FORTUNE — Tim Stevens was not happy. Last March, the incoming editor in chief of website Engadget was struggling as he took over one of the world’s most popular blogs. Even under ideal circumstances, the task would have been daunting. But something bigger gnawed at him. His roster of writers, who turn out breaking news, reviews and videos 24-hours a day, was about to be gutted and there was little he could do.
The job became his after his predecessor, Joshua Topolsky, announced his departure in the midst of a major restructuring at America Online (AOL), Engadget’s parent. It was no secret that the foppish, bespectacled editor already had something in the works: a website much like his old one and backed, no less, by former AOL executives Marty Moe and Jim Bankoff. That project, dubbed The Verge, launched eight months later, a sleek technology hub defined by its magazine-like use of images and focus on breaking news, reviews and multimedia — elements considered the essence of Engadget. Worse, Topolsky planned to populate his new newsroom by poaching from Engadget’s. “I was frustrated that there were some people who hung around only so long as they needed to until they could step away to go to The Verge,” says Stevens. While Topolsky toiled away, Stevens was left to wait.
As publishing intrigue, the episode barely rates. The world of technology blogs is fueled by egomania and rivalry. Casual web surfers may happen on a site like Engadget or one of its many competitors while browsing for a new digital camera or flat-panel television without giving it much thought. But behind the seemingly benign technical tut-tut lies a vital part of the $190 billion consumer electronics market. Companies like Amazon (AMZN), Apple (AAPL), Facebook (FB), Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT) have generated billions in value with new products from the Kindle to the Xbox. But sites like Engadget are an integral — if not always accounted for — aspect of their businesses.
It is not a particularly nice métier either, with a sketchy ethical track record. Two years ago, for instance, Gizmodo paid $5,000 for an iPhone 4 prototype an Apple engineer left behind in a bar, posting pictures of the device and generating controversy as well as millions of page-views. The gambit may have been an outlier, but conflicts of interest between reviewers and advertisers are routine. More common still are nasty spats between editors, usually carried on in public. Topolsky has beefed with rival editors, taking to the comments sections of websites to air his grievances. Michael Arrington, founder of Silicon Valley blog TechCrunch, left corporate parent AOL in a blaze of recrimination last year when Fortune revealed he planned to invest in companies he would also write about. And editors behind relative newcomers like UnCrunched (Arrington’s new site) and PandoDaily haven’t been shy about taking shots at their former employers, not to mention old-media types at The New York Times and Newsweek.
And that is what makes Stevens unique. Quiet, thoughtful and almost shy among a cast of blowhards and rascals, he appears to be a different kind of editor. And he is changing Engadget. If Stevens has his way, he’ll write the bildungsroman for the online technology press, and his site will become more than a blog. That would put Engadget and Stevens at the forefront of professionalizing an industry badly in need of sobriety. If the technology press is to be saved from its own blasé meanness, Stevens may be its best hope. He started with his new competitor. The Verge launched, having snagged eight prominent editorial staffers from Engadget. Before the site went live, Stevens sat down and tapped out an email to Topolsky: “Best wishes on the launch.”
Engadget is a blog that matters as much or more than any print publication it its category. In May 2007, AOL executives watched ashen faced as an Engadget post about supposed delays with an upcoming Apple product sent the company’s stock tanking, sucking $4 billion out of its market capitalization. The leaked memo turned out to be fake, and the site’s editors quickly retracted the story. But for a few moments, Engadget all but proved it had become the most powerful publication in tech.
The site came from humbler beginnings. Peter Rojas founded the blog in his tiny Lower East Side apartment in 2004, with the goal of covering technology in plain speech. In an industry smitten with jargon and officialese, Engadget covered gadgets in a way that was readable. Rojas created Engadget for Weblogs, Inc. and cashed in when CEO Jason Calacanis sold the company to AOL a year later for $25 million. It continued to grow. As of today, Technorati, a website which ranks the popularity of blogs, lists Engadget as the world’s number one tech blog, with The Verge right behind it. In April, the site received 4.8 million unique visitors, according to comScore Inc (SCOR).
Engadget quickly became an authority. According to a former Apple employee, executives at the company originally avoided talking to Engadget or Gizmodo because their coverage was “too snarky.” That changed after Steve Jobs began reading them every day. Stevens recalls a phone call he once got from a public relations person after writing a negative review of a tablet. “She told me I ruined the company,” he says. “I thought, ‘Don’t ruin my day by telling me that. You should make a good product.’” One PR person from a prominent agency in Silicon Valley says good coverage from the blog is crucial to a product’s success or failure with consumers. “They can make your launch a big mess. They are incredibly important,” says the representative who declined to be named.
Engadget has a staff of about 40 writers and editors scattered around the globe — from Silicon Valley to Paris and Taipei. They report in numerous languages, including Chinese and German. The staff has had moments of journalistic ingenuity and brilliance. When Apple released the iPhone 3G in 2008, for instance, former editor in chief Ryan Block travelled to New Zealand, the closest launch country to the International Date Line, to get his hands on a phone. The maneuver bought Engadget the most precious commodity in the business of blogging: time. The gambit gave the site an 18-hour lead over media outlets on the East Coast.
Even wearing badass motorcycle threads, Stevens can’t quite shake the geek thing. On a recent winter day, he is speeding down a winding mountain road in the Marin Headlands, a picturesque trail just north of San Francisco overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. He and a small crew are shooting a segment of the Engadget Show — a monthly web series in which he, senior editor Brian Heater and managing editor Darren Murph talk tech. For this segment, he’s test-driving an electric motorcycle built by a Bay Area startup.
A motorcycle enthusiast himself, Stevens is dressed the part: white helmet with black trim, and a white and black leather jacket. He looks more like a storm trooper riding a speeder bike than a talk show host. Underneath the jacket, he’s wearing an aqua blue Engadget t-shirt with line diagrams of about fifteen different electronics connectors, like Firewire and USB. “This is the original Atari controller port,” he says to the film crew as they break for lunch, pointing to his shirt. They ask him about two or three other jacks as we eat.
Stevens, who is 33, has a reddish full beard, faintly noticeable freckles, and perpetual bags under his eyes. Growing up in small-town Chester, Vermont, he jokingly attributes his hirsute mug to having lumberjack blood. He does look a bit like Paul Bunyan if Bunyan traded his plaid and axe for a sport coat and an Android handset. Stevens hasn’t become the cosmopolitan publishing type, and doesn’t even work in New York City. Instead he is based in Albany, New York — he’s lived upstate since high school — with his wife Amanda and two dogs, Bowser and Yoshi. Amanda works on climate control issues for the state of New York and in her free time runs GardenGeekery, a blog about bees.
As a child, Stevens suffered from a stuttering problem, and regularly saw a speech therapist from age 4 until his late teens. (He relates personally to the film
The King’s Speech
.) It’s something he still deals with today. After having the candid Topolsky (who would not make himself available for comment) at the helm, it is perhaps most telling that his successor is so methodical with his words. “I’ve got little tricks, like clearing my throat before answering the phone, just to make sure my voice still works,” Stevens says. “Even while talking to you right now, I’m going over those things in my head,” he tells me.
Stevens considers himself a writer foremost, and is still slowly getting the hang of the extracurriculars — the hosting duties, the podcasts, the appearances. At one live audience taping of the Engadget Show in New York, I asked him when he finally found his rhythm. “Tonight,” he answered, with a laugh. “Like just now.”
Though some thought it would sink after the newsroom schism, Engadget is enjoying steady growth. In January, overall traffic during the week of the Consumer Electronics Show — the annual gathering of tech press, companies and fanboys in Las Vegas, and considered the Mecca of tech coverage — was up about 20% from last year, thanks mostly to a boom in usage of Engadget’s mobile app, Stevens claims. (ComScore doesn’t record mobile numbers to verify.) And since then, Stevens has nearly doubled his staff, less than a year after he worried about brain drain.
Now Stevens is venturing outside the very template Engadget helped create. The site’s staff has had to think less like a digital wire service and more like a traditional media company. The vast majority of Engadget posts are still 150 to 200-word lightning flashes. (Managing editor Murph holds the Guinness World Record for Most Prolific Blogger with over 19,000 posts.) But it is venturing into longer form with Distro, a lushly designed tablet magazine. Distro is a mix of content culled from the blog as well as original infographics and lengthy enterprising features, such as a December exclusive with Apple’s reclusive third founder. (Stevens suggested the idea during his interview.) He oversees the project while Distro executive editor Christopher Trout handles day-to-day operations. Stevens has brought on a handful of new designers to help.
Launched last October, the weekly tablet app has been met with mostly positive feedback: a five-star rating at the Apple iOS App Store and 100,000 monthly subscribers. Figures more than doubled in March, after Apple announced its newest iPad and users clamored to find apps that would compliment the tablet’s marquee new razor-sharp screen, something Engadget did quickly.
And Distro is merely training for future projects. Putting together a more traditional publication “builds new muscles,” Stevens argues. He admits he’s still new to thinking in terms of news cycles, choosing what cover story will run on a given week, and making sure it doesn’t disrupt the blog. Having a finite number of pages is also new. Whereas blogs have no endings, no increments, magazines — even ones published on a tablet — do. “We’re competing with Fortune,” one designer says.
How Distro adds to the bottom line is another matter. Engadget has had minor success charging for full-page advertisements; AT&T (T) bought space in the issue that ran during CES. (The manic trade show has, in fact, always been a goldmine for Engadget. That one week of ad sales attracts enough revenue to run the website for the rest of the year, Stevens says.) But the Distro ad pages have mostly been filled by house ads, marketers unwilling to throw money at the largely untested medium. AOL seems to have also taken notice, and will create similar publications for its other properties, including Huffington., the Huffington Post’s iPad magazine.
Engadget’s parent AOL faces strong headwinds that could hem in Stevens’ ambitious plans. Since spinning out of Time Warner (Fortune’s owner) in 2009, AOL spent lavishly to build a stable of original content sites only to lay off hundreds of journalists when it acquired the super-aggregator the Huffington Post for $315 million last year. CEO Tim Armstrong’s long-awaited turnaround has stopped and stumbled for the past two years. Revenue has been cut by more than half in the past five years, down to over $2.2 billion in 2011. “They’re struggling to find something that makes a lot of money. It will be interesting to see what sticks,” says Kara Swisher, co-executive editor of the tech blog All Things D, and who has also written two books on AOL.
In May, website PandoDaily reported that AOL was looking to sell the site along with TechCrunch for $70 million to $100 million. Armstrong rebutted the rumors as “100% untrue,” though TechCrunch later reported that the company had weighed turning the two properties into a separate company valued at some $200 million. Stevens reiterated Armstrong’s statements on the rumors.
How much AOL’s woes will hurt Engadget remains to be seen. Stevens was recently promoted to editorial director of AOL Tech, with responsibility for sister sites TUAW and Joystiq. And Managing editor Murph attended ten trade shows and travelled for all but six weeks in 2010, more than the average blogger can afford. The newsroom has dedicated podcast and TV studios. Some of the funding provides added perks for employees. There is a massage room on site and draft beer and free food in the cafeteria. And some of the funding does both: an Engadget commercial runs on TV screens in New York City taxicabs, featuring spliced footage of the Engadget Show. “I started getting drunk tweets from friends saying ‘Dude, you’re in my cab!’” says Heater.
Professionalizing Engadget has its pitfalls, including possibly coming at the cost of the scrappiness that gives many blogs their character. “They’ve got new competitors that are much more motivated and startup oriented,” says Robert Scoble, who runs the tech blog Scobleizer. “When you work at a big company, it’s easy to just punch in 9 to 5.” And while Engadget has done much to take the blog platform to previously unseen places, Michael Wolff, media veteran and founder of the website Newser, thinks they are going in the wrong direction. “Right now, information businesses are becoming smaller, not larger. There’s a dismantling going on,” he says.
But the truth is there’s no real portrait of what a grown up blog looks like. Tim Stevens plans to find out.