Something to Think About Before You Click on a Post About Puke

Will the New Pay System at Nick Denton's Media Empire Change the Economics for Writing Talent?

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In January 1973, National Lampoon published what would become one of the most famous magazine covers of all time: A photograph of a cute pup with a gun held to its head, next to the headline "If You Don't Buy This Magazine, We'll Kill This Dog." Turns out that whoever wrote that line was a visionary. Almost exactly 35 years later, someone's finally adopted a somewhat finessed version of that MO, only it pertains not to the glossy world but to the blogosphere -- and it works from the inside out.
Nick Denton is a leader who could change the economics of the web -- for the worse.
Nick Denton is a leader who could change the economics of the web -- for the worse. Credit: Matt Haughey

It relates to a new compensation scheme, and it goes roughly like this: "If You Don't Click on This Post, We'll Kill This Blogger." Well, OK, not exactly -- but the blogger might lose the will to live, because her pay rises and falls in direct proportion to the number of people who click on her blog posts.

That edict came from Gawker Media owner Nick Denton, whose buzzy blogs -- from Manhattan-centric flagship Gawker to gadget-happy Gizmodo to D.C.-obsessed Wonkette and so on -- add up to a multimillion-dollar media empire. Basically, Gawker Media bloggers, from now on, get paid commensurate with their page views via a convoluted bonus system. As a Gawker Media executive noted in an in-house New Year's Eve memo, page-view count "can overstate the value of cheap items with superficial appeal but which damage a site's reputation. Nevertheless, it's the best measure we have, so we're going to use it."

Of course, leading up to this new pay scheme, Denton had been dealing with some widely reported personnel drama: In December, much of his Gawker editorial staff, including his managing editor, Choire Sicha, quit in quick succession -- for reasons that aren't entirely clear, but seem to have had something to do with soul-searching. Darkening the picture: the publication of a critical history of Gawker in the literary journal N+1 (executive summary: Gawker has become an evil empire that is no better than the big-media empires it mocks), which itself seemed precipitated by last fall's New York magazine cover story "Gawker.com and the Culture of Bile," by Vanessa Grigoriadis (executive summary: Gawker is gratuitously hateful).

Inevitable full (and tedious) disclosure: I used to regularly grab coffee with the lovely and talented Sicha when I used to live a few blocks from his New York apartment. The lovely and talented Grigoriadis was my very first hire when I was launching New York magazine's website, nymag.com, back in the '90s. And I'm somewhat friendly with the talented (and defiantly unlovely) Denton even as I somewhat fear him; roughly twice a year we get together to gossip about the media industry. Over a beer in December, in fact, just after Sicha quit, Denton revealed to me that he'd be installing himself as Gawker editorial chief, at least temporarily.

His tenure so far has been, to say the least, dicey. It didn't help that Denton introduced a grotesque new sort of Internet-101 feature -- a regular roundup of notorious web content, pedantically summarized by new Gawker blogger Nick Douglas -- in an effort to garner page views.

One such post discussed and linked to images and videos relating to sexual fetishes involving -- no kidding -- feces and vomit.

Now, Gawker famously has a robust community of witty "commenters," who tend to extend the legs of any given post by appending alternatingly brilliant and glib comments. In this case, though, as blogger Felix Salmon wrote, "The commenters finally revolted. They knew that every time they reloaded that page in order to continue their conversation, Nick Douglas' page views would go up. And so they moved their conversation over ... [to an] entry authored by [long-departed Gawker writer] Alex Balk [so] Nick Douglas won't get any bonus from their back-and-forth. But it's still Gawker, which means that Nick Denton gets advertising revenue from all those comments even if Nick Douglas doesn't get a bonus. And so one of the more frequent Gawker commenters simply decreed that the comment thread should move over to his Blogspot blog -- which, impressively, it did, with 782 comments so far."

Then again, the feces-and-vomit post has snared more than 23,000 views so far. Why should anyone care about all this? Well, because Denton is undeniably an industry leader. Just as his blogs have transformed the overall tenor of the larger media culture over the past few years, his bloodless new page-view compensation system will transform the economics of cyberspace beyond just the blogosphere. As Denton himself noted on his personal blog last fall, based on monthly unique visitors, "Gawker Media would be fourth-largest newspaper group online" -- which he illustrated with a chart putting his audience ahead of that of the Los Angeles Times' site and not too far below that of the Washington Post's. His blog network attracts millions of dollars from national brand advertisers, including Warner Bros., Amazon, Ford Focus, Hendrick's Gin, the Travel Channel and so on.

As one commenter on Denton's Silicon Alley gossip blog Valleywag deadpanned in response to Gawker Media's new compensation system and its potential for pandering to the lowest common denominator, "Reputation, schmeputation. Go low, people. Go really, really low."

Any way you look at it, Denton's new math is more than a bit unsettling. And it speaks directly to what it means to be a powerful and "respected" brand -- one that can continue to draw A-list advertisers and self-respecting readers and viewers -- in cyberspace.

As always, though, Denton probably knows exactly what he's doing. After all, in a world in which Perez Hilton and TMZ can be viable mass-media brands, what's a little poop and puke?

Just remember this: You are what you click on.
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