Journalists are a stubborn bunch. Just try sometime to get them to do a task that isn't in their job description, and you'll see their eyes narrow, their shoulders drop, and minds go to work considering possible routes out of said task.
So it didn't come as a huge surprise when a publication finally decided to provide some incentive to get its writers to do something new. What was surprising was the way in which it did it. Business 2.0, a Time Inc. publication, is now paying its writers a little extra cash based on how many views their blogs get.
At first glance, the idea is alarming. Won't bloggers just write about salacious gossip in a mad dash for extra cash? How will that tidbit of important news, ignored everywhere else, find its way to the light when journalists are concerned with bringing the masses to their blog?
But on second consideration, it begins to look like someone is finally ditching the old models to embrace the possibilities of the Web. What at first feels like a hole in those impregnable walls installed between editorial and advertising departments at news organizations begins to appear a lot more like a bridge to a new media world.
"The beauty of this new medium is my guys don't know who's advertising on their pages," Josh Quittner, editor of Business 2.0, said on NPR's On the Media last year. "It's utterly pure. It's utterly innocent. We are in the business of serving a reading public, and it makes no sense to put together media that isn't interesting to people."
Fair enough. In fact, journalists have done much worse things than spending more than a few moments considering their audience. Scott Libin, managing editor of Poynter Online, notes that the practice isn't entirely new - it's not uncommon for television anchors to have bonuses built into their contracts for increasing viewership. And though journalists used to be taught to ignore the business model paying their checks, they are increasingly being encouraged to take note of it.
"I don't think wearing blinders in this climate is the superior approach - morally, ethically, or otherwise," Libin says. "As long as you can practice your role without undue influence and keep your readers' interests first, I don't see a big problem."
Philip Elmer-Dewitt, executive editor for Business 2.0, says when he first heard of the new model, the two topics that came to mind were pornography and religion. "So I chose religion, which meant writing about Apple," he says. "That's the closest thing there is to a religious divide in Silicon Valley.
"I'm really going for writing things that attract readers, which distorts what I write about because I'm not writing about things that would be boring to readers," he continues. "Elmore Leonard, in his tips to writers, said to try to leave out the parts people tend to skip, which is not a bad definition for news."
Turns out, that's a pretty good definition of news. Now, clearly, this isn't carte blanche to practice tabloid journalism. After all, what if The New York Times only published stories that it felt could make it onto the "most e-mailed stories of the day" sidebar? We'd have no theater reviews and nothing about the Senate. And if The Atlantic Monthly started adopting stories more fitting for People, we'd have a serious problem.
But these are blogs, with topics chosen by the writers themselves - a distinctly different beast. As Quittner put it to NPR, "The blogosphere is all about the Talmudic commentary of the text, the text in this case being the highly polished professional pieces that appear in print, on television, on radio."