Pay-per-view journalism

Steve Rubel yesterday “revealed” that CNET is “testing” paying some of its ZDNet tech bloggers based on the page views they generate. If this is just a test (rather than an established policy), it’s quite an exhaustive one, as it’s been going on for well over a year and has been pretty well documented. One of the bloggers, Tom Foremski, provided some details a month ago. Last August, another ZDNet blogger, Mitch Ratcliffe, wrote, “at ZD Net bloggers are compensated based on the number of page views they receive and a fraction of the pages in TalkBack, so at the end of the month the size of a check expresses something, but not necessarily our success in being informative or accurate.” Business 2.0 recently rolled out a similar payment scheme for its blog-mob, Gawker’s been doing it for eons, and I’m sure other publishers are or will be linking compensation to page views, particularly for freelance contributors. And not just bloggers, either.

Pay-per-view journalism is inevitable. It simply brings the compensation model in line with the content model. Online publishing breaks the old bundled-content model of print publishing. Once content moves online, writers are no longer contributing to the overall value of a package – a newspaper or a magazine, say. Each of their stories becomes a discrete product. As I’ve written before, “The web unbundles the bundle – 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.” If you can isolate a product’s economics and measure them accurately, then it’s only rational to compensate its creator based on its actual performance.

As Jim Warren, the Chicago Tribune’s managing editor recently told the New York Times, “you can’t really avoid the fact that page views are increasingly the coin of the realm.” And the coin of the realm is what reporters and other writers are paid with.

Rubel says that the pay-per-view model “raises an eyebrow” for him. And well it should (though his suggestion that it’s somehow akin to the PayPerPost model of paying bloggers to pimp particular products is off the mark). All businesses and all workers tailor what they do in response to economic incentives, and a shift in the way publishers and journalists make money means a shift in what gets written and what gets published. The medium is the message, a wag once said. I’m not sure he was talking about economics, but he should have been.

UPDATE: Further musings from James Governor, David Cohn, Andy Lark, and Dan Gillmor.

7 thoughts on “Pay-per-view journalism

  1. David Hunter

    Despite latter day aspirations to sainthood, newspapers in the USA have always been explicitly pay-per-view and radio and TV implicitly so. Your point is correct – only the saleable unit and the charging mechanism have changed on the Web. In countries where the government has a significant media stake (from the BBC to much, much worse) there is, of course, another dynamic at work.

  2. Dragos

    Nice and challenging post.

    What will happen when the system will be abused by false “views” generated by programs or humans ? It is already happening for ads so “pay-per-view journalism” can be next.

  3. Isabel Wang

    Hey Nick, I just re-read your “writing for the machine” post. Since all workers tailor what they do in response to economic incentives, it seems pay per view journalists will have to focus more on polishing their search engine optimization skills than chasing after interesting stories…

  4. RichM

    As background, I worked in newspaper newsrooms for 20 years before shifting to the web. Now I blog for my livelihood, and have had to learn about how traffic is generated and consider this in crafting story topics and headlines. When I was in newspapers, we used to study newsstand sales to determine which stories sold best in the “above the fold” headline posiiton. I think SEO is an extension of the same principles. You don’t suspend your editorial judgment, but you pay attention to how the bills are paid and how to make yourself as valuable as possible to your employer.

    As the Web journalism model evolves, it will eventually move beyond pay-per-view to more sophisticated measures. An equivalent number of page views from Slashdot and Digg may monetize differently, for instance. Is the staff writer with Digg traffic as valuable as the one who makes Slashdot? Thse are among the complex questions that lie ahead. I continue to believe good journalism will always find an audience, but journalists that consider that audience will serve them best.

    An aside: Many of today’s print journalists are ill-prepared for this shift. In the past year I’ve discussed web journalism with a number of former colleagues who have been laid off from jobs with area newspapers. In each case, they’ve seen the cuts coming, and feared what would happen if they were laid off. Yet when the axe falls, few have done the homework necessary to make a successful segue to a web position.

  5. sans-culotte

    This has been going on for some time in the msm

    Seattle Times December 30, 2005 :

    ” By tallying clicks on our Web site, we now chart the most read stories in the online edition of The Seattle Times. Software then sorts the tens of thousands of stories for 2005 and ranks them. Not by importance, impact or poetic lyricism, but by which stories compelled the most people to put finger to mouse, click, open and, presumably, read.

    …Now every editorial decision is based on Web-traffic stats. Popular stories beget similar coverage. Unpopular stories get killed. Reporters are even paid by whose stories get the most clicks….”

    The reporter with the most clicks writes the history.

    This is how the blogs can force the media to do their job, by simply linking to and encouraging readers to click the links of the best stories of what is most important. When a reporter writes tripe, blogs should call it out, cite it, but never link to it.

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