Why Paying People by Page Views is Wrong

    by Mark Glaser
    April 14, 2008

    i-f820abcc28ca383f4f4835d87f7b3e3f-Gawker traffic.jpg

    Recently, Gawker Media, the blog empire run 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:

    On top of your monthly base pay, you will be eligible for a bonus based on the number of page views your posts receive each month. This total includes any page view on any story with your byline that was read during the month, even if the story is months or years old…

    Each site will be assigned a page view rate, which is the dollar amount that each 1,000 pageviews on the site is worth. Although this sounds similar to an advertising CPM, this number has nothing to do with your site’s revenue or advertising value. At the end of the month, if the money you earn in page views exceeds your monthly base pay, you will be paid the extra money as a bonus.

    This chart should make it clearer. If your site has a page view rate of $5:
    bq. $2,000 = 400,000 views
    bq. $5,000 = 1m views
    bq. $7,000 = 1.4m views


    But that memo also points out the real problem with this system:

    For several months now, we’ve displayed the number of views each item receives. It’s not a perfect measure. 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.

    I added the emphasis on those last two lines because they are key. 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. But there’s only one result of paying writers by page view: They will pander, sensationalize and go for short-term gain over long-term value. And it does damage the site’s reputation.

    A Loyalty Index

    Of course, we’re talking about Gawker blogs that feed on gossip and sensationalism, so it’s not surprising they would pander for page views by offering up sex and celebs at every turn. But there’s a problem with the ratings uber alles mentality that actually mirrors the same attitude in the mainstream media: The audience must grow, or else! Ratings, ratings, ratings.

    Anyone who plays the stock market knows that companies can’t simply be profitable to do well on Wall Street; they have to grow profits every single quarter. And the quarter they drop in profit growth is the quarter the stock nosedives. Why do writers have to live in that bottom-line-only world? Isn’t there value in developing a writer’s craft, helping build a loyal audience that comes back time and time again?

    I believe that a blog with 50,000 loyal, repeat visitors is much more valuable to the publisher, advertisers — everyone on the business side — than a blog that has sensational posts that bring in 100,000 one-time visitors for entertainment snacks who are then gone the next moment. You hear everyone talking about the Long Tail, the ability to serve niches online, and the importance of audience engagement and time spent on a site more than sheer page views and traffic per month.

    Nick Denton is an old media dog dressed up in new media clothes. He yearns for massive traffic, and obsesses about Gawker blogs’ daily and monthly page views on his personal blog. Not once do you hear him talk about a niche audience, about the need to build community around his blogs, about the chance to create real connection between his writers and readers. Instead, you end up with angered writers leaving or calling their workplace a “sweatshop” right there on the blog, as Jordan Golson did on Valleywag recently.

    So what is the right way to compensate writers on a commercial blog or online news operation? Popularity can and should have a role in compensation — but not the only role. I had talked to someone at CBSSports.com who said they were working on a different way of judging the work of their columnists, creating something called a “Loyalty Index.” While I haven’t seen the details of that plan, I do endorse the idea of giving writers credit for doing the following:

    > Getting a large audience base that returns to the site regularly.

    > Breaking news or writing original ideas — not just linking to others’ work — that becomes a broader meme in the blogosphere, creating buzz outside the main site.

    > Getting people to post in comments or become part of the forums or community.

    > Having people sign up for the RSS feed for the column or blog.

    > Creating a way for their readers to become part of the feedback loop, either through a Facebook group, email list, or Twitter posse.

    There are many ways that a writer could game the system for page views, but it would be a lot more difficult for them to game a loyalty index. And in the end, sales folks and advertisers — and most important, readers — would be more willing to stick by such a writer’s work in the event of a recession.

    What do you think? Should bloggers and journalists be paid according to page views, a loyalty index, or the old pay-per-word method? Do you think Gawker Media is making the right moves? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    UPDATE: Perhaps unsurprisingly, Valleywag recently fired writer Jordan Golson, the one who had complained — on the blog — about the recent pay cut. Golson told TechCrunch that he doesn’t think that post was the sole reason he was fired, but might have contributed to it along with a “lack of enthusiasm” after getting his pay cut.

    UPDATE 2: I’ve done a follow-up post on this subject, “CBS Considers ‘Loyalty Index’ Over Pay for Page Views,” including a mini-Q&A with CBSSports.com and CBSNews.com general manager Jason Kint. Kint says they are still developing an index of some sort that looks at repeat unique visitors for columnists as well as people reading through RSS feeds and other platforms.

    Tagged: business new media weblog
    • Gimme a “ready fire aim” solution. If it’s wrong, we’ll change it. We’re a small daily that needs to get the newsroom off the dime.
      It’s got to be simple and a program a writer can calculate income from blogging at any point.
      I love the “loyalty index” concept.

    • I strongly disagree with pay-per-page view.

      It turns journalism into a consumer product – which it is not.

      For Gawker it might work, for the reasons you pointed out: Gawker already is a gossip rag – so who the hell cares if they write sensationalist headlines? But a newspaper or a news organization that wants to uphold old media principles would destroy its brand by using this model.

      Journalism does need a new business model – so to that end, I give Denton credit for trying something new – but it’s not what I would have attempted.

    • Speaking generally, a writer ought to be paid by whatever system s/he agreed to.

      Obviously, Denton had weighed the pros and cons of a system and decided that the pros outweighed the cons. If pay-per-view is working for Denton, he should definitely continue. He’s not shooting for journalism, in the traditional sense, with his sites anyway.

      The problem with lots of content site is that they don’t have the budget for a marketing department. If people don’t know about a piece of content, it simply won’t be read.

      Denton solves this problem by having his writers double as marketeers as well, thus getting the brand out there.

      If I was writing for Denton, I’ll make sure I forward my articles to everyone I know and tell them to forward that to everyone they know.

      As to whether or not Gawker is making the right moves, I believe it is. Denton knows his company’s financials. Cutting early is better than cutting too late.

    • jhm

      Assuming that the site pays the writers from advertising revenue, I would suggest that some type of shareware system wherein regular visitors paid a few dollars a year to get ad-free access could be set up to provide both a metric for ‘loyalty’ and pecuniary reward for the writer.

    • I write for a group blog that pays me a flat rate for each post, regardless of the length. I like this arrangement and I don’t feel a desire to game the system by writing shorter posts, thus maximizing my income/word. Perhaps this is because I am also given a great deal of freedom with what I choose to write about, so long as its within my niche.

      I really like the idea of a “loyalty index,” especially on sites that are trying to build a community (are there any sites that aren’t?). And I agree with your analysis that Denton’s strategy may work for short-term success but is damaging in the long term. I think advertisers are flocking to the internet not because of the many impressions available (if they were, wouldn’t they just decide to stick with TV?), but because they can target their audience/community that much more effectively. So it will be those sites that are most effective in building engagement and increasing time spent on the site that will prosper on the web now and in the long term.

    • FredH

      I agree about the value of loyalty and the group brand. Another element of that is internal cross-subsidization. Large news organizations try to balance populist “celeb” and other coverage against high-cost investigative and “public service” projects which enhance their reputations, win prizes but often do not win readers/viewers. Pay-per-page clearly forces all the cost and risk onto the writer.

    • While there is the danger of pandering, sensationalism and short term focus, blogging is a business and thus pay for performance does make some sense.

      Why are not all professional athletes paid the same, and why can they be traded? Because it is a business. Blogging is a business. Because eroding quality is bad for business, there must be reason and balance (e.g. beyond short term numbers) in any pay for performance model for it to serve best interests over the long term.

      Good writing isn’t enough if people don’t want to read it. Bad writing is insufficient even if it is an immediate draw.

    • Paying by page views, in my opinion, is not as good as the Loyalty Index idea. Some very good posts might bring in a few thousand views from regular readers, but stupid superficial things could bring in hundreds of thousands of hits a day from one-time visitors. I’ll take regular readers any day.

    • As a blogger on a niche subject, nuclear energy, the value I provide to readers is reporting, insight and analysis on topics of interest to the commercial nuclear reactor industry. I have readers from 70 nations each month. One of the reasons is that a lot of nuclear industry news is behind expensive subscription only firewalls.

      Your talking points about an alternative business model to Gawker’s are reasonable. It takes a long time to build a “loyal audience.” My endorsement of your advice is that it mirrors the practices I’ve used on my blog.

      Even so over the past 16 months less than 40% of my readers are “returns,” but they do return almost every day. By comparison, 60% of my traffic comes from search engines, mostly Google, looking for just one nugget of information, and then they are gone. I think this has more to do with the nature of niche subject blogs.

    • Lucy

      My man problem with the Web in general when it comes to any type of journalism is that there’s no one-fit-all solution. Although I believe that paying writers based on popularity is the worst possible way to judge the content’s value, I also don’t know that a loyalty system would do a good job, either. Oftentimes, the comments section that follows an article–esp. one that might be controversial–is filled with vindictive tripe that doesn’t add to the overall conversation and is made my anonymous posters. And just because you have 45 friends on your blogs Facebook page, what does that really mean in the long run?

    • I’d agree with you in any instance where it wasn’t gossip related. Its not like Denton is in an industry where he needs to reach a targeted audience. Its like People Magazine, numbers (and inbound links perhaps) are the bottom line.

    • I believe that a blog with 50,000 loyal, repeat visitors is much more valuable to the publisher, advertisers everyone on the business side than a blog that has sensational posts that bring in 100,000 one-time visitors for entertainment snacks who are then gone the next moment. You hear everyone talking about the Long Tail, the ability to serve niches online, and the importance of audience engagement and time spent on a site more than sheer page views and traffic per month.

      This is the conundrum in a nutshell. It seems like the sensational blogs are the ones bringing in traffic, which is easy to measure. Other sites that serve a valuable niche simply aren’t on the radar of the folks addicted to comScores and the like.

      We see this all the time in software development — management (here, the business) wants to find something measurable to determine value, but the problem is that the measurable often isn’t the truly valuable.

    • It’s nice to make up new types of fantasy business models but the reality is that online publishers get paid by advertisers based on page views. Find me a media buyer that is going to buy a loyalty index or any other fantasy measure. The business model for journalism will only support crappy tabloid stuff, what will support quality journalism/ I’ve been warning about this for three years since leaving the old media world (FT) and seeing first hand the economics of the new media world (SiliconValleyWatcher.com.)

    • One additional problem with paying bloggers by page view: The writer has no control over the way management promotes her blog, or the broader site in general–all of which contributes to success as it is defined by the page views pay scheme.

    • What seems to be missing from this discussion is the notion of blogging as platform building. Any book author will tell you that to get a book deal that’s worth your financial while (think of Stuff White People Like and the $300K advance that writer got), you need to build traffic to your site. Yes, writing is important but investing in your blog in other ways is important, too.

      This is where linking comes in and commenting on other blogs and writing in a way that you use terms that will get picked up in search engines and such. When I’m writing on my green blogs, I’m trying to tie in each posting with something timely, newsworthy and relevant, which ups my chances of people finding their way to me. Plus, I link to my own previous posts as a way of increasing page views. Does anyone pay me to do this? Not now they don’t, but hopefully in the future they will.

      Basically, this is the brave new world of journalism. If writers aren’t willing to embrace the ancillary expectations that go along with writing blogs–including increasing their page views–then perhaps they should just go back to writing for the print media only.

    • Tom,
      I disagree that advertisers only want to pay publishers strictly according to page views. I would bet that a niche site like PaidContent has a tiny percentage of Gawker’s page views, yet the site is swimming in advertising. The quality of an audience can be just as important as the size of the audience to an advertiser trying to reach a specific group of people. I’m not going to say that PaidContent has higher revenues than Gawker, but they are obviously doing decent business covering a niche.

      I agree completely about that issue for writers. If the site’s management isn’t promoting the site properly then how can the writer be held responsible for page views? In the case of a one-person operation, that might be different, but for writers at Gawker or other bigger operations, that is an issue.

    • anonymousblogger

      This is just the usual b.s. from mainstream journalism: We know what’s best for readers, without ever talking to them. we’re also not going to pay reporters what they’re worth, nor seek out any system that actually measures their worth, because to know the answer might really wreck the bottom line.

      Reporters might also stop doing frivolous car wrecks and death and misery — have you seen how much of that dominates a local paper? It’s because it’s so easy to cover. Reporters might actually take care to put out Monday stories that are more than just slapped-together evergreens, or coverage of events that agenda-pushers are shrewd enough to schedule for weekends, when journalists are at their laziest.

      They might report things that teach people to understand their world instead of hate and fear it.

      I am a paid blogger, a second-generation newspaperman with a 10-year career in daily newsrooms, and I am a Columbia journalism graduate. In two weeks I can tell you that knowing my traffic and reading my comments makes me more of a reader advocate than I ever was in 10 years as a journalist. I worked for a large daily for 3.5 years, which would routinely overkill breaking, sensational stories with every reporter in the newsroom. After breaking my readership’s patience with cumulative discussion of a similar sensational topic, I realized that it was time to move on.

      Without that kind of interaction, you’re expecting news managers to have real foresight and a close grasp of what actually informs their readership. Given entrenched attitudes, I’d say that can be found in about 10 percent of the editor population, all of them outranked by more dogmatic shot callers.

    • Hi Mark,

      There was a rather big discussion on this issue of paying journalists by their page views in January, when Penelope Trunk was fired because her popularity sank, Om Malik had his heart attack, and Nick Denton talked about paying by popularity…

      After that, I asked friend who now works for Venture Beat, but once worked for Business 2.0 what he thought of the idea of paying journalists by their page views. He then told me about an experiment they did at Business2.0 with giving bonuses based on page views. One person in the group–a long standing tech journalist who wrote about Apple computer–made the bonus. Younger journalists, even whey they wrote sensational headlines, etc., couldn’t crack the bonus.

      Essentially, they wouldn’t have gotten paid at all if they were paid by page views.

      My friend also shared some info on others he knew who worked for Valleywag, and the high turn over because of the way in which they were paid (not to mention the gruelling hours.) Among the young tech journos that he knew, Valleywag was a place where you might start, but would be looking for a way out a.s.a.p.

      The points you made re what orgs should give writers credit for doing–which is a bit like a list of what writers can do–are good points. They do, however, appear to be community development types of tasks, with some falling into the category of “attainable” and some “not so attainable”(or at least not right away.) Trying to get people to comment is tough–there are always more lurkers than commenters. And running a “twitter posse” might work if your audience is tuned in to twitter. In order to use social networking and other types of social strategies, one has to have a handle on who it is that makes up the audience. It’s a strategy that has potential, but it will take the writer time to find out who it is that makes up the audience. Even then, it will require that the audience be interested in social stuff online. That’s not always the case.

    • Frankly, I’m more than a little surprised by Denton’s position. There is a lot of re-thinking going on, among content providers as well as among advertisers, about defining meaningful usage statistics. I think the insistence on regarding raw page view numbers as the ultimate goal does a disservice to both sides – the bloggers/podcasters and the advertisers.

    • thanks for information

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