But is the pace sustainable? And will it leave anyone with the time to do in-depth enterprise reporting? Tassi writes upwards of 15 posts per day between Forbes and other outlets, including his own website. And that’s not all: He also uploads video for one website and serves as managing editor for another. Overall, he makes a good living, but he doesn’t get health insurance from any of his gigs, and he doesn’t know how much money he will make in a month until the traffic numbers and ad revenue have come in. Tassi is only 24, so for him it seems a manageable workload and lifestyle. But can anyone produce two blog posts per hour for the duration of a 40-year career? What happens if they have children to support?
It’s also unclear how linking pay to traffic will affect the labor-management relationship. The managers of websites that pay writers a bonus based on traffic have an obvious incentive to manipulate traffic statistics to avoid making those payments. One writer interviewed for this story said he considered the traffic numbers he was quoted by his editors to be suspiciously low.
Editors also have the power to affect a writer’s traffic by placing his stories on the homepage and promoting them through social media—or not. Writers I interviewed for this piece say that management has graciously paid them any bonus they were entitled to, and that they never worried their articles were being under-promoted—at least not for any reason other than pure editorial decisions. But the fact remains that they are putting their financial fate in the hands of someone who might have an incentive to undermine it.
Judging by Gawker, there is some evidence that incentives may actually encourage enterprise reporting. A few years ago, Gawker Media was widely viewed as an intolerable sweatshop. It hired writers as full-time freelancers with no benefits, and required them to post 12 items a day. On top of that they were given bonuses based on reaching traffic milestones. But there was an ironic catch: Your previous quarter’s traffic became your new baseline, and so the traffic target you needed to hit to earn a bonus was raised.
“It felt like you were getting punished for succeeding,” says Alex Pareene, a blogger for Salon who previously worked for Gawker and Wonkette, a Gawker subsidiary. Having to post 12 times a day and maximize traffic meant there was little time for original reporting. Traffic was measured by pageviews, which created an incentive to goose clicks through cheap tricks. Former Gawker Media bloggers joke about how they were being implicitly encouraged to make every item a slide show of “nip slips,” celebrities who accidentally exposed their nipples.
Gawker has since hired full-time, salaried writers. It eliminated the 12-posts-per-day rule and changed the bonus to a reward for getting the most unique visitors rather than pageviews. Leaders of Gawker sites, such as Jezebel, get a bonus pool that they divvy up among their bloggers. That means that a piece of original reporting or thoughtful analysis that brings links from other blogs will be the most-valued content. Focusing on uniques measures a post’s reach and appeal to new readers—while at the same time de-emphasizing the engagement of core readers, who may be creating additional pageviews by refreshing the page to participate in a conversation thread. Each metric has its merits from a business standpoint, but tallying unique visitors is, arguably, a better model for rewarding journalistic success.
“Nick [Denton, Gawker’s owner] was trying to reverse-engineer a system to make an editorial choice based on quality, and justify it based on traffic,” says Pareene. And that made it a more rewarding, if still very demanding, place to work. “One of the ideas was, you could spend more time on one really good post instead of doing four short posts,” Pareene explains. “The incentive to keep working was there, but it wasn’t about volume, it was about quality.”
At TPM, meanwhile, the bonus pool attempts to combine different metrics so that it rewards reporters with different responsibilities, both those who generate mountains of short news items for regular readers and those who produce enterprise pieces that bring in more outside links.
Ironically, the Faster Times model works best not for the hungry kid right out of college, but for someone with a full-time job elsewhere. Clay Risen says he would consider working that way again as long it’s a side gig, not the core of how he makes his living. “I wouldn’t want to be in the position of having to write certain things because that’s what the numbers told me,” he says, adding, “There’s a place for that kind of writing as long as it’s not the only system.”