Performance based pay for journalists will grant serious market power to influential reporters. 
Reading David Carr’s piece on a trend toward performance-based pay for journalists, my first reaction was to worry about the poor souls who won’t make rent unless their stories bring home clicks, engagement and revenue for their employers. Cue head shaking and predictions of the future of news being a quizzicle about cats.
But… this trend might not all be bad for journalists and other content creators. Looking at the big trends in social distribution of content, this trend could bring a shift in market power to the corner of the people who make the news sausage.
First, if you have a large number of followers on social networks, and a percentage of them will reliability click on what you share, you’re an instant revenue maker for an advertising-based publisher. Your level of followers on social networks is there for all to see, and can be assessed by publishers who might start competing to be your employer.
Secondly, the level of virality of your content is increasingly transparent. With services like our own Spike and Creators Leaderboard, your employer’s competition can quickly figure out if you are publishing the most shared and socially engaging content. And maybe make a better offer.
Thirdly, writers, not publications, are owning their stories. As Matt Ingram points out, smart publishers are encouraging their writers to engage more with readers in comments, and on social networks. When they do, they become the face of the stories, the face of the issues, and the newspaper masthead recedes into the background.
With these pressures at play, an influential writer can start naming their price, and start moving up the value chain, and capturing more of the value they create when you publish great content and engage well with their audience.
Say your last 100 articles got 1,000 shares a piece on average, and you have 55,000 Twitter followers. When you come to a publisher, you’re very likely bringing a steady revenue stream.
Other publishers, who can monetise the same audience at a higher price, will compete for you too. And so you can start engaging those better offers, and capturing more of the value you create. The power balance between publisher and the published will tilts toward the content maker.
We’ve seen forms of this thinking previously with Gawker’s commitment to link pay with pageviews. That proved to be a too easily exploited metric, but the site reconsidered their approach more recently, with a new focus on unique hits. Similar moves towards incorporating performance data into pay rates have been seen at Forbes. Time on page engagement can also be aded into the mix.
Meanwhile, new Dutch journalism project De Correspondent allows subscribers to pay for access to the work of individual writers, recognising that people will pay for niche coverage. It’s this factor that allowed former Daily Beast columnist Andrew Sullivan (who has over 107,000 followers on Twitter) to set up his own subscription based blog, The Dish.
If you’re an extremely popular journalist or writer, soon you might be able to name an extremely high salary based on it being a percentage of your content performance. If a publisher goes to cap it, head to a different publisher. You’ve got market power. Those hundred thousands followers might be worth a million a year to the right person.
Of course, all of this might mean great news for the influencers, who can leverage their social networks and their loudspeakers. It won’t work quite so well for journalists and other content creators who, for example, shun social networks.
The “winner takes it all” phenomenon that’s dominating first world economies might spread right into journalism. Instead of steady career progression up the ranks of newsrooms, we’ll have a “journalistic 1%”, able to name their price, and the rest competing to get their names and stories out there.
However, with more of the pie slipping onto the plates of the content creators in aggregate, it’s likely that many writers who engage and create good things will do well from this “maybe-trend”.
Publishers, time to start treating your journalists like the precious resources they are!
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