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Gawker Deathwatch, Vive La Revolution!

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As a native of Hungary, Nick Denton is surely familiar with what [can happen] when people feel abused and taken advantage of by a heavy-handed autocratic leader. Alas, as the cliché goes, those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it. There’s a nice little rebellion underway right now within the Gawker Media empire — but, unlike the aborted rebellions of Soviet times, in this case the iron curtain is more like a venetian blind open to the world allowing all kinds of messy details to leak into public view. First there was the recent unlovely [public mutiny] of three of the flagship site’s writers and now, to start off the year on a bloody path, Paul Boutin has [posted] on Valleywag an internal memo that details the editorial changes underway at Gawker and the new pay structure that will accompany those changes. The leak is intended as a snarky backhand to Denton’s stated intention of transforming the Gawker sites into “newsier” destinations for more readers, where pageviews trump the value of any particular writer. But in providing the memo, Boutin has inadvertently (?) allowed anyone looking in a view into their business — from estimation of writers’ incomes to advertising strategies…

The memo details that, to this point, Gawker writers were paid a flat monthly fee on top of which they could earn $12 for each post they made. Under the new plan, the incentive for producing posts will be replaced with a plan that ties base pay to a set number of pageviews and the writer will receive a bonus only for pageviews that exceed that quota. An [article] in Business 2.0 mentioned that back in 2002 Gawker was paying then-editor Elizabeth Spiers a paltry $1,000 a month base. The Boutin memo indicates that over the past 5 years that base has skyrocketed to… $2,000 a month.

To get an idea of what a prolific editor could have been earning under the old and new pay regimes, I counted the bylines and pageviews of one of the soon-to-be departing editors for the month of December. This is what I came up with:

Old Pay Plan

Number of posts: 93
Pageviews: 509,019 (range: 209 to 28,432 mean: 5,473)

Estimated monthly earnings: $2000 base + 93 posts * $12 per = $3,116 per month

New Pay Plan

For a site with a “pageview rate” of $5/thousand pageviews
$2000 base fee demands 400,000 pageviews minimum

Number of posts: 93
Pageviews: 509,019 (109,019 above required pageviews)

Estimated monthly earnings: $2000 base + ((109,019 / 1000) * $5) = $2,545 per month (18% decrease)

The memo mentions $200 bonuses for “feature” posts (whatever that means) but says nothing about profit-sharing. One has to assume that prolific editors who have developed loyal readerships at one of the most established sites on the web are trying to get by in Manhattan on less than $40,000 a year (keep in mind that’s under $30K after deductions, and one bedroom apartments rent for $1,600 and up). What to make of the new strategy? The memo specifically refers to Digg and the way high-volume user-generated social sites have “changed the rules” — readers are overwhelmed by the volume of content on the web so volume alone is no longer valuable, hence a shift to fewer items of higher quality. Well, that’s the story anyway. But the memo also slams its writer’s tendencies to write for a clique:

Second, our objective is not merely to provide gratification for a writer, or amusement for their pals, but to appeal to the wider readership of a site, and to new readers who might discover it through Digg or Google or some other link. It’s fine to pen the occasional self-indulgent or self-referential item. But we’re not going to waste the editorial budget on them…

Sweet. In effect Denton is saying that the era of writers using his sites to foster a public persona (which might actually act to increase the value to them of working as wage slaves) and develop a circle of fans is over. Going forward the premium will be on producing linkbait that pulls in larger audiences who are more likely to make advertising productive. I’m betting that the loyal readers of certain Gawker sites don’t often act on advertising appearing on the sites. Much better for those who profit by Gawker Media to lure in the unwashed hordes who are more likely to click on ads. The logical extension of this strategy is a full-blown “Web 2.0″ play where writers are devalued completely and amateur reader/writers provide the “newsy” content. For free. Which may be why the value of [commenters] has been rising on their sites over the past year.

What will Gawker Media be like without writers? At the rate people are jumping ship we shouldn’t have to wait very long to find out.

UPDATE 1/4/07: Throw another log on the fire, er make that another body on the pyre. Richard Morgan, Gawker’s new TV “reporter” quits after one day. It took a whole day for him to realize where he was working. All the hilariously gory details [here]. Gawker Media, the gift to bloggers that just keeps on giving…

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