Instead of training a rising generation of reporters, we may be creating a generation of opinion bloggers and aggregators. “We had to start offering extra money for scoops,” says Apple. “I thought a lot of writers would jump on that, but a lot are bloggers by trade and have other jobs. A scoop usually gets more traffic and links, but there’s no guarantee.” (Apple says he recently abandoned the cash-for-scoops policy.)
Offering a bonus based on traffic creates an incentive to produce more work. Fans of such payment systems, including some of the writers themselves, point to that as one of the model’s greatest assets. “It can inspire you to work harder than you would,” says Paul Tassi, who blogged about movies and videogames for True/Slant and who now contributes to Forbes under a similar contract.
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.