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With ad revenue up 35%, Gawker Media returns to pageview bonuses and plans “checkbook journalism”

Eight months ago, Gawker Media publisher Nick Denton was predicting a 40-percent drop in U.S. advertising and paring back accordingly: He laid off 19 writers and, by selling some blogs and consolidating others, shrank his blogging empire from 13 titles to 9. Well, that dire forecast hasn’t quite come to pass — least of all at Gawker Media, where ad revenue in the first half of 2009 was up 35% from the year prior, according to Denton, who relayed the news by instant message this afternoon.

“We seem to have been able to buck the advertising recession,” he wrote to me with British understatement. And with the upswing comes what Denton described as a “pretty cautious reintroduction” of a practice he suspended last year: paying bonuses to writers based on pageviews. He explained the system in a memo to staffers:

Each writer on a site will have a (pretty demanding) individual pageview target…That target will be proportional to a writer’s base compensation. i.e. the more your monthly pay, the more people you’re expected to reach. If you go 10% over target, you get a 10% bump in pay. The target will rise as the traffic of the site as a whole increases. Your site’s editor-in-chief will be in touch to discuss the details later this week.

Writers won’t see less money if they miss their targets, and Denton also included this caveat: “Don’t all get excited: the levels will be modest; aimed at the writers who aren’t paid as much as their traffic would warrant; and we’re only committing to bonuses for the second half of this year.”

Paying for pageviews adds on obvious, if controversial, incentive for writers to create popular content, but in our IM conversation, Denton described the move as “a way to reward young and highly productive writers who might have come in at a low rate that doesn’t reflect their real value.” He said that even without paying bonuses, his bloggers have felt an incentive to perform because Gawker Media displays pageview statistics alongside every post and on a page that breaks down the stats by writer.

“Just having the numbers in public — and so prominently displayed — is enough to motivate any egomaniac writer,” Denton told me.

It was a busy day at Gawker Media, which just introduced a new, “tiered” commenting system, so I was cutting our conversation short when Denton wrote, “Oh, one other little thing.” Yes? “By bringing back pageview pay, we also open up the possibility of web-style checkbook journalism.” By that, he meant paying tipsters for the pageviews generated by posts based on their tips, which is something he briefly tried last year, offering $7.50 per 1,000 views.

Denton noted that Gawker paid $10,000 for the original version of a Faith Hill photograph that appeared on the cover of Redbook with extensive retouching. “Worth it?” I asked him. “Definitely!” he said. “Probably 2m pageviews.”

Two things are certain: Media ethicists will decry that practice, and Denton won’t care. My perspective: While I wouldn’t want my trusted news sources paying their sources for tips or paying their reporters by pageviews, I don’t get why Gawker is held to the same standard. The web has room for scrupulous and unscrupulous news sites, and as Denton recently explained to The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz: “We don’t seek to do good. We may inadvertently do good. We may inadvertently commit journalism. That is not the institutional intention.”

But at a time when online advertising has declined 5 percent in the U.S., any website with 35% ad growth is worth paying close attention to, no matter its journalism ethics. Denton’s memo, which he forwarded to me after I inquired, is below, along with some traffic statistics that were attached. Links were added by me. (There’s also lots of interesting information about today’s changes in commenting policy, which Denton calls “reinstituting the class system” on sites, particularly Deadspin, where commenters run wild.)

Subject: Traffic record, traffic targets, resumption of bonuses — oh, and sex tapes

Well, finally we’re growing again. June was an excellent month — with 334m pageviews.

Sure, we were helped by the launch of various smartphones, E3 and the amazing constellation of affairs and deaths at the end of the month. But we generally made the most of those stories. Special mentions to Kotaku (which ended the month 11% ahead of target) and io9 (which has increased its pageviews by 139% in the last twelve months.)

We’d have done even better but for a couple of technical factors: the move to the new slideshows hurt pageviews on galleries on sites such as Jalopnik until we got Sitemeter to count them; and the fancy ajaxy updating of the iPhone 3GS liveblog on Gizmodo was lauded by readers precisely because it didn’t force them to click so often to refresh.

And my hat goes off to AJ for bringing new writers into Deadspin and taking back the site from some commenters who thought they were in charge. Every transition is painful. AJ found that early when he started banning last month. But commenters on every site will be restive after we reinstitute the class system in comments tomorrow midday.

The favored commenters will be silent; and the illiterate ones will rant, well, illiterately. But we’ll be able to encourage the kind of discussion that *we* want — not one that is dominated merely by the most prolific of our commenters. It’s our party; we get to decide who comes. (More on this tomorrow from each site’s lead editor.)

So with these sidenotes, I’ve included the table of each site’s traffic in June — compared both to the number this time last year and the projections that each site’s editor-in-chief has made. I’ve included these targets — and the outcomes — because we’re bringing back some pageview bonus.

Don’t all get excited: the levels will be modest; aimed at the writers who aren’t paid as much as their traffic would warrant; and we’re only committing to bonuses for the second half of this year. Chris Batty’s sales and creative services teams have done an impressive job in bucking the advertising slump; but we have no idea how long we can continue to out-perform competitors.

But broadly the system will work like this. Each writer on a site will have a (pretty demanding) individual pageview target. (Remember, individual pageviews are viewable at http://gawker.com/stats etc.) That target will be proportional to a writer’s base compensation. i.e. the more your monthly pay, the more people you’re expected to reach. If you go 10% over target, you get a 10% bump in pay. The target will rise as the traffic of the site as a whole increases. Your site’s editor-in-chief will be in touch to discuss the details later this week.

I wouldn’t want you to think this was all about the numbers. It’s about the stories; the pageviews are just a way to keep count. In that spirit, here are some of the gems you could find if you were superhuman and read every post on every Gawker site. (That’s about 10,000 items a month.)

io9′s awesome Transformers review
Exclusive photo set of Stoya and Joanna Angel
John Cook uncovered the writer who took a Central Park cyclist on a Death Ride
He finally caught up with Fox News’ Jesse Watters
Ryan very succinctly explained how to destroy Bill O’Reilly on his own show
Gawker had fun discrediting Perez Hilton as he bizarrely tried to claim some higher purpose in life
Wayne Ellington’s hot 19-year-old girlfriend and other stories on Deadspin
Stephen Totilo’s chain interview on Kotaku
And that sex tape I teased in the subject line

                                   
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Ken Doctor    Aug. 25, 2014
“Things” editor, distribution editor, correspondent for progress — as newsrooms change, so do the ways they organize their human resources.