February 7 is a date I know as well as I know my birthday: it’s the day in 2007 that I created Down the Road and published my first post. Happy blogiversary to me!
I’ve been fortunate, as my blog has become popular. Relatively, anyway. It gets about 500 page views every day. That’s pretty good for a fellow from Indiana who writes about his life and his hobbies.
It took about three years for this blog to begin to find its readership, thanks largely to one of my posts being included in WordPress.com’s old Freshly Pressed feature. Later, Google started ranking some of my film-photography posts high in its search results. Those salad days are over. But a lot of people liked what they found here and have stuck around.
And I’ve always been introspective — to a fault. Writing helps me sort my thoughts and feelings, which tangle easily. I’ve found myself much more likely to write when I know someone will read it. I’m not sure I understand this about myself, because some of what I write is private. But every time I share, many readers tell me they’ve had the same or similar challenges. I feel less alone with them. And sometimes someone will share a perspective in a comment that meaningfully helps me through.
Yet I continue to polish this blog and try to extend its reach. I want to attract more people who will find what I do to be interesting. I recently finished updating all 128 of my camera reviews. I’m also quietly refreshing many other old posts that get good search traffic, lightly editing them and enlarging their images. Finally, I’m doing some SEO work on all of my posts — more than 2,600 — that I hope will rank my film-photography and road-trip posts higher on Google. It had better, because the work is ultra tedious.
In my blog’s 14th year I plan to keep reviewing film cameras. About 10 cameras sit in my to-shoot queue, all donations to my collection. I also have a wish list of cameras I’d still like to try I also have a few more cameras to evaluate in Operation Thin the Herd: do they stay or do they go? I’m only keeping cameras that I think I will shoot regularly. I will keep practicing developing black-and-white film until I get consistent results. I will also keep posting my road-trip reports from my old site. Eventually I’ll either shut down my old site or redo it from the ground up with a new purpose.
I also want to self-publish a book of stories and essays from this blog. Many of you tell me that these are your favorite posts here. I’ve been writing them since long before many of you found Down the Road, and I think you might enjoy having them all collected into a volume. I’m thinking about offering a bound paper book and a Kindle book via Amazon Publishing, as well as a PDF I can offer through this site.
I started working on this book while I was unemployed in late 2018, but paused during the heavy challenges my family encountered in 2019. I had hoped to resume work on it late last year so that I could announce its publication today! But that didn’t happen either. I’ve decided not to pressure myself, and instead make it a soft goal to publish it in 2020 sometime. So watch this space for further announcements.
Twelve years ago today I published my first post here at Down the Road!
This didn’t start as a photography blog, but it’s surely become one. More accurately, it’s a personal blog that’s mostly about my film-photography hobby, flavored with some of my other arcane interests: old roads, old buildings, and old cars.
I’ve been pleased with how popular my blog has become. Over the last four years, it’s averaged about a quarter million visits a year.
However, in recent years other film-photography blogs have started, grown — and surpassed mine in popularity and notoriety. I admit to feeling envy.
I would love for this blog to become extremely popular, for me to become a well-known figure in the film-photography community, and for my work to generate a healthy side income. I admire EMULSIVE, Casual Photophile, 35mmc, and Kosmo Foto and their founders for accomplishing some or all of these things.
Not only do I envy their success, but I worry that the evolving online world is rendering my blog, and blogs in general, slowly obsolete. I feel uncertain, discontent on this twelfth blogiversary. Yet I persist, as creating this blog, both words and pictures, is a great joy.
Getting lots of pageviews
Casual Photophile founder James Tocchio admitted in his year-in-review post on Patreon that his blog got 2 million views last year. Wow! In 12 years my blog has cleared just 1.5 million views.
Casual Photophile has earned its pageviews through a combination of hard work, good luck, and deliberately and relentlessly targeting an audience.
Targeting an audience involves deciding exactly who you are writing for and publishing articles that appeal to them. If I were to do that here, I would figure out what gear the broad film-photography audience is interested in, buy it, try it, and write about it. I’d work hard to report film and camera news in realtime, to be a trusted source of valuable information.
That doesn’t sound too bad until you realize that all blogs that do that wind up writing about Leica other luxury gear, because that’s where the money is. Unfortunately, high-end gear doesn’t light my fire. I don’t care to ever own any. I’d rather shoot an old box or an obscure rangefinder. I don’t want to give that up in the name of growing my audience.
Frankly, I’m not willing to give up writing about all of the things that interest me. I want to just be fully myself here, in all my quirky glory. But this eclectic mix of topics fragments the audience. If you come here for film-camera reviews, for example, you probably don’t enjoy my histories of old highway alignments. On any random day, a new visitor to this blog will struggle to know exactly what it is about.
Generating side income
But to get two million visits a year! I fantasize that would make me happier. I’m not sure it’s true, but it’s a nice fantasy. That many visits would dramatically increase advertising income, though. Octuple it, probably.
I can afford the costs associated with the blog and with my photography. But deep down, I feel like what I do has value in the world. If I can find ways of capitalizing on that value, I want to do it. Ways that are reasonably simple for me, and minimally annoying for you, anyway.
It’s why you see ads at the end of every post. They generated $299.25 for me last year. That pays for my jimgrey.net domain, Flickr Pro, and the WordPress.com Premium package each year with a little left over, which paid for some film and processing. It’d be very nice to find ways to cover all of my film and processing so this hobby supports itself.
I’ve considered soliciting patronage through Patreon. But to do Patreon well is a lot of work that would reduce the time I can spend creating this blog. Besides, I don’t want it to feel like I’m constantly rattling my donation cup at you. I think it grates pretty quickly.
I’ve considered shifting off WordPress.com to self-hosted WordPress so I can use more lucrative advertising networks. But that would be a big project, and then I’d have to do my own site maintenance. It’s so nice to just trust the fine people at WordPress.com to keep this thing running well.
I have other fundraising ideas. I’ve published two books of my photographs, in part to put my work into your hands and in part to help fund my photography. The books didn’t sell well, though, I think in part because they cost too much. I need to figure out how to publish at lower cost. I’m also considering learning basic camera repair so I can keep reviewing gear here, but sell the cameras I won’t keep at modest profits. I’ve had good luck selling cameras through my blog.
Hobby vs. business
Some of the best-known film-photography blogs (and their associated businesses) are making a run at being at least a side hustle and maybe even a primary means of supporting their founders. You can see it in how hard they work to promote themselves on social media, create communities around their brands, and/or create a product or service and have a storefront.
I don’t want this to be a full-time job. I have a fulfilling career and don’t want to step away from it. But if I did want it, I’d have to lean a lot harder into promoting my blog.
I like making photographs and writing far more than I like promotion.
I feel like my father. When he was about my age he had been building and selling bespoke wood furniture on the side for several years. The extra money was nice but not life changing. He loved building his skill and knowledge in joinery, and enjoyed the respect and admiration he gathered from the wealthy people who could afford his furniture.
Demand increased enough that he quit his job to do it full time. But he didn’t realize how much promotion and sales he’d have to do to grow his business enough to pay the bills. He just wanted to build furniture and hoped word of mouth would carry him. It didn’t. After a few frighteningly lean years he went back to a regular job.
I feel a pull, similar to what my dad must have, to lean harder into this and make it into something bigger. But I’m just like my dad: far more interested in making the thing than selling it. My promotional efforts have been thin at best.
I expect there are no easy ways to promote this blog that will generate big results. Selling anything is real work. However, I am willing to put a little extra effort into it. I’m not sure everyone who would enjoy this blog is reading it, and I’d like to find more interested souls. I’ve spoken with other photo bloggers who have found some promotional success and am trying what they suggest.
Beyond that, I commit to keeping this blog a hobby, to enjoying the process of making it, and enjoying the response I get from you.
The changing online media landscape
Because we’re in the post-blog era, however, it’s a lot of work to build a blog audience, no matter how intentional you are about it. If you’re looking to reach a big audience and don’t already have a blog that reaches one, I advise you write for an existing popular blog, or start a podcast or a vlog.
Fortunately, I got into blogging while it was still young and readers like you found me. It’s a darned good thing: I am a writer and a photographer. I want to do these things. Blogging is the medium that best supports what I do.
But I’m watching carefully for signs that this blog’s day in the sun is passing, and that blogs in general are dying. If readership were to slow to a trickle, much of the joy would be gone and I’d stop doing it.
I worry a little that I’m like the radio actor who couldn’t or wouldn’t shift to television, and found himself irrelevant in a new age. If I want to retain an audience for my work, I must remain open to trying new ways of reaching it.
I could probably do a podcast. I’ve considered starting one, of interviews with other film photographers. Guests could join me on Skype and I could just record our conversation. I was a radio disk jockey in my 20s; I’m sure it would take me no time to be comfortable behind a mic again.
But video? That’s work. When I worked in radio I could control the entire station by myself through my four-hour airshift. Meanwhile, the TV station down the street needed a crew of 10 to put on a thirty-minute newscast. The effort multiplies similarly from podcasting to vlogging. It scares me off.
Fortunately, this blog is still in its salad days, and I can publish it in the time I have available. Therefore I continue to make photographs, write stories, and share them here. It remains a rich reward that you like what I do enough to keep coming back. Thank you! Every time I post, I hope to see your name among the comments.
On this day in 2007, quite on impulse, I started this blog. I was recovering from an ugly divorce and was looking for things to do that I would enjoy (as joy had been in short supply) that didn’t cost much (as I was nearly broke). I once made my living as a writer and missed it, so starting a blog seemed like a natural thing to try.
This blog has had four phases. The first was the “I’m not sure what I want this blog to be” phase, where I told stories about myself and wrote reflections on my faith that I find now to be a little too preachy. I posted sporadically, two or three times a month.
The second phase began when I started writing about my trips to explore old roads. I had always been curious about the old two-lane highways, and spending all day exploring one was a splendid distraction. I used to document my road trips extensively and exclusively over at my old-fashioned HTML Web site, but in time I stopped updating it and wrote about my road trips only here.
It’s an odd hobby, this search for truss bridges and abandoned brick road segments. But the beautiful thing about the Internet is that any odd hobby can find a following. Soon other roadfans found my writing, and they led me to an entire old-road subculture. Many other roadfans became regular readers. Buoyed by having found an audience, I committed to posting twice a week.
Meanwhile, I had restarted an old hobby of collecting vintage film cameras and was happily putting film through them and learning the mechanics of photography. I started posting about my old cameras here, too, and went looking for other old-camera blogs. A film-photography community began to form around our blogs, and I wrote more and more about using those old cameras to make photographs.
And then the WordPress.com staff found my blog, featuring it an astonishing four times on its daily Freshly Pressed feature in 2010 and 2011. That brought a deluge of visits and many regular readers.
It was at about this time that my old-camera reviews started to become popular on Google search. Turns out people want to know things about the old camera they found or about where to have their film developed. Searches for such things drive a very large percentage of this blog’s page views even today.
Feeling encouraged by increasing readership, I began this blog’s third phase by posting three times a week. I also bought a custom domain name – actually, a subdomain off my preexisting jimgrey.net domain – and bought upgrades to customize the look of the blogging template I use.
I also began experimenting, writing about other things to see which subjects would stick. It seemed natural to write about software development, as that’s how I make my living, but you stayed away from those posts in droves. So I started a second blog about it (here) and promote it separately. I’ve written some opinion posts that have been well read and discussed, such as one about bullying (here) and one about standardized testing in public schools (here). A series of posts reviewing fried chicken prepared at restaurants all over Indiana (example here) was really starting to take off when I discovered that a gluten-free diet eased a pesky health issue that plagued me. So much for that! I’ve also written about old TV shows (example here) and about raising sons as a divorced dad (examples here and here). And I’ve told many, many stories from my life (like this, this, and this).
But my photography posts had become by far the most popular. And I had come to really enjoy photography. And so this blog entered a fourth phase: as a photography blog, published six days a week. But I still sometimes write about my life and about the old roads. I also started sharing my favorite blog posts from around the Internet every Saturday morning. And that’s how you find this blog today.
Sometimes the words just come. When that happens, I set aside lots of time to write them down and soon posts are scheduled four to six weeks in advance. Other times, especially when my stress is high, I find I have nothing to say. I always hope those times come when I have weeks of posts already in the can! In either situation, writing my blog keeps my mind sharp. And seeing you read, comment on, and share my work is a rush that keeps me at it.
And so on this, my 11th blogiversary, I ask you: how did you find my blog, and what topics that I write about do you enjoy most?
This is an update of a post I first ran in 2014 on this blog’s seventh anniversary.
I’ll spare you the usual blogiversary gushing and just say that I love doing this. It’s my favorite hobby. I can’t imagine not doing it.
I started this blog to scratch my itch to write. I had written professionally early in my career, but ten years ago my work had long since evolved away from trading words for pay. I missed the process of expressing myself.
But I didn’t know what I wanted this blog to be. My first post was essentially a sermon. I tried a little diary-style blogging, and I wrote articles about old TV shows. I’ve left the proselytizing and most of those other topics behind. I kept one element that has characterized this blog from the beginning: stories from my life.
What I could never have predicted, however, is that this blog led directly to my love of photography. I’ve collected old film cameras since I was 8, and even put film through a couple of them to see what would happen. But when I started reviewing cameras from my collection on this blog, you photographers found my work and offered encouragement and constructive criticism. Bit by bit, in no small part thanks to you, I came to care more about photography than the cameras, and now I’m a devoted amateur photographer interested in doing better and better work.
And so now this is a photography blog with the occasional story from my life thrown in. Will it stay that way? Who knows. Probably for as long as you keep enjoying it.
It turns out that’s the whole point of blogging: interacting with you. What writer wants to send his words into the ether, never to be recognized, never to be praised, never to be cursed? (Well, hopefully seldom cursed.)
I have a lot more to say about ten years of blogging, and about writing and blogging in general. I’ll share those thoughts in several upcoming posts.
I started this blog on impulse five years ago this month. I wasn’t sure how long I’d stay with it. But as you can see, it’s stuck.
I gave it the tagline, “Roads and life and how roads are like life.” I had been on a very bumpy road, but I was determined that things would get better and that I would come to enjoy the journey. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, this blog has been all about chronicling that journey.
To celebrate Down the Road’s fifth blogiversary, throughout February I’ll be reaching into the archives from the first two years. I told some of my favorite stories during that time, but I had few regular readers with whom to share them. I’ll dust them off, freshen them up, and share them again. I hope you enjoy them.