AJR  Columns :     THE ONLINE FRONTIER    
From AJR,   February/March 2007

Pay Per View   

For these bloggers, a larger audience means a fatter paycheck.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     

News managers everywhere are pushing, begging and ordering their journalists to contribute to the Web. Now a business magazine has decided to pay its reporters to blog. More accurately, it is paying its reporters to blog successfully.

In November, Business 2.0 launched a collection of 16 blogs written by magazine staff on subjects ranging from "extreme gadgetry" to real estate. The project was inspired partly by a recent Business 2.0 cover story about profitable blogs, and by former Business 2.0 senior writer Om Malik, whose technology blog was so popular he left the magazine in June to focus on it.

The magazine staffers were asked to blog for all the right reasons. As reporters for a monthly publication, the responsibility of updating a daily blog would keep them more closely connected to their beats and their readers. They would learn some of the nuances of writing for the Web. The content would make the Web site more relevant in an insanely competitive market.

The twist that caused a minor fracas in pundit land was Editor Josh Quittner's decision to pay each journalist a modest incentive based on the amount of traffic to his or her blog. The blogs, like any other section of the site, would carry advertising on a CPM (cost per thousand) model in which revenue is based on page views. As Quittner explained in an interview with iWantMedia.com, "The bloggers will get to participate in the revenue they generate." If a blog attracts 100,000 page views, as some have done, the writer will make a couple hundred bucks.

Quittner's initiative provoked much huffing from HuffingtonPost.com contributor Dan Shanoff, who predicted a fast ride down a slippery slope. Shanoff warned that the journalist bloggers would quickly start tailoring their work to the lewd tastes of the Paris Hilton obsessed masses. With financial incentives directly tied to page views, Shanoff worried, professional journalists would devolve into a pack of "hit-ho's."

That hasn't happened yet. Instead, those wily writers are chasing page views by staying solidly on topic. A quick survey of Business 2.0's blogs on December 10 revealed such juicy headlines as, "Samsung Introduces Ultrathin LCD Screens for Phones" and "New Google Ocean Mashups."

It's easy to conjure numerous ethical concerns around the general concept of paying journalists for the popularity of their work. Examining those concerns is important. But it's also important to have a little faith. Josh Quittner, like any editor, is deeply invested in the credibility of his newsroom. The reporters have been given clear guidelines for the blogs they write. The potential compensation for a popular blog is extra pocket money, not enough to make a responsible reporter sell out. In fact, the idea that professional journalists are ready to stoop and pander for a few extra bucks is insulting.

On his BuzzMachine blog, media critic Jeff Jarvis applauded Business 2.0's experiment and noted that journalists in any medium are influenced by the success of their work. For those who succumb to the temptations of popularity or money, the media marketplace tends to self-correct. "If one corrupts one's product and credibility along the way," Jarvis wrote, "then you can bet that the audience will see through the manipulation, become disenchanted, and leave."

Context matters tremendously, of course. What's right for Business 2.0's blogs may be wrong for other types of journalism. For investigative reporters, the popularity of their work is not the point. Paying daily reporters for page views of breaking news stories doesn't make a lot of sense either.

The Business 2.0 experiment might be confused with the notion that journalists are entitled to extra pay for Web work. That's not the case here, as incentives are for performance rather than participation. However, it's not uncommon for newspaper or broadcast reporters to request a salary bump for taking on Web responsibilities. As most news managers will quickly point out, maintaining one's professional relevance should be incentive enough. At the same time, managers do need to make Web work less burdensome by lightening other duties, or providing other relief. Otherwise they'll end up with worse journalism all around.

Which brings us to the issue of quality. Most news organizations have spent the last few years training journalists to publish online content, often assigning specific tasks or quotas to make sure the work gets done.

But whatever motivates a journalist to contribute online, participation is a far cry from competence. The next, larger challenge is to cultivate journalists who are not only motivated to work on the Web but truly skilled at it. Traditional journalists need to graduate to fluency in digital storytelling, online communities and social media. Not everybody needs to be or will be a new-media expert, but newsrooms need a lot more digital brilliance than they have now.

In the right situations, pay for successful Web content is an interesting idea that could improve quality and enthusiasm. With its tech-savvy staff and determined management, Business 2.0 is in a good position to make it work. "I'm way more concerned about people publishing boring, pointless blogs than I am about hit-whoring," Quittner said in an e-mail interview. "The latter is easier said than done."