Pay for traffic: Incentive or distortion?

by Mathew on January 1, 2008 · 11 comments

It may be a new year, but we’re still talking (well, some of us are anyway) about an old issue: namely, the idea of paying writers based on the traffic they get. The focus of the debate right now is Gawker, where Nick Denton has apparently started paying his bloggers based in part on how many views their posts get. This one has been around for awhile, but now it’s official thanks to a memo on (Gawker-owned) Valleywag.

It’s also something that has come up before, including about a year ago when ZDNet said that it had started paying its writers on the same basis, i.e. a salary combined with a bonus based on traffic (I wrote a post about it at the time). And there have been other occasions as well, including when Business 2.0 magazine — which was then being run by Owen Thomas, now better known as the senior editor of Valleywag — started compensating writers based on their blog traffic.

In his memo, Nick says something that is very true about the difference between blogs and traditional media. While digital media gives editors or publishers the ability to track and compensate based on traffic:

“At newspapers, a reporter’s reputation depends on the opinion of their editors, which can be fickle. Some people get on because they play the office politics well. Or simply because they’re more aggressive in lobbying for more prominent jobs, or pay increases.”

The key question, of course, is whether rewarding bloggers for traffic is a good thing or a bad thing. One argument is that “incentivizing” bloggers to boost their traffic encourages them to make their posts more sensational, and will lead to them writing about nothing but Britney Spears or whatever they think people will be looking for, instead of deep and thought-provoking posts about serious issues. This is similar to the argument about people writing just because they want to show up on Techmeme.

The opposite argument is that it’s good to give writers a stake in the success of their blogs, something that encourages them to take an interest in their community. Will that encourage them to “sell out?” Perhaps. But maybe it will also encourage them to respond to comments, link to others who are discussing the same issues, and so on. Even former Gawker editor Choire Sicha thinks it’s not such a bad idea.

The bottom line is that — as Scott Karp notes at Publishing 2.0 — rewarding writers based on traffic is both good and bad. In some cases it will make that writer more engaged, and in others it will simply encourage them to post on whatever cheap train wreck is going on around them, hoping for a quick traffic boost. But I think in the long run it is likely to make them more intimately involved in their blogs, and more interested in developing a relationship with their readers, and that’s a good thing.

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  • http://mashable.com/author/mark-hopkins Mark

    In the end, it'll come down to the editors. They're the one that has final say. There are times when I want to go off on a political riff over at Mash, but if the tech angle isn't significant enough, one of the other editors will reign me in. If a Gawker blog (or any other blog that adopts this philosophy/incentive program) slips into sensational oblivion, blame the editors, not the writers.

  • http://www.thesocialbookmarker.com Spinchange

    As a (still) avid digger and participant in social media sites like digg, my concern is the amount of spam and abuse on these social news networks and the increase of “throwing mud at the wall to see what sticks” to help bloggers increase their traffic and thusly pay.

    There already is tons of commercial content being submitted as “viral” content – some of it's OK, some of it's horrible. Sadly, The SEO/SMO crowd has infiltrated/merged with many of the site's top and/or prominent submitters.

    My concern is that this trend is going to further dampen the already poor signal-to-noise ratio in social media.

    Are we in for more “Cosmo headlines” and worse “cosmo content?”

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  • JeremyB

    Long-time reader, first-time commenter. I think you're taking a bit of a leap of faith in thinking that “[I]n the long run it is likely to make them more intimately involved in their blogs, and more interested in developing a relationship with their readers, and that’s a good thing.”

    Yes, there’s something to the idea of relationship-building IF the bloggers in question are sticking around for years. But is that really the universe we’re talking about? What’s the average tenure for a writer with a blog network gig? And will this mythical writer actually put more money in his pocket doing an extra-special good job then he might have churning out commodity volume-filler posts?

    Of course it’s important to have a strong relationship with one’s readers. But in the end it’s the editor’s responsibility to make sure that the blog owns that relationship. Individual voices are eminently brandable, and can become great businesses. But the biggest content businesses brand businesses, not bloggers.

    More here: http://brijit.wordpress.com/

  • JeremyB

    Long-time reader, first-time commenter. I think you're taking a bit of a leap of faith in thinking that “[I]n the long run it is likely to make them more intimately involved in their blogs, and more interested in developing a relationship with their readers, and that’s a good thing.”

    Yes, there’s something to the idea of relationship-building IF the bloggers in question are sticking around for years. But is that really the universe we’re talking about? What’s the average tenure for a writer with a blog network gig? And will this mythical writer actually put more money in his pocket doing an extra-special good job then he might have churning out commodity volume-filler posts?

    Of course it’s important to have a strong relationship with one’s readers. But in the end it’s the editor’s responsibility to make sure that the blog owns that relationship. Individual voices are eminently brandable, and can become great businesses. But the biggest content businesses brand businesses, not bloggers.

    More here: http://brijit.wordpress.com/

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