Journalists Have Always Been Paid for Performance

Steve Rubel essentially puts the question today: is pay for performance journalism right or wrong?  He specifically discussed ZDNet which now reportedly compensates its writers, in part, based on how popular their blogs are.

Here’s an excerpt from Steve’s take:

Many of the ZDNet blogs are written by veteran journalists turned bloggers. So, I don’t anticipate that the performance based compensation changes their ethics one iota. Bloggers such as Foley, Dan Farber and David Berlind have been around a long time and they are highly ethical. They have a nose for news. And news is often what gets clicks. The newer voices on the site may have a taller trust hurdle to climb given this revelation.

To me, the debate is a moot.  Journalists have always been paid for performance.  Web traffic tracking simply makes it easier and more explicit.  But just because magazine or newspaper writers aren’t directly paid per click doesn’t mean that their employers don’t focus on it heavily when they set compensation numbers.

Perhaps the most obvious case is freelancers, who make up a significant share of the writers for many magazines.  These folks are paid based on anticipated interest from readers.  In this case, they are effectively paid in advance but the same ethics situation would apply.  Is a freelancer more likely to pitch an obscure story that may interest few, or shoot for one about a big company with broader appeal?

But it isn’t limited to freelance writers.  Staff writers for publications large and small are compensated in part based on how interesting their product is for readers.  Does anyone doubt that Walt Mossberg is compensated better than other tech writers because he is must reading at the Wall Street Journal?  Similarly, David Broder and Bob Woodward don’t make more than colleagues at the Washington Post simply because they have been there forever, but because their columns and articles are must-reading and sell papers. 

So let’s not get all exercised about the fact that bloggers are getting paid for traffic and may choose their topics accordingly.  All writers do it.