The mission sounds simple: Pay writers and edit their work. This is not revolutionary, nor should it be, given journalism’s sepia-tinted legacy of pensions and expense accounts. But the idea was enough to draw more than 100 writers to Slant, a slick publisher-platform hybrid that launched in late June to server-busting traffic numbers.
Led by expats from The Huffington Post, Bleacher Report, and the New York Daily News, Slant pays its writers $100 per month, plus $5 for every 500 clicks, for three pieces a week. Contributors can chase stories and pen columns about their interests, leaning on editors rich in digital experience. In the fall, anybody will be able to publish on the site, through an ad-revenue-sharing agreement in which a writer will receive 70 percent of an article’s profits. This payment model was once the crown jewel of content-heavy startups like Gawker, where young writers typed dozens of articles each week, aggregating and snarking their way to a digital-media empire. Now it’s something of a financial loophole used by content mills that prey on desperate young journalists, who scrape together clickbait in exchange for pennies. As advertisers put their money behind more complex metrics focused on engagement, some publishers, like the blogging giant SheKnows Media, have mirrored those points in payment deals with writers.
Slant is a promising new venture with a payment model that has a lengthy yet unproven history. Paying writers per click hasn’t bankrupted news outlets, but detractors claim it has, at times, failed journalism and its practitioners. It’s simply hard to gauge the model’s success. Nobody tracks the number of these sites, which fluctuates as digital natives toy with different payment systems, and there’s no consensus on the quality of the content, or the model’s potential to inspire hard-hitting investigations.
Any time you’re giving people an incentive for telling a story, then you’re automatically compromising the motive, the drive, and the intention behind telling it.
Slant’s model might be tired, but its reasoning is bright and, perhaps, hopeful for journalism’s underclass. Amanda Gutterman, the site’s 20-something editorial director, stresses the arrangement as an alternative to sites that pay budding writers only in the form of “exposure,” an insulting defense of free labor. Slant might pay crumbs, barring a viral boom, but it pays something—and that’s a step above Gutterman’s former employer, The Huffington Post, which reaps traffic from unpaid bloggers. Even more encouraging is Slant’s editorial staff of four full-time editors and two interns, who help writers develop ideas, polish copy, and optimize stories for social-media success.
“We’re not saying to them, ‘Come to our site and earn tons of money,’ ” Gutterman said this week, in a park near Slant’s Manhattan coworking space. “We’re saying, ‘Put your wonderful work on our site. We will edit it and make it internet-ready, and then there’s the possibility that, if it takes off, you’ll make money.”
In its first week, the site hit 100,000 unique visitors, an early milestone worthy of cautious optimism. Andrea Garcia-Vargas’ first article, on the woman who heckled President Barack Obama during a reception at the White House, garnered nearly 14,000 views, more than doubling her base pay (the bonus amounted to roughly $140). Garcia-Vargas didn’t see similar returns for viral posts when she first wrote for Mic, which started her at a flat rate of $25 per article.
Slant’s base pay—which may be cut after the platform opens to the public—and its candor set the site apart from the pay-per-click crowd, said Alex Veeneman, who directs the Society of Professional Journalists’ digital arm. Most pay-per-click publishers aren’t forthright, he said, often talking money only after a writer signs a W-9, or, in the slimiest cases, files a story. Search “write for pay” online and scan the dozens, if not hundreds, of content farms that promise compensation. Some are reputable, though many look like the kind of slop internet users now know to avoid when reading clickbait. But consider the 20-year-old journalism student, eager for clips and new to an industry that has become new even to the veterans. Why not take the chance?
We’re saying, ‘Put your wonderful work on our site. We will edit it and make it internet-ready, and then there’s the possibility that, if it takes off, you’ll make money.’
“Journalism students need to try and stand out in this age because of so much competition for jobs,” Veeneman said. “A lot of people say to just do it for the experience and get on with it.”
Most young journalists know they must not merely be reporters, but trusted brands in the Twitterverse with trails of smart digital clips. Posts on an isolated personal blog crumble aside those on an established site, and money is scarce down both avenues.
Ernest Owens has written for a handful of digital blogs, including The Huffington Post and StackStreet, a platform and publisher that experimented with ad revenue sharing but abandoned the model. Like most of the nine writers interviewed by CJR for this piece, Owens saw his work for pay-per-click sites as a means to pay his dues, delaying financial health in favor of professional capital. Two years later, Owens, now 23, is a columnist at Metro, a free daily newspaper in Philadelphia, with clips from USA Today under his belt.
Owens didn’t get paid per click while at StackStreet, but he brings up a point that critics have long shouted: Traffic-based payments alter what writers strive to do. “It doesn’t value craft,” he said. “It’s my job to tell a story. Any time you’re giving people an incentive for telling a story, then you’re automatically compromising the motive, the drive, and the intention behind telling it.”
Revenue-sharing sites offer young journalists with full-time gigs a chance to supplement their incomes, which are notoriously shaky, while writing what they want. Adam Uzialko covers municipal news for a group of community weekly newspapers in New Jersey. (Disclaimer: The author worked alongside Uzialko for several months at the outlet.) Until recently, he begrudgingly wrote advertorials on the side, for an extra $120 to $150 per month. He quit that gig after joining Slant, where his paychecks should fall in that range.
The bigger question is whether the ad-revenue-sharing model can result in investigative journalism. Can a gamble of time and money push somebody to dig through public records, or spend hours building a narrative? Slant’s top brass thinks so. But traffic concerns alone might prod contributors to post funny cat videos instead of hard-hitting pieces. “There’s no comparison,” said Linnea Edmeier of UC Berkeley’s J-School. “One’s going to get so many hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of views, where the other isn’t.” It might depend on how high journalism’s bar to entry continues to rise and how many would-be ProPublica stars are left in the cold.
Gutterman said Slant might one day introduce sponsored content, or a payment model based on total time spent reading, or just about anything if it fits. Digital journalism is still a sort of wild west, and it’s up to the new sheriffs to instill financial order. Although the pay-per-click model’s power to tame this frontier is questionable, Slant’s belief in the value of its writers warrants attention.Jack Murtha is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @JackMurtha