Paying starving journalists will be the death of good journalism

I may have to create a whole new category for compensation of online journalists.

Edward Wasserman, a veteran newsman and a journalism professor at Washington & Lee University, flattered me a bit by picking up on a blog post I wrote in late December; some thoughts on the same topic from Editor on the Verge Yoni Greenbaum; and a piece by Michael Hirschorn in Atlantic Monthly magazine that compares the most emailed stories list on the Web sites of the Washington Post, L.A. Times and New York Times to those newspapers’ front pages. (If emailed stories are a proxy for reader interest, Hirschorn found readers and editors agree less than a fourth of the time. And he said the readers favored “noncommodified news,” or unique content.)

Wasserman take on chasing page views (or readers) appeared in a column in the Miami Herald today. He characterizes paying more based on a writer’s Web traffic as “popularity pay.” The money graph:

The problem with online Popularity Pay is it that it mistakes journalism for a consumer product, and conflates value with sales volume. Journalists don’t peddle goods, they offer a professional service, a relationship. The news audience renews that relationship to get information and insight on matters it trusts journalists to alert it to, even though the news may be disquieting or hard to grasp.

He continues:

What’s more, the public routinely benefits mightily from stories that few people bother reading. Such is the power of exposure.

I agree with much of what Wasserman says, but the fact is reporters, editors and even distinguished journalism professors, I suspect, are paid widely different amounts, presumably based on their value to their employers and market forces. Using the razor precise metrics of the Web to help determine that value would seem inevitable — and if done correctly. a positive change  I also believe that being focused on being relevant to readers is one key to the long term success of news organizations.

At my newspaper, we have been distributing daily top 10 lists of articles based on page views to the entire newsroom for a year or more. The lists are not used for compensation and do seem to provide instant market insights about what readers found interesting.

Wasserman did get a sharp rebuke from Lucas Grindley, who had a thoughtful piece on an ideal online compensation system, with a number of comments, here.

My previous posts (which include a number of links to others) are:

Incentivising is a very bad word, but maybe a good idea (1/2/2008)
Readership incentives (1/1/2008)
Pay ’em what they’re worth? (12/31/2007)
Your writing’s pretty good; how’s your CPM? (12/30/2007)

Obviously, this has struck a nerve. What’s your take?

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Updated Again: Wow, lots of blogoshere react: