There are a number ways to describe the headline of this post — sensational, trolling, obnoxious, pandering, link bait. I wrote it like that on purpose, of course, to make a point. The feedback loop on content is accelerating at a breakneck pace. YouTube can spread video content as fast as prime time TV. Digg routinely crashes servers unprepared for the avalanche of traffic. And AdSense makes it possible for anyone to experience first hand the intimate relationship between traffic and dollars.
The inevitable result for media companies, who are having an increasingly tough time selling “bundles” of content, is to start paying their content creators based on how much traffic each discrete piece of content can draw. Steve Rubel highlighted ZDNet’s introduction of a pay-for-performance system:
ZDNet’s pay-for-performance blogging system raises some interesting questions. For example, will a blogger favor writing a sensational post that is likely to get more clicks over one that perhaps is less sexy and is based on, say, a press release? News value and clicks often go together, but as we’ve seen on collaborative sites like digg, sensationalist rumors sometimes are more popular.
Fundamentally, this is nothing new. “Yellow journalism” is a century old, and “sweeps week” for broadcast TV has been around for decades. As Dan Gillmor points out, supermarket tabloids have long played it close to the line on sensationalizing for dollars.
But never have the economic realities of content been so urgent and pervasive. As Nick Carr observed:
All businesses and all workers tailor what they do in response to economic incentives, and a shift in the way publishers and journalists make money means a shift in what gets written and what gets published.
So are we all, independent bloggers and mainstream media journalists alike, going to turn into pandering, lowest-common-denominator chasing, sensationalist traffic whores? Do we do whatever it takes, sell our souls, to get traffic?
Well, for one thing, if I wrote headlines like this all the time, people would soon get sick of it and stop reading what I write. Sensational content is manipulative, and people don’t like to be manipulated. Fool me once…etc. The occasional bit of trolling or sensationalism may be a useful short term tactic, but it’s not likely to be a sustainable publishing strategy — unless of course you are in the supermarket tabloid business.
That bit of prudence notwithstanding, it’s likely that pay-for-performance journalism will test the extremes before the pendulum starts to swing back. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Never have so many individual content creators had so much power, rather than being just cogs in a large editorial machine, but with that new power, it’s inevitable that they’re going to break stuff.
Still, I think the pendulum will inevitably swing back. Quality and standards are not a passing fad or a relic of old media economics. If you write good stuff, it’s not guaranteed to get traffic, but quality will increase your odds a lot more over the long term than pandering and sensationalism.
As institutional journalists are given an incentive to follow the siren song of traffic, independent bloggers might have an opportunity to distinguish themselves by holding the line on quality and standards. Which is not to say that news organization journalists will go tripping over that line en mass — it’s more about their facing the temptations that independent bloggers have long faced every time they write a post.
Being exposed to the raw economics of content is an equalizing force — everything that is published, whether by a small blog or a huge media company, is “naked in the marketplace,” as Nick put it.
Read me, click on me, link to me — PLEASE!!!!!!!
Scott Karp blogs and writes the occasional in-your-face headline at Publishing 2.0.