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Seeking Alpha’s Premium Partnership Program and the evolution of paying for content

When the word dropped this weekend that the finance blog Seeking Alpha would begin paying its contributors, the news was met with both questions about its motives and concern about how the deal shakes out for writers.

The payment plan, called the “Premium Partnership Program,” provides contributors a rate of $10 for every 1,000 pageviews on stories submitted to Seeking Alpha “exclusively.” It’s a formula that makes sense on paper, particularly for a site that gets between 40-45 million pageviews a month: If exclusive stories garner high enough hits, the overall traffic helps the site — and writers get a payday.

The catch, of course — beyond the “exclusivity” clause — is that writers have to find the perfect alchemy of scoops and SEO-friendly subjects to gain a substantial cut. And already a few of Seeking Alpha’s contributors are saying that the math doesn’t add up. Reuters’s Felix Salmon, whose work appears on Seeking Alpha, offered up these numbers:

On average, I’ve been getting just under 48,000 pageviews per month. Which means that if I gave every single one of my blog entries to Seeking Alpha exclusively, then I’d still be earning on average less than $500 a month. And I’m a full-time blogger, unlike most Seeking Alpha contributors.

If most posts on Seeking Alpha get between 3,000 and 4,000 pageviews, that means that, under the partnership program, a writer would get a check for $30 or $40 per post.

It’s clear we’ve reached Stage 2 in the saga of how sites handle contributor content, as more outlets are trying to find a way to compensate writers. Stage 1 was the period when news sites traded on reputation (and maybe ego) in motivating contributors to submit content (“write for us and your name will be in front of the right people”). But as a sites grow, attracting more advertising dollars or at least more funding, the question for a number of writers becomes “how do I get a piece of the action?”

Many sites and writers employ fairly traditional freelancing models of compensation — flat rates per post — while others rely on variations in CPM rates. (Yahoo’s Contributor Network, for example, compensates writers at $2 CPM plus an upfront payment.) We’ve also seen slightly more elaborate schemes, like The Awl’s recent venture in profit-sharing. And of course there’s Demand Media, the subject of many a story about writers’ pay and working conditions.

When I spoke with Seeking Alpha’s CEO, David Jackson, last week, he told me that the site’s contributors were a mix of novice writers with backgrounds in the financial industries as well as established bloggers and newsletter writers. (Seeking Alpha has close to 4,000 contributors all told, including both individuals and other media properties like TechCrunch and Globe Investor, the investment site from Canada’s Globe and Mail.)

Before the partnership program, the payoff for writers was publicity for the work they published elsewhere. “We publish the article; we get traffic and drive leads to your business,” Jackson said in a phone conversation.

While that’s still the case, the money will sweeten the deal for the writers. “If they specialize in a particular sector, they become the authority on it and get lots of readership,” Jackson said. And that, in turn, will “make real money.”

Though he didn’t go into specifics, Jackson noted that writers have the potential to pull in a bigger take from pageviews than the site does from advertisers. Jackson told me they “view how much money [contributors] make as a sign of our success. If they do really well, it means we’re successful.”

The bottom line for the moment, though, is that freelancers and blog contributors are still not likely to pull in heavy dividends for their work — at least, as Salmon suggested, not enough for a full-time gig off any one website. Of course, the elephant in the room is The Huffington Post, which has an extensive network of unpaid contributors, and is in a universe far different than most sites, as Joseph Tartakoff points out. But out on the fringes, we’re seeing more of an evolution in the ways publishers are paying for the content they post online.

                                   
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  • Cas127

    $10 CPM to the *author* is actually surprisingly generous – I’m surprised that SeekingAlpha can turn around and sell all of its CPMs far enough in excess of $10 CPM so that they can make a profit.

    (I’m thinking there must be a catch/out in the contract – anybody have any insight?).

    *Many* large sites are selling their “non-premium” (read, “vast majority of”) page views for $1 CPM and under.

    Basically, there are some fundamental economic problems for companies trying to make a serious living off the internet:

    1) The net is essentially infinitely expandable at extremely low marginal cost – so “scarcity” in the supply of page views is not in the cards. This huge oversupply of page views (hell, Facebook *alone* generates a mind-boggling number of pageviews) has (and will continue to) slaughter CPM rates (in the internet and, eventually, everywhere). Huge supply = low price.

    2) Even if individual publishers can create some sort of faux scarcity on their own sites (by limiting ads per page, etc.), since the cost of entry is *so low*, other publishers will simply continue to supply a superabundance of views.