Traffic is a good thing for media companies to pay attention to — except when it isn’t

One of the biggest differences between online media and traditional media is that the former is so much easier to measure — every eyeball, every pageview and every click can be quantified and tracked and analyzed in real time. But is that a good thing or a bad thing? And should journalists, or writers of any kind, be compensated based on how much traffic or engagement they bring in? Those kinds of questions trigger everything from excitement to horror in media circles.

New York Times media writer David Carr looked at this phenomenon in a recent story, along with a few examples of outlets that are trying to reward their writers based on engagement-related metrics. According to documents obtained by Williamette Week, a newspaper called The Oregonian is instituting a new program that will require journalists to post a certain number of items per day, as well as posting and responding to comments, and will reportedly tie as much as 75 percent of their job performance evaluation to reader numbers.

For some, this movement is a welcome admission by media organizations that they need to actually care about what their readers want, instead of just shoving content at them. But there are just as many who see it as the first step on a slippery slope that ends with an avalanche of Business Insider-style slideshows and BuzzFeed-style “listicles” illustrated with LOLcats. As Carr puts it:

“Depending on your perspective, the trend could be a long overdue embrace of the realities of the publishing landscape, or one more step down the road to perdition.”

How do you measure actual engagement?

PayPal, cash, pre-paid

In the online-first media world, tying a bonus or other compensation to reader engagement and traffic-based metrics is already fairly commonplace, and seems to be spreading: as Carr mentions, is launching a new program to attract writers and will pay them based on pageviews, and The Daily Caller is introducing a hybrid scheme in which writers get a salary but can also win bonuses that are based in part on traffic metrics.

Gawker Media is also introducing a new program to attract writers known as “Recruits” via its new Kinja commenting/blogging platform, and these new contributors will also be compensated based on the amount of traffic their posts get. Gawker used to have a similar system for its staff writers, but gave it up in favor of an approach that turned one writer at a time into a traffic-generating machine — the most recent being Neetzan Zimmerman, who generated as many as 15 million pageviews a month single-handedly before leaving to join Whisper.

And while Carr doesn’t mention it, Forbes magazine was one of the earliest adopters of this kind of engagement-based compensation scheme, when it expanded its website to include non-staff bloggers (it now has more than 1,200 contributors, including advertisers and brand marketers).

What’s interesting about Forbes‘ approach is that the site doesn’t just reward bloggers based on raw user activity, but instead tries to tie compensation to something that is closer to actual reader engagement or loyalty: writers for the site can get a certain financial reward (the amount of which varies) for each unique visitor, but they get 10 times that amount for a returning visitor — the theory being that those visitors are more loyal, and therefore more valuable.

Traffic whoring isn’t a long-term strategy

Nick Denton

Gawker founder Nick Denton was an early adopter of rewarding writers based on traffic, but he eventually decided this approach was too blunt an instrument and encouraged bloggers to become “traffic whores,” posting anything that might drive clicks. Gawker hasn’t given up measuring its audience by any means — it still has a large TV screen in the office that tracks the posts with the most readers, and posts its monthly statistics publicly — but the focus is more on repeat visitors and other measures of engagement rather than pageviews.

In one sense, it’s good that even traditional media companies like Advance Publications (which owns The Oregonian) are starting to think about the impact their content is or isn’t having on the readers they are trying to reach. At the same time, however, short-term traffic metrics aren’t always a good indicator of the value of a story — and what Columbia Journalism Review likes to call the “hamster wheel” approach to journalism has a lot of potential downsides, not just for media but arguably for society as a whole.

Another thing Carr doesn’t mention is that tying compensation to traffic the way The Oregonian wants to assumes that traffic numbers can be relied on as a measurement of actual readership. But as the Wall Street Journal noted in a recent story, estimates are that as much as one third of all web traffic is generated by automated clickfarms and other “bots,” and therefore has nothing to do with whether actual human beings saw or cared about the content.

The ad industry is the one driving the bus

For me personally, while it’s fascinating and often instructive to track how readers are responding to what you wrote, it’s also extremely easy to get sucked into the real-time crack habit created by a tool like Chartbeat — so easy that I can understand why outlets like The Verge try to keep such tools away from their writers as much as possible. BuzzFeed founder and viral-content expert Jonah Peretti argued that this can lead to what he called the “side-boob” problem:

“If you are a slave to the numbers, then you start creating more stuff like that and more stuff like that and more stuff like that, and pretty soon you will have a site full of trash and salacious garbage.”

Of course, the largely unspoken context behind the media’s obsession with traffic numbers is that the advertising industry — which so many outlets still rely on for the bulk of their revenue — also remains far too obsessed with large traffic numbers, and until that changes there isn’t going to be much point in coming up with new engagement-based statistics. Many publishers will likely choose to bite the bullet and pump out a few more slideshows or quizzes instead.

Post and photo thumbnails courtesy of Thinkstock / Chuyu and Marius Bugge for Playboy