Given the state of the news business, there seems to be two realistic models for financing journalism. One is to open shop as a nonprofit, relying on donors and foundations who give big chunks of money to pay for equipment, salaries and the resources needed for quality reporting. The other is to turn every story, every photo and every graphic into a commodity, with journalists earning a cut of the money their work generates through page clicks and ads.
Today, word is spreading that Gawker Media, which employs numerous professional bloggers, will drive full-speed down the second path. Writers will get paid based on how many times per month their work is viewed. For example, if a blogger breaks an exclusive story and 100,000 people click on it, he could make $500, depending on the rate he and Gawker agreed on. Bloggers will no longer get paid for every entry they post, as they did previously, but for how popular those entries are.
The theory, as laid out in a company memo by Gawker heads Noah Robischon and Nick Denton, is that writers will be forced to focus on quality of their writing and reporting, rather than shoveling content onto the web. The goal is to appeal to the widest readership possible, they write. "Where there was a shortage of attitude and commentary, there's now a surfeit," says the Dec. 31 memo. "And what's in heavy demand, and short supply, is linkworthy material, by which I mean a secret memo, a spy photo, a chart, a well-argued rant, a list, an exclusive piece of news, a well-packaged find."
On the surface, the logic is good; the system encourages journalists to give readers what readers want. But as some critics point out, popular journalism doesn't necessarily equal good journalism. In a November commentary on MarketWatch, columnist John Friedman wrote a piece titled, "Please! Abolish the Web's evil page-view count," in which he argues that media websites should get rid of lists that show which stories are read or commented on most often. "The worst aspect to these lists is the fear that journalists, trying to win favor with their business- conscious editors, will lower their standards and write top-40 stories instead of pieces with actual depth," Friedman writes. He worries, too, that editors who want to increase their online readership or page views will shy away from hard news, which make an impact without being well read, and lean toward salacious and gossipy stories. This is a business model that essentially tears down the wall traditionally built between the money side of journalism and editorial.
In the cases of Gawker websites like Wonkette, Defamer and Valleywag, which are all devoted to salaciousness and gossip in their own way, the system will likely do what the company leaders intend: allow bloggers to get good, juicy, big-hitting scoops more often. In the cases of high-minded organizations like MarketWatch, the New York Times and Time Magazine, however, the results of this path might not turn out so well.