Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Paying journalists for results

I tend to have a pretty optimistic outlook on the changes in journalism. Sure, this can be a confusing time. And of course, we're all facing pressures that we couldn't have imagined a few years ago.
But for me, the world of new media is one of endless opportunities rather than countless threats.
So it shouldn't surprise anyone that I'm not upset by the news that CNET has introduced a pay-for-performance system for some online writers. But I'm not so insensitive to suggest that no one should be upset. Because this could, once again, represent a fundamental shift in our careers.

First, let me take a moment to note the significance that this change is coming from CNET. The San Francisco-based company has been at the fore of a number of significant changes in the journalism model, including comparison-shopping tools and the use of editors in video reviews. And although CNET wasn't the first news operation in Second Life, it was certainly the first to have one of its reporters attacked by flying penises.
More importantly, CNET's article pages have become a model for Web writing and design. Take a look at this piece for example, and pay particular attention to the "High Impact" graphic. CNET uses that box to make the "nut" graf of print-style feature writing more Web friendly. And close observers of online journalism will have noted that the Wall Street Journal -- king of the "nut" graf -- has adopted the "nut" graphic for its online edition.

Now CNET may be taking the lead again by creating a new compensation system for writers at its ZDNet unit. (You can hear ZDNet writer Mary Jo Foley talk about the system in this podcast.)
In brief, ZDNet is paying its bloggers based on the number of clicks they receive -- rewarding writers who generate traffic.
That's likely to cause worry among some journalists, who fear that publishers will begin rewarding writers who "cater" to an audience by creating content that is popular but has little journalistic value.
But I agree with Steve Rubel that since the ZDNet blogs are written by "veteran journalists," it's unlikely "that the performance based compensation changes their ethics one iota." And I agree too with Scott Karp that for professionals in search of hits, "quality will increase your odds a lot more over the long term than pandering and sensationalism."

And that, in a nutshell, is why I'm not worried about pay-for-performance journalism. I don't expect it will lead to a race to the bottom. I don't expect it will cause publishers to replace high-end prose with low-brow content. Rather I expect pay-for-performance to become a way to reward the best among us -- those exceptional few writers that bring readers. And I see pay-for-performance as a way for forward-thinking publishers to keep their most valuable employees from striking out on their own in search of readers and rewards.

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