Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Dan Lyons Talks Blogging and Flogging

In November 2005, Forbes reporter Dan Lyons wrote "Attack of the Blogs," an infamous cover story. From the intro blurb on the article:

Web logs are the prized platform of an online lynch mob spouting liberty but spewing lies, libel and invective.

As that promising intro indicates, the article focused on the manipulation of blogs in smear campaigns, used by unethical companies to trash their competitors.

The legions of responsible bloggers were not amused. Lyons got skewered, and in his own words, “People basically said, ‘You’re an old print guy and you don’t know what you’re doing.’”

Fast forward two years and Lyons has achieved considerable fame and notoriety -- writing a blog, or more precisely, a flog -- The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs. He’s been toiling away for nine years at Forbes, writing well-regarded, substantive pieces. But with the arrival of Fake Steve on the scene and his subsequent uncloaking as its author -- Lyons got vaulted into tech celebrity.

Lyons chatted candidly about this strange ride at a recent meeting of the Social Media Club Boston. BusinessWire sponsored an interesting panel made up of Forrester analyst Josh Bernoff; Steve Restivo, Director of Corporate Affairs, Wal-Mart Northeast; and Lyons, who is a senior editor at Forbes in his day job. The panel was humorously moderated by Monika Maeckle, VP, Southwest Region, BusinessWire.

Since Lyons was terrifically funny, and his metamorphosis from print journo to blogger so dramatic, I’m going to zero in on his remarks for this first post, and then move on to some of the other remarks of note in later posts.

Lyons explained that Fake Steve started as a joke. He was dabbling to figure out what blogging was all about. “I started with a fake Sergey Brin blog and then a fake Chris Anderson Long Tail blog and a regular (non-fake) blog on open source at Forbes.com,” Lyons explained.

Then he got the idea of doing Steve Jobs. “I thought: ‘That would be funny.’ And that took off. It was really absorbing and way more fun than my print job.”

Lyons noted it prompted a profound change for him in thinking about blogs, based on something he’d undertaken as a lark, a side venture. As the blog went on, it wasn’t just satire. It was news analysis with a flair, along the lines of Jon Stewart or Colbert, but with a tech twist.

Once FSJ began to gain steam, Lyons talked with a friend who was the general counsel at the New Yorker, and she said, “You’ve really got to shut it down. You’re gonna get fired.”

Then Fake Steve started to get interesting email, including one from Lyons’ boss, Rich Karlgaard (publisher of Forbes) suggesting that FSJ come write a column for him. Another email from Elevation Partners (the private equity firm where Bono is an investor; EP owns about 40% of Forbes) offered to make an investment in the blog.

Fast forward a few months. Rumors began to swirl about the identity of FSJ, and after many wild guesses, Brad Stone of the NYT finally got it right.

At least 50 people knew FSJ’s identity, so Lyons was surprised that the story hadn’t broken earlier. He thought, “When it gets revealed, it won’t be fun anymore.” But then he thought, “It’s not like people know who I am; it’s not like I’m David Kirkpatrick.” (Laughter)

Lyons feels FSJ hasn’t changed much now that his identity has been outed. “The first week, I dreaded it,” Lyons said.

Someone asked a question about what the blog has meant to his career. Lyons deadpanned, "It’s pretty much shot." (Uproarious laughter.)

Lyons continued: "So here’s one of the huge things I like better about blogging -- you can change things. There’s no way to do a ‘do-over’ on a big cover. But with a blog, when I get a comment from Larry Lessig saying, ‘I really like your blog but by the way, I never took any money from Google and I wish you wouldn’t say that I did,’ I can respond to that, right away."

Another Q: What were your influences?

Lyons (deadpan): "Chekhov, Tolstoy of course." Then Lyons confessed he like Spy Magazine and Private Eye. He stole the Secret Diary idea from Private Eye, which used to do fun spoofs like The Secret Diary of Richard Branson.

Another audience member asked what Lyons is interested in when he’s writing for the magazine once a month.

Lyons politely explained that the magazine comes out 24 times per year (c’mon people – know thy publications). He’s writing the gadgets and tech column now. He just did a story on xBox. He still likes entrepreneur stories.

For those of you who just can't get enough of FSJ, he's got a book coming out later this month. You can read a positive AP review here.


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