Page-views as metric of journalistic quality

Paul Raven @ 15-03-2010

GalleyCat quotes a speech at the Copyright Clearance Centre’s copyright conference by Gaby Darbyshire, Gawker Media’s COO of finance, legal, operations & business development, in which she discussed the recent change in pay structure wherein Gawker writers are remunerated in proportion to the page-views garnered by the articles they authored:

“When we started paying our writers by the page-view (bonuses based on page-views), everybody started talking about how there would be a race to the bottom–how we’d be writing about nothing except Paris Hilton sex tapes. The absolute opposite has occurred, because at the end of the day, you don’t get a sustained growth in audience [and] in the success of your content, without producing quality.”

She concluded: “What our writers discovered–even though they were scared to start with (they were like, ‘oh my god, we have to find big scoop-y stories)–was that the diligently researched feature type good stuff that’s original and new; that’s what works. That’s what they are incentivized to produce, and we can measure exactly what is successful and what is not–which newspapers, by the way, never could, because you don’t know who is throwing away what section of the paper.”

It’s evidently safe to say that the policy hasn’t done Gawker’s traffic stats any harm… but the issue here is one’s definition of quality*. If quality writing is simply ‘writing that ever-greater numbers of people want to read’, then I guess Gawker has found the secret recipe for success.

I suppose it marks me as some sort of intellectual elitist, but I’m inclined to think that quality and popularity are not correlative in that particular way… which sits awkwardly at odds with my general belief in market forces. If there had never been a market for quality journalism, then we’d never notice having less of it; on the other hand, if we can recognise (or at least worry about) a decline in the amount of quality journalism available, that implies there’s still a demand for it, albeit in smaller volume than the demand for titillating tabloid gossip. It’s all very well chasing “scoop-y” stories, but a scoop about Paris Hilton isn’t of the same worth as a scoop about, say, government corruption, corporate misdeeds and so on. Not in my world, anyway.

An therein lies the rub. It’s different strokes for different folks, in other words; if all you want is page-views and the ad revenue they bring, then by all means write for page-views, because the readers are hungry. Personally, that editorial approach turns me right off (the only Gawker property I follow is Lifehacker, and even that’s been in something of a decline since Gina Trapani stepped away from the steering-wheel), so the question is whether the simple page-views model will work for ‘quality’ journalism… and if it won’t (as seems to be the case), how should it compete with populist sensationalism?

Surely, if web publishing has such superior feedback and analysis data by comparison to print as Darbyshire suggests, there must be a way to make it pay and scale… unless the cynics are right, and proper investigative journalism really has always been subsidised by celebrity gossip and scaremongering.

[ * Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, anyone? ]