Gawker Media, which has just dumped three of its blogs because it was concerned about their financial viability, has a controversial pay-per-view structure for its journalists.  

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this equation (more readers = greater reward) won’t lead to more well-researched writing, but ever more articles about Lindsay Lohan’s t-ts. Britney Spears is not the one-woman source of a $US100 million industry for nothing.

Writers being paid under a pay-per-view system “will pander, sensationalize and go for short-term gain over long-term value. And it does damage the site’s run reputation,” says Mark Glaser at PBS’s MediaShift blog in a great post about Gawker Media’s strategy:

Recently, Gawker Media, the blog empire by Nick Denton, made two moves that were curious. One was spinning off three sites that weren’t making the cut: Gridskipper (travel), Idolator (music), and Wonkette (politics). The other was slashing the pay-per-page-view rate for Gawker Media writers by 33%. In Denton’s go-ahead-and-leak-it email memo, which showed up on Silicon Alley Insider, he talks about the advertising recession and how he wanted to plan ahead by spinning off blogs that didn’t perform well or couldn’t be sold easily (Wonkette). We can assume the same thinking was behind the pay cut for writers — cut costs now before the advertising tanks.

But there’s a deeper problem for the Gawker stable of blogs: the pay-per-page-view compensation system. Back when I first wrote about the Gawker pay system, in 2005 for Online Journalism Review, there was a weird “banking” system where writers wouldn’t get their monthly bonuses if their traffic went down in a month. Now, that system seems to have evolved into a new one that has been handily explained out in the open on Valleywag … Paying a blogger or journalist based on page views puts the onus on the writer to get traffic and takes away from their main job of research and writing. Yes, we as freelance journalists should create work that has an audience, that people want to read, that resonates with the public.

Website traffic, though much pursued, isn’t everything. Increasingly, we yearn for more study into how people read articles online — ie. a bit of quantitative analysis please — so we can make informed decisions about what’s more important: reader volume or reader quality.

In Australia, most writers aren’t yet hooked up to the IV dripfeed of pay-per-view, but websites definitely publish stories with a view to creating traffic. To get eyeballs — and advertising dollars — sites frequently debase themselves, or at least play the lowest common denominator game. It’s why Fairfax newspapers’ sites are more tabloidy than their hard copy versions; it’s why the Daily Telegraph has photo essays on its site of dogs wearing sunglasses and celebrities as fruit.

Steven Johnson wrote a recent piece for Crikey about the problem. “SMH’s high-brow reputation, built up over 177 years, is a valuable one; the readership is loyal and there are plenty of advertising dollars looking for high-brow consumers. But it is a reputation being quickly trashed.”

The thing is, websites know the Britney chasing is doing them damage, they’re just not sure how else to get the money through the door.

Gawker’s Nick Denton and Noah Robischon acknowledged the problem, as they overhauled the pay system:

The view count does not reflect attention paid to the posts on the front page; nor photo galleries (which are usually junk views anyhow); and it can overstate the value of cheap items with superficial appeal, but which damage a site’s reputation. Nevertheless, it’s the best measure we have, so we’re going to use it to calculate bonuses. [emphasis added]

So the writer is vulnerable like never before, thanks to the fact that the web “unbundles the bundle”, as Nicholas Carr so wonderfully put it. Now, each story “becomes a separate entity that lives or dies, economically, on its own. It’s naked in the marketplace, its commercial existence meticulously measured, click by click. Advertisers, for their part, pay not to be seen by a big group of readers, but to have their ads clicked on by individual readers. They’ll go where the clickthroughs are. Clickthroughs themselves are priced individually, depending on the content they’re associated with.”

Page views are, more than ever, “the coin of the realm”, says Jim Warren, managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

But what’s the exchange rate? In some ways, we just don’t know enough about web content yet, and how people read it. Do they click on and click off? Do they stay for the duration? Do an article’s ideas stay with them, prompting further examination? Or do they vanish, ephemeral?

Advertisers are becoming more sophisticated in choosing the content they want their ads to be seen with. They respond better to specific rather than general content — John Gapper has noted on his FT blog that this is probably not good news for political websites (!).

More and more, they will start to dig down into the demographics tapping a website — and companies like Hitwise can already provide detailed breakdowns.

The online media — aka content providers — might not need to race to the bottom so much as build an audience that will sell. So it’s not as much a question of how many, but who.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.