Publishers sour on traffic-based bonuses

Pay for performance, long a mantra of Corporate America, wormed its way into the ethos of digital media over the past decade. The idea was sound: Publishing is under more than ever, with falling CPMs, so it makes sense to financially reward writers based on the traffic they attract.

But now, some publishers are pulling back on the practice. Gawker, an early proponent, publicly disavowed the practice this month, and Vox asked an acquired site to eschew the practice.

“Maybe it is also a recognition that we can never play the viral traffic game as shamelessly as BuzzFeed,” Gawker CEO Nick Denton wrote in a memo he posted online earlier this month. “We care too much about our reputation among other writers, and too little about the concerns of venture capital and corporate investor.”

Gawker isn’t alone. Curbed, a network of blogs on subjects like real estate and food, abandoned its pay for traffic bonus scheme after Vox Media acquired it in 2013. Vox frowns on the approach.

“People respond to incentives,” said Lockhart Steele, the founder of Curbed who is now Vox Media editorial director. “We want people to do the best work we can do, and that can get screwed up by a monetary incentive that says the only thing that matters is traffic.”

Despite all the hand-wringing over pay-for-traffic, many of the Web’s biggest new publishers, including BuzzFeed and Vox, don’t pay reporters bonuses based on their traffic performance, partially because of concerns about how the model affects editorial decisions. Online publishing, the thinking goes, has gone too far in eroding the wall between publishers’ editorial and business sides. While reporters were once protected from the rigors of the publishing business, the widespread availability of metrics has made them impossible to ignore.

Still, Steele, who was Gawker’s managing editor from 2004 to 2007, said that the idea of compensating writers isn’t inherently problematic. Gawker, for example, relied on it for years in part because it was operating on a shoestring and couldn’t afford to pay all writers full-time salaries. “It went wrong when they held onto it for too long,” he said, adding that Gawker has attracted enough quality writers that the traffic part of the equation often takes care of itself.

Of course, some publishers including Forbes Media and Complex Media are still sticking by them. Forbes, one of the model’s vanguards, still pays its outside contributors based on how many repeat visitors their articles get. In its model, a returning reader is worth more than a reader who clicks a writer’s work once. The company says this encourages contributors to create quality content over one-off hits.

“We use this model because I believe that what the audience thinks and does matters,” said Forbes Media chief product officer Lewis DVorkin. “It’s not just about what an editor thinks about a reporter’s work but, it’s also what an audience thinks about it.” DVorkin added that Forbes is also experimenting with time-based metrics such as dwell time and scroll depth, which could work their way into contributor compensation. Forbes, it should be noted, doesn’t extend that same performance-compensation model to its staff writers, who get a salary but no traffic-based bonuses.

But even the publishers who don’t dabble in traffic-based compensation still understand the importance of traffic data. At the Verge, for example, Vox’s technology and culture site, editor-in-chief Nilay Patel recently started sharing traffic stats with writers for the first time since the site’s launch in 2011.

“I’ve never met a journalist that wasn’t interested in pageview stats,” Steele said. “There’s no shame in being interested in that information.”

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