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While other media sites are struggling to increase page views, Gawker's Nick Denton is willing to get traffic the old fashioned way: by paying for it.
Major newspapers are contemplating putting their content behind a pay wall and testing the waters with micropayments, but Denton is committed to making money from free ad-supported content. And to do that, his sites will live and die by their page views.
So far, that's working well for the company. While online ad revenues have fallen on average by 5% this year, revenues at Gawker have increased 35%. To keep that trend going, Denton will return to giving his writers traffic bonuses. He's also reiterated his interest in paying tipsters for traffic earning scoops.
He explained in a memo to staffers:
"Each writer on a site will have a (pretty demanding) individual pageview target…That target will be proportional to a writer’s base compensation. i.e. the more your monthly pay, the more people you’re expected to reach. If you go 10% over target, you get a 10% bump in pay. The target will rise as the traffic of the site as a whole increases."
More than that, Denton wants to boost page views by encouraging paying sources for tips to the site. He tells NiemanLab:
“By bringing back pageview pay, we also open up the possibility of web-style checkbook journalism.”
Gossip publications have long paid sources for news, and the TMZ website proved the profit motif of that model when it scooped the international news scene with its exclusive on Michael Jackson's death last month. The site is known for developing sources all over Los Angeles — and often paying them. In this instance, it got the news of Jackson's death even before it was registered at the morgue.
Gawker is hoping to follow suit as a place known for rewarding its viewers for helping to increase the site's traffic numbers. In an environment that is dependent on page views for revenue, this is going to stiffen the competition for traditional news even further. Sites like CNN, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times were struggling to keep up with TMZ on the Jackson scoop and none of them were able to get confirmation for over an hour after his death — an eternity online.
TMZ's Editor Harvey Levin tells The New York Times: “There’s still this residual but not yet vestigial instinct to think ‘Oh, it’s just TMZ, let’s wait for The Associated Press or The New York Times or The Los Angeles Times before we can say it’s true... i don’t think in, say, five years, that will be the case.”
While traditional news outlets frown on the process of paying tipsters, Gawker and TMZ stand to gain a most important asset from paying tipsters: increased traffic.
In 2007 Gawker owner property Jezebel paid $10,000 for an unretouched cover of the original version of a Faith Hill photograph that appeared on the cover of Redbook. The post garnered over 2 million views, which Denton thinks was more than worth the outlay. Furthermore, the incentive of payment for good tips encourages readers to submit other items as well.
Denton tells All Things D's Peter Kafka: “I’d love to have [TMZ's] reputation — as the place you go if you want to make a buck.”
Unfettered by the journalistic rules that inhibit old media, this is yet another weapon that online publications can use to compete against more established brands. And Denton isn't worried about keeping up appearances in the world of journalism. As he told the Washington Post last month:
“We don’t seek to do good. We may inadvertently do good. We may inadvertently commit journalism. That is not the institutional intention.”