Pay for traffic: Incentive or distortion?

It may be a new year, but we’re still talking (well, some of us are anyway) about an old issue: namely, the idea of paying writers based on the traffic they get. The focus of the debate right now is Gawker, where Nick Denton has apparently started paying his bloggers based in part on how many views their posts get. This one has been around for awhile, but now it’s official thanks to a memo on (Gawker-owned) Valleywag.

It’s also something that has come up before, including about a year ago when ZDNet said that it had started paying its writers on the same basis, i.e. a salary combined with a bonus based on traffic (I wrote a post about it at the time). And there have been other occasions as well, including when Business 2.0 magazine — which was then being run by Owen Thomas, now better known as the senior editor of Valleywag — started compensating writers based on their blog traffic.

In his memo, Nick says something that is very true about the difference between blogs and traditional media. While digital media gives editors or publishers the ability to track and compensate based on traffic:

“At newspapers, a reporter’s reputation depends on the opinion of their editors, which can be fickle. Some people get on because they play the office politics well. Or simply because they’re more aggressive in lobbying for more prominent jobs, or pay increases.”

The key question, of course, is whether rewarding bloggers for traffic is a good thing or a bad thing. One argument is that “incentivizing” bloggers to boost their traffic encourages them to make their posts more sensational, and will lead to them writing about nothing but Britney Spears or whatever they think people will be looking for, instead of deep and thought-provoking posts about serious issues. This is similar to the argument about people writing just because they want to show up on Techmeme.

The opposite argument is that it’s good to give writers a stake in the success of their blogs, something that encourages them to take an interest in their community. Will that encourage them to “sell out?” Perhaps. But maybe it will also encourage them to respond to comments, link to others who are discussing the same issues, and so on. Even former Gawker editor Choire Sicha thinks it’s not such a bad idea.

The bottom line is that — as Scott Karp notes at Publishing 2.0 — rewarding writers based on traffic is both good and bad. In some cases it will make that writer more engaged, and in others it will simply encourage them to post on whatever cheap train wreck is going on around them, hoping for a quick traffic boost. But I think in the long run it is likely to make them more intimately involved in their blogs, and more interested in developing a relationship with their readers, and that’s a good thing.

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