Paying writers per page view may not be the best strategy

One can forgive the traditional media for the somewhat over-the-top reportage devoted to last week's discovery that three of Gawker's editors - half its staff - were quitting the publication.

One can forgive the traditional media for the somewhat over-the-top reportage devoted to last week's discovery that three of Gawker's editors - half its staff - were quitting the publication.

For all of the glaring attention placed on the travails of other publications, it must have been nice to capture Gawker at an inopportune moment in its history.

The pretentious "everything-about-our-culture-is-annoying-but-us-and-our-take-on-our-culture" magazine n+1 gleefully circulated its "obit piece" about Gawker, which catalogued its descent from wide-eyed cynicism to intolerable machine gun sniping. It even allegedly pegged it as "The n+1 article that helped convince Choire [Sicha] and Emily [Gould] to quit."

The furor over the exits was somewhat attributable to the fact that they were caused by burnout. Additional coverage focused on the now-repentant (both only slightly so) editors talking about how soul-destroying the tone of the publication is. Gould told WWD: "I would love it if it just fell off the face of the earth..."

Schadenfreude can be healthy, I guess, but media outlets are missing the real story here: Gawker Media chief Nick Denton's pay-per-performance model appears to be an abysmal failure.

As Gawker has grown from Elizabeth Spiers vehicle to traffic generating monster, Denton's site enhancements have appeared deft. He added staffers, put mandatory quotas on their daily output, and, perhaps wisest of all, created an elitist, invitation-only comments section that made the readers feel like part of the staff. Gawker soon turned into a part-chatroom where workers with much time traded snarky comments about Gawker's stories. Usually the conversations evolved into another subject. Like everything else Denton tried, it was a page view goldmine.

The next step in Denton's plan - and seemingly his first major misstep - was to switch to a pay-per-performance system that rewarded well-read commentary. Of course, nothing is that simple, so the writers, according to interviews, felt inclined to fight each other over juicy scoops and stoop to the lowest form of discourse. That, not n+1, apparently led to the exodus.

Media outlets are figuring out how to best compensate writers while dealing with their own economic model. Business 2.0 followed a model similar to Gawker's - paying its writers to set up Business 2.0 blogs (instead of their own) - but that publication took its final breath before we could see the results.

The Internet self-publishing revolution has provided many writers who own their own properties with significant ad revenues. They, in essence, make money directly from traffic. But to contract journalists, there hasn't been good evidence that a pay-per-page view model will work. It's just too complicated and stressful. Gawker's implosion appears to have confirmed that. Reporters, by nature, want their commentary read by as many people as possible. Maybe publishers should leave it at that.

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