Page views offer only a small part of the picture in a newsroom compensation plan

How should the pay for online journalists be determined?

Pay for work is always a sensitive question. Pay, after all, quantifies work. And since most people pour more than a bit of emotion into their work, quantifying it can feel uncomfortable, and even a bit offensive.

But writing and reporting are work. And if a marketplace has determined that one’s work has some significant economic value, it has been quantified already.

The job of the manager then, is to divvy up the economic value created by her or his workers and distribute it among them.

This week brought two reports of news organizations dividing pay based on the number of pages views an author’s work generates: USA Today deciding to base bonuses on page views, and a Forbes blogger explaining her page-view based compensation.

As an independent publisher, page views are my livelihood. If people don’t read my stuff, I don’t make money. That’s simply the reality that publishers have to deal with, and I don’t see any overriding reason why employed or contract writers always should be protected from that reality. (You might notice that I used an absolute there, which sharp readers should see as creating some wiggle room for me that I’m going to exploit in a few graphs.)

But I’ve worked as a computer developer, too, and any developer can tell you that a program always gives you exactly what you ask from it – which might not be what you wanted or intended to ask. Developers learn to sharpen the “instructions” in their programming code, to avoid errors and unintended consequences.

So it will be with publishers who compensate their writers based on the page views their posts generate. As we’ve seen in the recent controversy over school test scores, if people have an incentive and a means to game the system – people are going to game the system.

I know lots of ways to gin up page views, and any smart reporter can devise plenty such ways, too. Do you want page after page of photos of scantily clad starlets walking a red carpet? Do you want your writers posting flamebait on 4Chan? Or spamming misleading links across Facebook? (“Click here to see shocking video of Charlie Sheen and former President Bush’s pet goat!” Doesn’t matter where that links actually goes. Folks will click on it.)

All of those tactics will crank up the page views on a website. But are those page views from people your advertisers or funders wish to reach? Are they page views that bring in people who will click around and become regular visitors to your site, or ones that will bounce away as swiftly as they arrive?

If all you ask from your writers is page views, then page views is what you’ll get – with no distinction between ones that add value to the website, and ones that simply raise your server and bandwidth costs.

A smarter compensation structure rewards writers for generating posts that draw and retain targeted audience members. That’s tougher to quantify easily, but the more variables a publisher demands that his or her writers satisfy, the more likely it is that the writers just give up attempting to game the system, and simply focus instead on creating work that connects with and serves the publication’s audience – forget about chasing bonuses.

Which is what you should want, anyway.

Simple compensation gimmicks also cheat large, well-funded news organizations of one of their competitive advantages over start-ups and small shops (like me – here’s where I’m using my wiggle room, by the way). Our compensation is typically month-to-month, based on the page views and click throughs we’ve earned now. A larger news organization can afford to “borrow from the future” and employ writers on long-term investigations and community-building projects that don’t pay off in additional page views and audience now, but might in the future.

Change your compensation structure simply to reward short-term traffic, and your writers will ditch those projects in favor of the photo galleries and the link bait, instead. Because that’s what you have asked them to do, with your pay structure.

Wise managers collect an immense amount of data about their audience, their writers and what audience each of their writers is attracting. But wise managers don’t let that data make decisions for them. The use data to guide them in making their own decisions.

Ultimately, you must reward the writers who are creating the most value for your publication. But one measure of data almost never provides a true picture of value.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at