New York Times on the price of online journalism; broken pieces to return

Last month, The New York Times Magazine had a big piece on the price of online journalism… or at least content of some kind. I only dug into it this weekend.

It was a big piece riddled with stories of a handful of struggling entrepreneurs and a few buzz-y sites that haven’t prospered, but three paragraphs interested me most.

Let me share them below.

From the final page:

There is, of course, nothing wrong with giving readers what they secretly want every once in a while. The problem arises when you start producing articles solely for the id of the search engines, because some clicks are more valuable than others. This is the conclusion, at least, of Gawker Media’s Nick Denton, one of the first to pay writers according to their page views and now a high-profile skeptic of the practice. Denton built his company on the labor of freelance bloggers, but in the last year, he has moved to hiring them as full-time employees, with set salaries and bonuses­ tied to “unique visitors” — a metric that he says measures the writer’s ability to bring new readers into the fold. No sentimentalist, Denton says he changed the formula because he found that page-view incentives encouraged writers to deliver worthless rehashes rather than reporting and tabloid-style scoops — in other words, journalism.

“When we look at the numbers, it’s increasingly evident that the traditional blog post has become a complete commodity,” Denton says. When dueling algorithms compete to answer every human query, it turns out there’s value in telling people things they weren’t aware they didn’t know. To wit: Denton’s technology site Gizmodo recently bought a secret prototype iPhone that an Apple programmer lost in a bar and produced a post featuring pictures and the phone’s specs. Over two weeks, that item racked up nearly 10 million page views, an estimated 4.4 million of them from newcomers, bringing the site an enormous amount of attention (not the least of it from Apple’s lawyers and the police). Denton says his hope is that all the publicity attached to breaking big stories will translate into reader loyalty, brand equity and more lucrative advertising deals.

If that is the model of the future, then the new world could end up looking a lot like the old one, albeit with smaller newsrooms and new players. Politico replaces the Washington correspondent, TMZ is the gossip page and you can get coverage of your baseball team directly from MLB.com, which employs professional sportswriters. In cities like San Diego, New York and Washington, online start-ups are taking on metro news coverage, hoping to tap local ad markets. All of these publications have been hiring real, full-time employees — as have nontraditional providers like Yahoo, which is constructing a new political news site. Over the last few months, there has been a palpable uptick in both advertising and the journalism job market. The iPad, and its applications that restore magazines and newspapers to something like their traditional format, was greeted within the industry like the sight of a ship from a deserted island. [Source]

That everything was broken after the newspaper bubble burst, and now the pieces are coming together in other ways and may find themselves consolidating again in a leaner, more web-centric way is something I feel very strongly about.