With all the attention garnered by the “balloon boy” story, any information available about the boy and his family became fodder for news outlets. Amid all the coverage, one online news site was able to score a rather valuable interview — one with a Denver college student who supposedly had knowledge of a plan by the family to mislead authorities and manufacture the ensuing media frenzy.
The interview to date has drawn about 500,000 hits to the site, Gawker.com. Gawker is the flagship blog in the Gawker blog network, which in October drew 394 million pageviews. The site thrives on aggregating and commenting on the day’s most controversial stories, often posting scandalous photos and employing racy language. It’s often called a gossip blog, and the company’s CEO has embraced the chaos created by the site’s commenters and regular contributors. But that wasn’t what got Gawker the exclusive story.
Gawker landed the balloon boy interview by cutting the interviewee a check. It’s not the first time Gawker has paid a source for a story. Last year, the company offered $10,000 to anyone who could provide an unretouched magazine cover photo of Faith Hill, which it eventually published. Nobody has revealed publicly how much the student made from the deal; he asked for $5,000 to $8,000 in a story on Business Insider’s website, but Gawker’s editor says they didn’t pay “near that much”.
Gawker’s practices are commonplace in entertainment journalism, TV news shows sometimes pay interview subjects licensing fees and outside the U.S. mainstream organizations engage in checkbook journalism. Gawker wants to use the model to break stories outside of those realms, though. Last year they offered tipsters $7.50 for every 1,000 pageviews.
For Gawker’s CEO, Nick Denton, there’s little regard for more traditional journalism ethics that would frown on the practice. In fact, Gawker’s the practices have been applied to the site’s writers, too.
Earlier this year, each writer was given a target number of pageviews he or she was expected to bring in. The target was based on each writer’s base salary, and if a writer exceeded that target he or she was rewarded proportionally. If, for example, a writer went 5 percent over the target, there was a 5 percent bonus in store. The company previously tried this with site-wide figures, and rewarded a site’s entire newsroom with bonuses for bumps in pageviews.
Gawker’s CEO, Nick Denton, explained the reasoning behind the practice in a memo to staffers: “It’s only on the internet that a writer’s contributions can be measured.” And to Denton, in an online news environment where ad revenue is based on pageviews, rewarding those who draw them in makes sense.
“Advertising people say that the internet is special, because the audience’s engagement is so much more measurable than that of newspaper readers, or television viewers,” he wrote in the memo. “Which makes it so bizarre that most writers, on the internet as in print, are paid for the sheer brute quantity of their output.”
Denton’s referencing the site’s previous payment method, which paid writers per post. That doesn’t recognize the way online news sites make money, though, Denton says. Gawker learned that quantity was important early on, as blogs that produced on a more regular basis drew in more readers than the less frequent posters. But after a certain point, an increase in postings led to only marginal increases in pageviews.
That’s what has the company turning to tipsters and hunting down exclusive stories, which can drawn 10 to 20 times the traffic as other posts. That’s also what has Denton playing with new ways to pay freelance writers; pageview bonuses are his way of paying for quantity not quality.
But some, such as Publishing 2.0 blogger Scott Karp, argue that the practice will reward stories that appeal to prurient interests rather than what’s considered good journalism in the traditional sense.
“The downsides of this approach are obvious — the incentive rewards content that is salacious, titillating, slanderous, nasty, etc. — anything that appeals to the base interests of a mass audience,” Karp wrote.
But Karp also thinks Gawker’s practices can be used to reward good original content; the system just unfortunately appeals to both the original and engaging, and the salacious. Mark Glaser, of PBS’s MediaShift, thinks the practice can also distract journalists from the journalism.
“Paying a blogger or journalist based on page views puts the onus on the writer to get traffic and takes away from their main job of research and writing,” Glaser wrote.
Glaser also asserts that the practice, while employed online, actually screams of “old media” by emphasizing mass audiences rather than small, engaged niche audiences that are more prevalent in the new more fragmented media landscape.
Practices like those employed at Gawker have wide implications for other areas of media, especially for those that work mostly on a freelance basis.
Do performance bonuses encourage yellow journalism by encouraging writers to play to what’s popular rather than what’s newsworthy in the traditional sense? Will the pay-for-views model reach into other freelance industries, such as magazine publishing? Can paying for news tips become an effective tool outside of entertainment journalism now that publishers can quantify their ROI on such an investment? Can the value of a news story be measured by the views (and therefore revenue) that it draws in? What about the maintaining of the reader-publisher relationship?