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Pay Per View

Pay Per ViewNovember 10: Many traditional terms that were once the norm in newsrooms have now been replaced with phrases like “unique visitors per month,” and “search engine optimization.” And while the word “hits” is just as casually tossed around, to some journalists, being on the receiving end of many Web hits means pay day.

Over the last few months, page views and dollar signs have become synonymous at some news outlets. A July article in the New York Times reported that page views at Bloomberg News and Gawker Media helped to influence a reporter’s wages. Meanwhile, MediaShift’s Mark Glaser pointed out in a recent article that the same is true at Examiner.com, which “pays contributors based on a ‘black box’ calculation that includes page views and traffic to the story.”

Some outlets track online traffic for rewards and incentives. Other newspapers like the Christian Science Monitor – which sends out an e-mail detailing which stories have received the most page views each day – use the information as feedback. “It would be the same as a reporter noting that his story was on page one of the newspaper or on page 16 of the newspaper,” said Christian Science Monitor editor John Yemma. “It just tells you something about the importance of the story in the eyes of editors, or in the case of page views, in the eyes of the public.”

But readers’ opinions cannot be the ultimate factor in choosing what to write, Yemma noted. “Knowledge of page views is important feedback but it doesn’t dictate your next assignment,” he says. “You cannot separate relevance from news. What people are thinking about is important but it’s not the only thing that’s important. There are external events, like the Middle East peace conference, that we cover and it’s not like we make a decision about whether we cover that or not based on traffic. Do we want traffic on it? Yes, but you still have to make decisions based on pure news judgment.”

The paper’s decision to focus on news as opposed to traffic doesn’t seem to have done any damage. Since moving its daily publication from print to online in April 2009, the website’s page views have risen to 20 million from 6 million in one year, while monthly unique visitors also increased 6 million from 2 million.

As for rewarding writers for page views, Yemma says the Christian Science Monitor has never considered it. “I think it depends on your model,” he explained. “If you’re with Associated Content or Demand Media and traffic is the point of the realm, if that’s the way your model is constructed, well I think that’s fine. It’s not our model and it’s not the model of other news organizations.”

One of those other news outlets is the New York Times. According to the New York Observer, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said at a 2008 conference that although the Times-owned About.com partly pays writers based on traffic, it’s not something that the paper does: “At the Times that’s not going to be the case, because quite frankly a Supreme Court reporter isn’t worse than a restaurant reviewer. And a restaurant reviewer is going to get more page views. More unique users. That’s just the way it is in this world. And we don’t want to set our journalists in that mode.”

Despite not joining the trend of rewarding reporters per page views, these media outlets are still embracing other developments in the online evolution. “I wouldn’t sum us up as holding on to the old guard,” Yemma said. “I think we’re in that mixed model that most traditional news organizations like ours are in, where we’re acculturating ourselves to Web metrics and best practices on the Web, such as search engine optimization. And we’ve altered the way we do business. We write shorter and faster a lot of times for the Web than we used to. So we have certainly made a lot of changes but we have to balance them with our mission and our desire not to just become an organization that is simply chasing page views.”

— Lauren Cohen

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