I’m finally getting paid by the click, more or less

My byline showed up at a new place this morning: Forbes, where I’m going to be covering the intersections of media, policy and technology. My first post unpacks AT&T’s probably-doomed attempt to boost its HBO Max streaming video service by exempting it from its data caps.

Writing about tech policy is nothing new for me, but this freelance client brings a different model of compensation, plus some self-inflicted dents to its reputation.

The publication I once knew as a glossy magazine that branded itself a “Capitalist Tool” did not cover itself with glory as it transitioned to the Web. It leaned way too far into the outside-contributor model under former editor Lewis D’Vorkin, flooding its pages with content churned out by writers who were often unvetted and unpaid and sometimes flat-out unqualified.

So when my friend Wayne Rash started writing there last year and encouraged me to come along, I had to quiz him at length about his experience. Then I talked to another recent addition to the site, analyst Carolina Milanesi, as well as one of its more senior contributors, tech journalist Larry Magid. They all pronounced Forbes a worthwhile outlet that was no longer a churnalism warehouse.

So I got on the phone with Dawn Chmielewski, the media editor there. I’ve known Dawn since she was covering tech at the Los Angeles Times when I was doing the same at the Washington Post, and seeing Forbes hire her last January had already raised my estimation of the place. She explained the steps they’d taken to professionalize their contributor system, including booting a bunch of the old contributors, as well as the pay structure.

That aspect, of particular importance to me, involves a minimum payment for five posts a month that would represent… a per-word rate I wouldn’t want to talk about. But traffic above a certain level brings a steady increase in income, and the page views that come from repeat visitors count for considerably more.

Aside from the short-lived micro-blogging platform Sulia, no other clients have paid me along these lines. But I can tell you that at almost every place I’ve written, including the Post, I’ve had editors cite my page views as a key metric in my value as a journalist and send me spreadsheets showing just how my stuff had done in recent months. And I’ve had editors turn down pitches explicitly because previous posts on the same topics did not get enough clicks.

Remember that every time you see journalists huff that they don’t get paid by the click. Stories get assigned on the basis of traffic all the time, and journalists can lose their jobs for the same reason. Making this a direct component of compensation is at least more transparent–as is the fact that each story at Forbes shows its page views above the headline.

As I write this, my debut only has 408 views. In the context of a Saturday-morning post that didn’t break news, I’d rate that as not great, not terrible. And I have time to figure this out, given that business at other clients has slowed or, in the case of Yahoo Finance, ground to a halt.

In six months, I may decide that this experiment–and its key benefit of letting me write and publish as I see fit instead of waiting for an editor to okay a pitch and then edit my copy–was worth it. Or I may put this down as another case of my successfully finding something that didn’t work. Either way, I suspect I’ll know a lot more about the dynamics of online readership after seeing my metrics move in real time on a site with an exponentially larger audience than this blog.

Why I don’t and (probably) won’t use an ad blocker

It will cost me a few hundred dollars to try iOS 9’s new support for ad-blocking tools, courtesy of that feature not working on my vintage iPad mini. (Thanks for not documenting that and other incompatibilities, Apple.) But even after I upgrade to an iPad mini 4, I probably still won’t treat myself to an ad-reduced mobile Web by paying for such popular content blockers as Crystal or Purify.

IiOS 9 ad blockers mentioned the reasons why in a comment on my Yahoo Tech post Tuesday, but the answer deserves a little more space.

It’s not about a sense of professional loyalty, although I would feel more than a little dirty undercutting the advertising revenue that helps news sites pay me and my friends in the business.

(Ars Technica founder Ken Fisher made that argument well in this March 2010 post.)

This is more a case of me trying to keep a little of the common touch online. In general, I stick with default settings so I will experience the same issues as the average Web user (also, I’m lazy). I will depart from defaults to keep my devices secure–that’s why Flash isn’t on this laptop–but installing extra apps to get a cleaner Web experience gets me too far from that ideal.

In particular, relying on ad blocking invites me to recommend sites without realizing their annoyance factor. If a site’s going to throw a sign-up-for-our-newsletter dialog before you can read every story, I don’t want to learn about that behavior afterwards from grumpy readers.

(My occasional client PCMag.com often presents that kind of newsletter dialog. And yet I gladly refer people there, because their journalists do good work. See, it’s complicated!)

I also need to know if my regular clients are getting obnoxious with the ads–remember, I was at the Post when an overload of ads and social-media widgets began to bog down everybody’s reading–on the chance that my complaint to management improves matters. You’ll tell me about that kind of problem, right?

My Sulia experiment, three weeks in

If you follow me on Twitter or you’ve liked my Facebook page, you may have spent the last three weeks wondering “What is this Sulia site and what is Rob doing there?”

Sulia logo

Fair enough. Sulia bills itself as a “subject-based social network” that “connects you to the top social sources on subjects you care about,” both by curating links to postings elsewhere and inviting contributors to post their own short updates.

The New York firm also provides curated feeds to news organizations; I first encountered it as a source for the “Live Topics” section in the Washington Post’s iPad app. It’s gotten some coverage from places like AllThingsD and Mashable but otherwise hasn’t risen to an “oh, that” level of recognition.

Anyway, back in August I got a pitch from Sulia inviting me to become a technology contributor. Its mention of compensation intrigued me, but then I spent most of the next month and a half traveling and I forgot about it until Sulia showed up in this blog’s stats in December. I inquired further; after some negotiation and the realization that I might need an extra outlet for my CES coverage, I signed on for a one-month trial.

Sulia posts should fill a gap between tweets and blog posts: you can’t write anything longer than 2,500 characters, headline included, and you can’t format it beyond adding an  image or a YouTube embed.  The headline and a link to the rest of each update then go out automatically on my Twitter and public Facebook feeds. It’s not Twitter’s microblogging but more along the lines of Tumblr-style mini-blogging–except that unlike those sites, Sulia pays contributors.

It’s not a huge sum. As a per-word rate, this stipend represents the second-worst I’ve accepted after my paltry WordAds income here. (Another Sulia contributor described it as “a bit of extra bourbon money”; I’m doing a little better than that each week, unless we’re talking seriously high-end hooch.) But it’s also infinitely more than the $0.00/word Twitter pays me, and I don’t have to bother with invoicing either. Hence my motivation to post a thought on Sulia that might otherwise require serializing over three or four tweets.

For example, I have used Sulia posts to:

Few of those items would have merited a story of their own for my clients at the time. Some could have surfaced here, but that would have involved more work–I can’t resist the urge to tinker with prose and its presentation using the tools available here–and even less income.

So in that sense, it’s worked well and slotted neatly into my workflow.

I’ve been less happy to see glitches deprive some updates of images I’d uploaded (it seems I found a Safari compatibility issue) and, less often, strip out line breaks or even some of my words. With no editing after posting, my only recourse is to delete an update and rewrite it.

I also need to work on my own approach: I’ve often found myself fiddling over Sulia updates as if they were mini-articles instead of really long tweets, and that same inability to focus has also led me to miss chances to jump on breaking news.

Three weeks in, I can certainly attest that I’m still figuring this out.

What about you? Do you find this exercise in compressed prose worth a click over from Twitter or Facebook?