Advertising, editorial lines blur as bloggers' salaries tied to traffic

Most freelance writers wait in dread for The Call — their equivalent of the “Dear John” letter from an editor who is calling (or sometimes e-mailing) to say they’re no longer needed. A number of years ago, The Call came to me from my editor at CNET, but with a twist. They were killing my humor column because it didn’t get enough page views. I even got a rundown of the numbers, though they were meaningless to me.

The Internet has been lauded for providing advertisers with exact metrics on how their ads perform, but it also can be turned against writers and journalists, especially at sites that live and die by traffic.

About.com pioneered pay for Guides that’s tied to traffic growth, and now Gawker Media is also paying a base salary for its stable of bloggers, along with bonuses for increased traffic. Plus, the new breed of “stand-alone journalists” such as Rafat Ali at PaidContent.org and Chris Nolan at Politics from Left to Right take on both editorial and business roles at their online publications. While this blurring of the Chinese wall between advertising and editorial could hurt the credibility of the nascent operations, few journalists can ignore the economic viability of their publications.

In a Q&A with OJR, About.com CEO Peter Horan explained how Guides are motivated to build traffic. “One of things we’ve institutionalized is that folks understand that time they put in to optimize the content is really an investment in their page growth,” Horan said. “There’s been enough success stories with the Guides, that basically they sell each other on the idea that this is a good thing to do.”

While the Political Humor Guide pulled in $20,000 per month around the U.S. election last fall, the average Guide only makes $1,500 to $1,600 per month, according to Horan, making this a part-time freelance gig, for the most part.

More highbrow online publications such as Slate and Salon have never paid writers according to page views. Slate editor Jacob Weisberg told me he is opposed to the idea for a number of reasons.

“First of all, how we promote stories has more effect on their traffic than what the writers do,” Weisberg said via e-mail. “Second, I wouldn’t want to push writers to pander for hits by writing only sexed-up stories. Third, all hits are not created equal. A small number of additional readers who come regularly to a less popular feature may be more valuable to us than something that swells traffic greatly but temporarily. Fourth, it would create an unproductive kind of competition among our writers.”

Salon editor Joan Walsh concurred and said the site had never tied pay to page views in any way before — though she wouldn’t rule it out in the future. But Walsh believes that letters from readers are more interesting indicators than traffic.

Calacanis, Denton diverge

But if Salon and Slate are Web 1.0 for online journalists, then Gawker Media and Weblogs Inc. are Web 2.0. Both of the newbie blog empires have tried out new models for paying writers, with mixed success. Gawker has been paying writers a base salary plus bonuses tied to traffic, while Weblogs Inc. ditched a scheme for paying bloggers based on ad revenues and now compensates them with a flat fee.

Nick Denton, publisher of Gawker Media, told me he modeled his system on the About.com model. “I’m sure the writers would prefer to take the maximum they could make in a month, and take it as a flat salary,” he said via e-mail, “but we’ve never offered flat salary. Pay has always depended on number of posts, with a bonus for appealing to readers.”

While Denton wouldn’t get into the details of his pay structure, one of his writers told me more about the complex system for compensation, though declined to be named for fear of losing the work. According to this writer, a blogger with high traffic growth can “accrue a lot of potential money.” The problem is that the bonus is “banked” and the entire sum can’t be taken out in one month, leaving it to drop as the traffic drops in future months. To make it even more complicated, traffic bonuses are weighted according to a multiplier depending on the subject matter of the blog.

“There’s a maximum withdrawal per month,” the writer said. “So you could actually make $50,000 in traffic bonuses per month, but you could only take out $5,000 or so. But by the time a few months have gone by, your traffic could have trended downward, and it could have eaten up the traffic bonus you had earned. … It makes sense for Nick, but it makes all of us really uneasy.” Lockhart Steele, managing editor at Gawker Media, wouldn’t explain the details of the pay structure to me but said that any bonus plan involves a certain amount of complexity.

“What if there’s an act of god, a surge of new visitors, none of whom comes back?” Steele said via e-mail. “What if a writer cashes a freak bonus, and then coasts, or walks? Should a writer really be penalized if their topic has a small niche audience? Our formula ignores huge spikes in traffic, so that an editor is neither ludicrously over-compensated in a freak month, nor penalized when traffic then declines. On the other hand, should writers on the Web just ignore traffic? No.”

Joel Johnson, who writes Gizmodo for Denton, called the pay structure “Byzantine” but says he’s happy with the amount he’s paid. “The worst part, though, is that so much of the pay is based on increasing hits, but we as editors don’t have any control over anything but the editorial content,” Johnson said via e-mail. “That’s the most important part, sure, but it sucks to think you might lose money because somebody decided to give you a retarded elf or a queer ninja as a mascot. … I’d rather be writing than learning how to trick Google.”

Denton admits his writers have had “the occasional spasm of self-doubt” but have nevertheless come up with great ways to build traffic. He ticked off some of their accomplishments: “Johnson at Gizmodo (page views up by 276% since March 2004) won an interview with Bill Gates and the Bloggie award for best tech site. Ana Marie Cox of Wonkette (up by 125% since a year ago) has promoted the title heavily in television interviews and panel appearances. Jessica Coen of Gawker (up by 133%) has ridden the big celebrity stories with √©lan. John d’Addario of Fleshbot (up 440% in a year) links to earlier posts to keep readers on his site for longer.”

Meanwhile, rival blog publishing house Weblogs Inc. has ditched its original idea of splitting ad revenues 50/50 with bloggers. The company’s chairman and mouthpiece Jason McCabe Calacanis admits he was wrong about the concept, and that only 1 in 20 writers went for the deal. Now he’s paying a flat fee for bloggers ranging from $100 to $3,000 per month, and is signing up two to five people per blog because of the focus on part-time help.

“We’ve separated the concept of pay and traffic as I think it can be very dangerous to link the two,” Calacanis told me via e-mail. “The biggest problem with traditional media is that they are always chasing ratings, which is an extension of their 10Q [earnings report]. People are coming to blogs because they are NOT playing the ratings game! What difference does it make if a blog gets 10% or 20% traffic [spikes] if it alienates the core audience by playing the ratings game?”

Of course, the Weblogs Inc. honcho couldn’t resist a jab at his arch-nemesis in blog publishing, Denton. Calacanis mentioned how Gawker received a lot of traffic related to a Fred Durst sex video — including a lawsuit from Durst.

“I’d rather our bloggers focus on creating unfiltered, honest content,” Calacanis said. “It’s my job to make the money, it’s their job to make great content. Also, we don’t need to make a profit on every blog. … Chasing ‘nip slips’ is good for ratings, sure, but I wouldn’t build a brand around them. For a gossip or porn magazine, going for ratings isn’t such a major ethical issue, but it is a slippery slope like many things.”

Wearing the dual editor/publisher hats

While bloggers working for Gawker or Weblogs Inc. toil under a freelance contract, the new breed of “stand-alone journalists” have no one to answer to but themselves. And in these cases, the writer is also head marketer, head ad sales rep and head arbiter of ethical issues.

Longtime journalist Chris Nolan coined the phrase “stand-alone journalist” and currently fits the role well at her blog, Politics from Left to Right, which focuses on California politics. Nolan has written columns for the San Jose Mercury News and the New York Post, and is now even “syndicating” (i.e. repurposing) her blog into a column in eWeek.

Nolan doesn’t think the ethical dilemmas of a stand-alone journalist are much of a departure from the old-style conflicts in a newspaper newsroom.

“The idea that all bloggers are corrupt because they have to deal with the business side of their enterprises is a little bit of a red herring,” Nolan told me. “Newsrooms are filled with people who say, ‘You can’t write about Joe because he’s a friend of the publisher,’ or ‘you can’t write about Sue because she’s married to so-and-so.’…What you do is constantly balance the needs of the business against the editorial integrity, just like a real newsroom. The difference is that these are much smaller efforts, for starters, and second of all, we are not monopolies. If you don’t like what I’m saying, you’re free to go somewhere else.”

Nolan says she had to deal with one advertiser who was asking her to write about a subject that didn’t fit in her editorial purview. She simply ignored the request — but didn’t lose the advertiser. She’s currently raised $50,000 for her site from investors and is looking for more money to help expand the site with more writers. How will she pay them?

“[That’s] as clear as mud,” Nolan said. “This is a startup. We are not going to compensate people while they grow an audience. We’re going to try to see how they do. Once we see a decent ad revenue there, we’re going to do a split. We might also do a stipend or lump sum if we can syndicate it. There are a lot of different ways this thing could go…There are going to be as many solutions to the financial workings as there are going to be sites on the Web.”

One stand-alone journalist who has already hired five contract people to help his operation is Rafat Ali at PaidContent.org. Ali has struggled at times to divide his editorial and business roles, and hasn’t been shy about writing about sponsors and job listings in the main editorial space of his blog. But now he will be bringing on Robert Spears to handle the advertising and business development side.

“One thing I’ve realized over the last few years, is that as much as I like the journalism part of it, I also like developing products,” Ali told me. “But one of the tricky things is advertising. How do I go to the same companies I’m writing about and sell advertising? That’s the central conflict. It’s up to the individual to disclaim it up front. There’s no science to it, but it depends on whether you have ethical values to make the editorial separate from advertising.”

Ali will not usually do blanket coverage of every product launch by vendors who cater to the media business and advertise on his site. And he also has tight controls over who can advertise on PaidContent — thereby making the advertising more relevant for readers. He doesn’t like Google AdSense ads and is on the verge of kicking them off his site for being irrelevant, and doesn’t like the non-standard sized ads on BlogAds — or their content.

“The vendors are part of the site’s ecosystem, it’s a fact of life,” Ali said. “I am very happy when my advertisers are doing well business-wise, and I sometimes mention it. A company like Entriq has been doing well and expanded into the mobile space. I know these guys editorially and on the business side as well. So I’ll mention it and say that these guys advertise with me as well. … There’s no science to it, it’s just where you draw the line.

“It’s increasingly blurred, but what really helps — this may sound elitist — but being a journalist by training helps. As a journalist, you grow up being skeptical. I’m sure other people without a journalism background can develop sensibilities, but we come with an in-grown sensibility and that helps a lot in dealing with business issues.”

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.

Comments

  1. In the end, getting more traffic just means that you can charge more for ads and sponsorships, which is great, a typical business model. Logically, more traffic then equals more conversions/clicks as well. It all makes sense.

    However, it’s when you get to the stage where you’re writing, just for the sake of writing, or choosing topics that you know will be read, or writing sensationalized headlines, etc… I’ve done it…every writer has done it at least once to get some attention.

    That’s the point when the work, the writing, gets messed up. I doubt that the most respected newspapers it the world made their bones the same way that the tabloid rags like the Enquirior did.

    I’m quick to want to not associate blogging with the likes of Drudge and Gawker, simply because we’re more than that. The rest of the world may not know it yet, but there are blogs out there that don’t talk about Paris Hilton’s podcast.

  2. Dala barabir says:

    I’ve been an avid follower of the blog creep/explosion that has happened. But watching some of the quality decline has been a bummer, albeit an inevitable one. I’m more likely to be exposed to Ana Marie Cox’s nervous, irritating personality via listening to her nervously stammering and stuttering her way through a panel or interview now than by visiting her site. Knowing that she gets a dirty kickback for the traffic on her site is reason enough to stop visiting Wonkette, at least for me. I’m not opposed to a new salary/pay system, but it has to be linked to quality, and this system is not.

  3. Almost all journalists learn how to report, write and edit. But few learn how to be a publisher. But journalists need a publisher’s skills when they set out on their own and create their own websites. You need to be able to figure out how to bring in enough money to, first, cover your bills and, then, make a living. I’m wrestling with how to add publishing skills to the curriculum here at USC and would love to hear how other journalism schools are addressing this need.

    Ultimately, all journalists’ incomes are tied to the popularity of their work. If a newspaper loses readers (and therefore, advertisers), journalists lose their raises and some lose their jobs. So, on a conceptual level, what Gawker is doing is nothing new. It’s just that at a Gawker site, there’s one blogger determining the popularity of his or her site, not a newsroom of reporters who can bear collectively the success or failure of their reporting’s popularity. And that potentially exposes a writer to immediate, daily financial pressure that he or she would not have to deal with in a newsroom.

    Every independent reporter publishing online has to deal with this issue at some point. Which is why I think that online publishing skills, not just the techie stuff, but the business side, ought to be part of j-school curricula. And that’s why we’ve got a wiki going on journalism ethics that I hope online journalists will contribute to and debate.

    Personally, I’ve dealt with this issue on my sites by outsourcing the advertising on those sites to Google AdSense and a handful of affiliate vendors. Unlike Rafat’s site, my sites (not OJR, my personal sites) publish in well-defined niches where Google has attracted plenty of advertisers. So I have not encountered the targeting problem he has. And allowing an outside agency to place, bill and manage the ads on my site allows me to preserve a

  4. I’ve had similar concerns about traffic. On the one hand, writing to 30 readers is sort of like yelling in a closet. On the other, now that I have some readers, it’s important to recognize that they come to me for what I have to offer. Changing topics or styles can backfire, and my readers are quick to let me know. They are also pretty unwilling to pay, even small amounts, through, say, a donation format.

    Interesting article, as I have just added several new writers to my site, and was considering tying their share of revenue to their traffic. I’ll definitely rethink that approach now.