award for best blog. “I felt like a rock star,” she says.
Around the same time, Jane Yee was sitting down at her desk to write about everything she’d done the previous day. “It was very much like bad diary entries,” says Yee, a former music TV host who worked for an Auckland record label during the day, and wrote the blog “The Girl’s Guide” for Stuff as a side hustle.
Yee used her blog to share personal details about her life, like her phobia of vomiting and her attempts at jogging. “I’d write about running 200 metres up the road, standing there wheezing, leaning against a lamp post outside St Lukes, and that being the truth, no hyperbole, just warts and all,” she says. “I was trying to be really relatable, the antithesis of that aspirational, Insta-bloggy life.”
She wrote about having a rare sleep disorder in which she banged her head against her pillow, and when she got a new boyfriend, Yee told all her readers about him too. “I don’t think he loved it. He’s quite a private person,” says Yee, who went on have a family with him. She received the occasional nasty message, especially if her blog was featured on Stuff’s homepage, which would bring in readers unfamiliar with her work.
But regulars would quickly jump in to defend her. “Nasty comments were rare,” says Yee. For the most part, “it was a nice place to be”. She penned three posts a week, including regular video diaries, and often competed with Tamaira at the top of Stuff’s blogging leaderboard. For her efforts, Yee was paid $250 a week.
News sites based around blog posts, like Gizmodo and Gawker, grew in popularity overseas, and so did local ones, like KiwiBlog and Public Address. As Google and Facebook soaked up advertising dollars, major news sites struggled to adapt in a rapidly changing media landscape. So, many turned to bloggers as a way of finding cheap content and building audience interaction.
The Huffington Post was quick to adapt to this trend, and Stuff soon followed suit. “Blogging has become an integral part of the internet and gives everyone the chance to give their opinion,” declared Sinead Boucher in 2009. She owns Stuff now, but was the website’s group online editor back when Tamaira won Blog Idol. “It seems natural to look for new writers from within our community of readers,” Boucher said at the time.
Blogs became the next big thing, appearing on news website homepages around the country. NZ Herald, Stuff’s main competitor, had music scribe Scott Kara blogging about being a dad, Joanna Hunkin revealing her love life in lurid detail, and Myrddin Gwynedd commenting on celebrity gossip. Independent political blog sites proliferated elsewhere too, as The Standard and The Daily Blog grew in popularity. Whale Oil scored a major scoop when it revealed Auckland mayor Len Brown’s affair with a junior council advisor.
But no mainstream platform had more bloggers than Stuff. The site embraced them like they might be media’s savior. Perhaps, they were. “The old media model died,” says Nick Barnett, a former Stuff journalist who, in 2007, found himself in charge of Stuff’s blog section. As the 2000s became the 2010s, advertising dollars disappeared and news organisations became desperate to find a new direction.
“There was a massive shakedown in the media,” says Barnett. “All kinds of things were being tried across the site, and across the medium. None of us knew where it was going to end.”
Barnett threw himself into his new role, casting a wide net to find as many bloggers as possible. He saw Sydney Morning Herald had 39 bloggers, so he decided to try and match that figure. Colin Espiner blogged about politics. Greer McDonald discussed her dating life. Jon Bridges built a house on the side of a hill. Simon Sweetman became the country’s most hated music critic, and Chris Philpott got fired up about TV.
Barnett had no shortage of writers wanting to give it a go. But by then he’d seen many come and go, and knew not all could be successful. “They were much more difficult to do than people thought,” says Barnett. “You’re slicing a bit of yourself off and putting it in front of people.”
He points to Tamaira and Yee as the best bloggers he had. “Jane was a master of choosing relatable subjects, as though she’s talking to you over a cup of coffee.”
By 2013, Barnett was in charge of a staggering number of blogs – 33 – that covered a wide range of topics, including sport, food, gossip, cars and the media. All the comments were moderated solely by him, and, somehow, he found time to write his own pet blog, Four Legs Good. But times were changing. Podcasts emerged as a threat, and Barnett found he was no longer getting the full support of everyone in his newsroom. Stuff Nation, a community-led journalism project, had begun, and he felt like that was a priority. “There was always something new to do,” says Barnett. “Blogs had been around in the [same] format. Interest just moved on.”
Making things worse was internet commentary beginning to morph into the toxic dumpster fire it’s become today. It became riskier for anyone to stick their neck out. Philpott, who was an opinionated fixture in Stuff’s comments before being asked to helm the TV blog On the Box, received a death threat for describing local reality show The GC as the worst the country had produced. “I had a person tell me in no uncertain terms that I should never set foot in Tokoroa or I wouldn’t be leaving,” says Philpott. “I’ve been to Tokoroa since. It was fine.”
At the start, Barnett estimates he deleted just two percent of comments. When Stuff opened up comments on news stories, that percentage started to change. The negativity became too much for Yee, who gave up her blog once she became a mother. “I found it really hard to send in three submissions a week,” she says. “All the joy had gone out of it.”
For Tamaira, the end came in 2014, after the birth of her son. “I’d always blogged about things that happened in my life,” she says, but she found the comments too much when she discussed her parenting abilities. She started asking herself: “Why am I doing this, if every time I’m talking about my kid I’m getting this weird criticism from strangers?”
Barnett saw the writing on the wall, and was eventually restructured out of his position. By then, he says, blogs had run their course. He felt burnt out, and was ready to do something else. “It just consumed me,” he says. “I had nothing left.”
Suddenly, people were spending hours every day on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, as algorithms designed to make users stay put for as long as possible promoted increasingly extreme content. “You had smartphones coming through. More apps were available. Twitter grew from 2010 … Facebook just became gigantic,” says Barnett. “People who thought they needed a blog to express themselves had other ways to do that.”
Compared with 10 years ago, the internet, and the comments sections, aren’t as safe as they used to be. Every writer spoken to for this story says there’s no way they’d share their opinions on a major news site now. “I think discourse online has turned too toxic,” says Philpott, who chucked in blogging for his dream job as a content planner for Sky TV. “It seems like writers can’t share an idea on the internet without someone calling them names.”
Yee, now The Spinoff’s head of podcasts, shakes her head at the thought of how much of her life was out there for everyone to see. “It’s wild,” she says. “Everything’s just gotten nastier.”
Tamaira says nuance is now missing from opinion writers, and online comment sections. “It’s an environment where you’re rewarded for … being unequivocal about something,” she says. “There’s no way I’d do it now.” She still works at the library, and is a proud mother of an eight-year-old son. Sometimes, she thinks about writing again, but instead jumps on Twitter, where she posts about things that might have made a good Blog Idle post, like NZ Post’s weird new logo.
Perhaps the spirit of blogging does still exist, it’s just the medium that’s moved on. Based around emails, with communities of like-minded readers attached to them, newsletter subscription services like Substack and Patreon offer a blog 2.0 reboot. Emily Writes, a Wellington writer who went extremely viral in 2015 for a post about her newborn titled ‘I am grateful, now fuck off‘ and later became The Spinoff’s parenting editor, nearly gave up over the amount of hateful messages she received when promoting her work on Facebook. “I got horrendous messages, violent messages, sexual harassment, bad faith arguments,” she says. “Stuff like, ‘Choke on a dick, whore.'”
Since signing up to Substack three years ago, she’s been able to quit her day job and write for a dedicated audience full time. “It’s a complete dream,” she says. She can’t remember the last time she received an aggressive message, and hasn’t had a single one on Substack. “I no longer am waking up having panic attacks every morning. It goes directly to readers. I don’t have to use Facebook,” she says. “It’s changed my mental health. When I get alerts, it’s going to be someone saying, ‘Have you read this book?’ not, ‘I hope you die.'”
Barnett is enjoying small town life in Levin, working part-time at his local library and swimming pool. But, every Friday, he writes something that harks back to blogging’s good old days. Called Furry Friday, it’s the last remaining relic of Stuff’s blog section, and of Barnett’s old pet blog. He’s not putting his opinion out there, and he’s not trying to share any hot takes. Instead, at the end of every week, he collates readers’ cute pet photos and stories and compiles them into one feel-good Friday yarn.
Last Friday, he wrote about rugged-up pets getting snuggly indoors during winter, and he has no shortage of pet owners wanting to get involved. “Everyone’s ready for it at the end of the week,” says Barnett. Sometimes, readers send in fan mail, thanking Barnett for providing levity after a tough week. “It’s positive, it’s relatable, it’s interactive,” he says. “They’re all things that made blogs good, in the days back when they were good.”