Confessions of a Slideshow Writer

Michael Estrin is the author of “Murder and Other Distractions,” a novel set in a content farm where clicks matter way too much.

You’ve probably clicked on my work. I’m a journalist and a writer. I cover consumer finance, digital marketing, law, and a lot of other miscellaneous subjects that aren’t easily categorized into beats. I write news stories, long-form journalism and, increasingly, slideshows.

Recently, a friend asked me why I write “those annoying slideshows” that he always “hates” himself for clicking on because he feels compelled to click all the way through to the last slide where, inevitably, he realizes that he’s been “duped” for the umpteenth time. It’s simple: Slideshows pay almost double my other work.

One of my best clients pays 50 cents per word for news stories. The stories feature original reporting from multiple sources. But because my editors know that you won’t click to the second page, they cap my word count at 800 words, meaning my maximum pay is $400.

Slideshows are a different story entirely. They still pay 50 cents per word, but they can run as long as 11 eleven slides. (For whatever reason, the same readers who won’t click to page two of an article are often game to click all the way through to slide 11 of a slideshow). The layout in a slideshow forces us to use a smaller word count on each slide, but the total word count is capped around 1,600 words. That means a slideshow can pay as much as $800.

At first glance, you’d probably say that seems fair because I’m writing more. Sure, there are pros and cons to paying per word, but if you accept the premise that the per-word metric is a decent yardstick for time and difficulty, then 1,600 words should fetch roughly double the amount I get paid for writing half that amount. But if you buy that, you’ve probably never written a slideshow.

Slideshows can, and do, feature original reporting. Writing these slideshows is exactly like writing a news story but with one critical difference. Instead of being concise, my goal is to stretch out information into its longest possible form.

When my editor says, “I think you can make this its own slide,” I jump for joy a little because it means an extra $75 or $100 for very little additional work. After all, I’ve already done the same amount of reporting that I do for a news story, but because it’s a slideshow, filler is my friend. You, the reader, get the same information, but it requires more clicks. The publisher gets more money because the advertisers think you’re really engaged, and obviously you are engaged if you clicked all the way through to the last slide, right? Right. I get rewarded for being verbose, which is no way to pay a writer.

And then there’s the derivative slideshow. These slideshows don’t require any original reporting. Instead, sourcing is a matter of citing to credible online resources. (What passes for credible varies by publisher, but the standards are actually more rigorous than your worst fear and less rigorous than anything I’d call real journalism.) At best, these slideshows can reframe a topic in a fresh, insightful way. That’s a good thing, and there is value there. But at worst, they are an example of the aggregation economy at work because they bring nothing new to the reader and simply repurpose or rehash work done by others.

These slideshows are the simplest content I write, and they just so happen to pay the most. Like most writers, I’m not a “business guy,” but I’m pretty sure that makes these slideshows my most profitable product.

Slideshows are great for traffic, but they’re usually terrible for readers.

It galls me that slideshows pay more and require me to do less. If we’re talking entertainment content, the slideshow is often annoying because the format is usually tedious and seldom rewarding. (There are a lot of reasons people read and share BuzzFeed articles, but I suspect that site’s listicle-style scroll goes a long way toward giving readers content without causing them to feel cheated.) If the slideshow contains news content, the format is even more pernicious because it dilutes that product into a news-like substance that looks and tastes like the real thing, but has a fraction of the calories.

This is all about the pageviews. When advertisers buy on pageviews, they’re telling publishers that they better gin up their numbers if they want to make any money. Publishers pass that word along to their editors, who in turn tell writers that they want to see more pitches for slideshows.

I write these slideshows because they pay more. It’s that simple. But if you’re a media buyer, you should know that slideshow content can be some of the cheapest stuff out there, and not in a good way.

Image via Shutterstock

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