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.

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