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.”

A few months after interviewing with The Faster Times, my big-media ship came in. I got a job as an editor at Newsweek, and all the generous benefits and financial security that came with it. If you’re reading this magazine, you probably know what happened to Newsweek shortly after I started there in September 2009. Now I am a freelancer again, which is a lot more like being a traveling salesman than I ever thought a journalist’s life would be. But at least I don’t work on commission—yet. 

 

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Ben Adler covers climate-change policy for Grist and is a contributing editor for CJR