Paying Reporters for Online Traffic Could Take a Toll

How news reporters are paid has always been a matter of some puzzlement, not least among reporters themselves. That’s partly because the value of what they do is hard to put a price on. It’s partly because to what extent their work requires subject knowledge, experience, sweat and even artistry is hard to determine.

And it’s partly because of a fundamental business uncertainty: How much does a given reporter contribute to the commercial success of the enterprise?

In the old days the model was straightforward: Publishers figured a more robust editorial product would mean more readers and a more hospitable space for advertisers to make their pitches. That meant higher ad rates and, the logic went, more revenue.

As for wages, though, the model wasn’t much help. The newsroom was a mildly anarchic micro-economy. It lavished money on supposed stars without evidence they brought in discernible payback, while the rest of the staff labored under a sluggish and generally stingy compensation system that rewarded longevity over performance.

The digital revolution promised to replace alchemy with science, by offering measurement tools to enable publishers to figure out what particular stories are actually worth—and, working backwards, what individual journalists should be paid.

In theory, the logic of calibrated journalism rests on the fact that both the costs and revenues of online news are potentially knowable: News managers already have a reasonable idea what producing a particular story costs. Now they could also forecast the revenue it’s likely to generate, since ads are being placed and priced with increasingly surgical precision, depending on where and alongside what they appear.

Knowing revenues and costs, the result would be a fairly reliable profit-and-loss projection for the assignment the editor was contemplating. The budget-minded editor would direct coverage accordingly.

We’re not quite there yet, but now the news business is taking a further step in that direction through a surge of payment schemes to encourage reporters for the vigor of their online engagement. A few weeks ago The Oregonian, the respected Portland daily, created a stir by introducing a compensation plan to pay journalists for the traffic their postings draw.

The Oregonian is owned by Advance Publications—a holding company held by the Newhouse family—which owns 34 newspapers, and which according to Willamette Weekly, which broke the story, has introduced similar changes in eight other properties.

The policy is meant to trigger a huge increase in web postings by encouraging beat reporters to post three times a day, and aims to boost the average number of posts by 40 percent over the next year.

Staffers would be rewarded for their comments, their hosting of public chats in their subject areas, and their soliciting suggestions from readers about how to direct their journalism in the future.

Advance isn’t alone in offering inducements to get staffers to dive  into the swirl of online comment and reporting, and even digital-only sites like TheStreet.com, Gawker Media and The Daily Caller and Gawker Media are offering incentive pay, The New York Times reported.

What, if anything, is wrong with that? After all, a publisher who’s indifferent to public demand is a publisher who needs to find another line of work, right?

An obvious, but valid, objection is that popularity pay may do little more than pander to the public’s undying fascination with routine foolishness that we may all love to indulge in, but which does little to advance the cause of universal illumination and which nobody should be tipped extra to provide.

It creates an incentive to confect “click bait” with time-tested features that draw an online crowd, as David Carr put it in his New York Times column, by offering “transgendered models posing in disgraceful listicles accompanied by kidnapped nude kittens.” Hey, who could resist checking that out?

Kidding aside, the second objection is where’s the money? In this hyper-targeted, super-sophisticated advertising universe, it isn’t eyeballs that determine market value.

Advertisers nowadays can track and measure who’s clicking through to their sites and which prospective customers are actually buying. Who cares about raw numbers? As the New York department store owner legendarily told the tabloid publisher who demanded to know why his huge circulation wasn’t enough to draw high-end ads: “Hey,’ the retail magnate said, “your readers are our shoplifters.”

The problems with these traffic-based payment schemes isn’t just that they take journalism to be nothing more than a contrivance, but that they do it in the name of a business model that has nothing to do with contemporary commercial realities.

Still, you can’t help but sympathize with publishers who are fighting the backwash from a legacy newsroom culture that treats the digital as optional and burdensome. But there’s a gamble here, a big one—that editorial imaginations can keep pace with online reach, and can engage audiences on matters of genuine public significance as compellingly as they do now with photos of kittens in peril.

 

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