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One method of building traffic is to hop onto hot topics, the document advises. “Use editorial insight and judgment to determine production,” the document says, offering as an example that if “Macaulay Culkin and Mila Kunis are trending because they broke up,” someone should “write a story about Macaulay Culkin and Mila Kunis.” And editors are told to always keep expenses in mind. The cost of content can run from $25 for a freelance article that needs 7,000 page views to break even, to a $5,000 video that will require a half-million streams to recover its costs. Catchy headlines, such as “Lady Gaga Goes Pantless in Paris” (from AOL site StyleList.com) are important to entice readers from search. Similarly, an article headlined “Benadryl for Dogs” should cost $15, because its revenue potential is around $26. “We are heavily invested in analytics as this is the way to empower our editors and journalists,” Neel Chopdekar, vice president at AOL Media, said in an interview shortly before “The AOL Way” was made public. He calls this “bionic journalism—the best of man and machine.”
Paying freelancers by performance is not as unusual a practice as paying editorial staff that way. About.com, the general information website founded in 1995 and now owned by The New York Times, pays its expert writers, or “guides,” by performance. USA Today announced in early April that it is considering paying bonuses to writers based on page views.
Digital companies, which lean heavily on part-time contributors or unpaid commenters, are constantly on the lookout for cheap labor. And mainstream news companies have long offered psychic, rather than financial, rewards to its reporters and editors.
Forbes’s DVorkin is experimenting with pay schemes for blogging “contributors,” whom Forbes compensates with a flat monthly fee. On top of that, Forbes pays a bonus if a writer reaches a certain target of unique visitors. (DVorkin declined to give details about pay at Forbes, but he did say that at True/Slant—the web company he owned before coming to Forbes—contributors would typically earn about $200 per month, and some would get twice that much, counting their bonuses. A “few” earned several thousand dollars a month.) DVorkin said he’d like to add more metrics to the calculations—for example, Twitter followers or repeat visitors.
“In the newsroom, we are trying to develop different currencies to value success,” says CNNMoney.com’s Peacock. Journalists typically feel rewarded when their stories run on the front of a print publication, or lead the evening news. “We are trying to develop different kinds of ‘front page’ experiences for the journalists,” Peacock says. But the new standards, such as the number of page views or comments, are often beyond an editor’s control and are just as likely to be determined by readers, aggregators, or bloggers.
Digital executives also must constantly decide when to deploy staff to work on new or experimental products that don’t meet the new productivity tests. Tumblr, the social media microblogging platform, gets billions of monthly page views overall, but its value to most media companies is still negligible. Some journalists are fascinated with what it might become in terms of driving traffic or buzz—and their employers let them spend time with the platform, if only to be sure they don’t miss out on something that might turn into the next Twitter. For example, GQ has a Tumblr site with just 12,000 followers—a tiny fraction of the print magazine’s monthly circulation of 800,000. GQ’s senior editor, Devin Gordon, says “Tumblr is a side project, but I care a lot about it.” He and an editorial assistant limit themselves to no more than two hours per week posting Tumblr content.