Eat The Press

blogging for dollars.jpg

from jamesgross.com

Business 2.0 is launching an experiment worth watching closely: They have asked all of their staff writers to start a blog.

But it's not as simple as adding to their paycheck to do the extra work: The writers-cum-bloggers will be paid on the basis of their blog traffic.

As Business 2.0 editor Josh Quittner told I Want Media:

Our bloggers will be directly remunerated on the basis of their traffic. They'll be paid a modest CPM. Time Inc. will sell advertising on the individual blogs. So the bloggers will get to participate in the revenue they generate.

To treat journalists like mini-publishers is a slippery slope. For all of blogging's editorial opportunities -- the freedom to innovate or the chance to collapse the normally endless magazine response to timely issues -- the journalists are no longer simply doing their job.

When the mission is tied -- directly, through the incentive of increased financial compensation -- to maximizing traffic, the blogger is as much a marketer as they are a journalist.

Consider the skewed results of these extra-journalistic incentives:

  • Coverage is tailored to topics that generate more traffic, not necessarily ones that have more journalistic value (a phrase with a built-in slippery slope itself, it's true, but still; see example here).

  • Language is tailored to words that generate more traffic. (Newbies: It's called "optimization").

  • Journalists find themselves with a new second career... in "business development."

  • Journalists find themselves competing and being measured by an entirely new metric, with a completely different set of criteria (Ed. Quitter said that his writers are free to choose any topic as long as it relates to business; who wants to bet that this skews titles away from "The Application Of Actuarial Science In Interstate Commerce" and toward "The Sex Industry: Hookers, Porn And The Bottom Line"?)(Extra traffic if you link to scene from critically-acclaimed adult film "The Bottom Line").

Under this system, the focus moves away from the product itself and onto the equivalent of "distribution deals" -- scheming how to get placement on other blogs or high-traffic Web sites that can goose a blog's numbers (and, thus, a blogger's bank account).

It used to be that writers-turned-bloggers became "hit ho's" obsessed with traffic numbers, because who doesn't want to be read by as many people as possible? But, now, with the added incentive of cash -- based entirely on traffic performance, as opposed to critical approval -- it's worth questioning what the effects on the journalism will be.

Rather than research, will the journalists be spending their time crafting the equivalent of "pitch letters" to Romenesko or Gawker, or any one of the blogs listed in Technorati's Top 100, shucking for the placement that might net them a couple hundred bucks a day?

Far-fetched? Let's ask Quittner:

Well, to start, if your blog gets a 100,000 page views in a day, that would probably give you a couple of hundred bucks.

True, as Quittner says, no one's "going to retire on it." But there's certainly the potential that Time Inc.'s journalists will divert their attention from the quality of their writing to the quality of their traffic.

There is at least one notable "traffic-based" incentive system in publishing that seems to have been successful: Nick Denton's Gawker Media empire, where blogger compensation is, in part, tied to traffic.

That's been Denton's model from the start -- the model is built into the editorial DNA (just like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, who tend to drive traffic a bit more than how Sun Microsystems uses JavaScript). In this case, Time Inc. is attempting to graft pay-for-clicks on to pay-for-content. It remains to be seen whether it will "take" or whether the host body -- Time's institutional editorial DNA -- will reject it.

Let's applaud the magazine having its writers add blogging to their job description, and Quittner for recognizing that new media is important to his magazine's -- and Time Inc's -- journalistic future. Rather than focusing on the pitfalls of its potential failure, it's more fascinating to consider it if it works: What if the rest of Time Inc's magazine assets adopted the model?

Would dozens of magazine titles beget hundreds of individual blogger mini-businesses, one for each reporter-turned-blogger? Will Time.com Washington editor Ana Marie Cox offer insights to her reporters into how certain, ah, "hot-button topics" can get them more traffic (and, thus, make them more money)? Will the drive to get individually "Farked" eclipse the motivation to win an Ellie?

Promoting a blog-style meritocracy where lesser-known writers' work can bubble up to prominence ahead of a magazine's "stars" is a worthy goal that is aligned with the journalism of business. But morphing Quittner's staff into an extension of the sales and marketing department with personal financial incentives is a sketchy new business of journalism.

-- Dan Shanoff

Update: Business 2.0 responds, clarifies its non-intention to be a "hit-ho."

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