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January 19 2011

15:00

Seeking Alpha’s Premium Partnership Program and the evolution of paying for content

When the word dropped this weekend that the finance blog Seeking Alpha would begin paying its contributors, the news was met with both questions about its motives and concern about how the deal shakes out for writers.

The payment plan, called the “Premium Partnership Program,” provides contributors a rate of $10 for every 1,000 pageviews on stories submitted to Seeking Alpha “exclusively.” It’s a formula that makes sense on paper, particularly for a site that gets between 40-45 million pageviews a month: If exclusive stories garner high enough hits, the overall traffic helps the site — and writers get a payday.

The catch, of course — beyond the “exclusivity” clause — is that writers have to find the perfect alchemy of scoops and SEO-friendly subjects to gain a substantial cut. And already a few of Seeking Alpha’s contributors are saying that the math doesn’t add up. Reuters’s Felix Salmon, whose work appears on Seeking Alpha, offered up these numbers:

On average, I’ve been getting just under 48,000 pageviews per month. Which means that if I gave every single one of my blog entries to Seeking Alpha exclusively, then I’d still be earning on average less than $500 a month. And I’m a full-time blogger, unlike most Seeking Alpha contributors.

If most posts on Seeking Alpha get between 3,000 and 4,000 pageviews, that means that, under the partnership program, a writer would get a check for $30 or $40 per post.

It’s clear we’ve reached Stage 2 in the saga of how sites handle contributor content, as more outlets are trying to find a way to compensate writers. Stage 1 was the period when news sites traded on reputation (and maybe ego) in motivating contributors to submit content (“write for us and your name will be in front of the right people”). But as a sites grow, attracting more advertising dollars or at least more funding, the question for a number of writers becomes “how do I get a piece of the action?”

Many sites and writers employ fairly traditional freelancing models of compensation — flat rates per post — while others rely on variations in CPM rates. (Yahoo’s Contributor Network, for example, compensates writers at $2 CPM plus an upfront payment.) We’ve also seen slightly more elaborate schemes, like The Awl’s recent venture in profit-sharing. And of course there’s Demand Media, the subject of many a story about writers’ pay and working conditions.

When I spoke with Seeking Alpha’s CEO, David Jackson, last week, he told me that the site’s contributors were a mix of novice writers with backgrounds in the financial industries as well as established bloggers and newsletter writers. (Seeking Alpha has close to 4,000 contributors all told, including both individuals and other media properties like TechCrunch and Globe Investor, the investment site from Canada’s Globe and Mail.)

Before the partnership program, the payoff for writers was publicity for the work they published elsewhere. “We publish the article; we get traffic and drive leads to your business,” Jackson said in a phone conversation.

While that’s still the case, the money will sweeten the deal for the writers. “If they specialize in a particular sector, they become the authority on it and get lots of readership,” Jackson said. And that, in turn, will “make real money.”

Though he didn’t go into specifics, Jackson noted that writers have the potential to pull in a bigger take from pageviews than the site does from advertisers. Jackson told me they “view how much money [contributors] make as a sign of our success. If they do really well, it means we’re successful.”

The bottom line for the moment, though, is that freelancers and blog contributors are still not likely to pull in heavy dividends for their work — at least, as Salmon suggested, not enough for a full-time gig off any one website. Of course, the elephant in the room is The Huffington Post, which has an extensive network of unpaid contributors, and is in a universe far different than most sites, as Joseph Tartakoff points out. But out on the fringes, we’re seeing more of an evolution in the ways publishers are paying for the content they post online.

September 01 2010

14:41

The Awl gets a sister site, Splitsider, which will be its “newsy-voicey” compliment in covering comedy

It sometimes feels like all the good topics are taken online — it’s uncommon to find a promising but untrampled niche for a new website. The folks behind The Awl hope they’ve found one in a new site up in beta today called Splitsider. It’ll cover the comedy industry for a ready audience of comedy nerds/lovers, and it’s the first evidence of the Awl expansion plans we wrote about in June.

Last week Adam Frucci, who is going to head up Splitsider, said goodbye to his readers at the Gawker Media site Gizmodo. Reflecting on his four years there, he asked: “What other job pays you to test drug paraphernalia and sex toys, to create goofy videos and unscientific quizzes? No other job, that’s what.” But there is still plenty in store for him at his new gig, where his colleagues will include Gawker veterans Choire Sicha and Alex Balk.

I spoke with Frucci about why moving on to Splitsidder was so appealing, considering his success at Gizmodo. “I’ve been at Gizmodo for four years,” he told me, “but I was never going to run Gizmodo.”

He’s in the process of sorting out what kinds of posts he wants to write himself and which contributors he plans to tap for regular features. “It’s been a lot of back and forth with writers,” he says. “I want people to be excited about what they write about.” Contributors will be unpaid, at least at first. (When I asked if he can guarantee book deals, like the kind Awl contributor Chris Lehmann landed for his unpaid column called Rich People Things, Frucci deadpanned, “I promise 100 percent if you contribute, you’ll get a book deal.”) He says the core of the site will be a running stream of newsy posts from him about things like which shows and writers getting deals, plus columns on specific topics.

Sibling sites

The site will compliment The Awl, posting content that at least some Awl readers should find interesting. That cross-promotion will help push early readers to the new site. But it’ll have a slightly different tone: Publisher David Cho told me that if The Awl is all about voice, Splitsider will be all about showing they can do “newsy voicey.”

Cho told me that the combination of content opportunity and voice is what made this an appealing prospect. “To have a great writer and a topic that no one else owned, that’s a huge opportunity,” he said. “I think from a content perspective, it might even have more potential than the Awl.” This spring, The Awl was up to about 400,000 pageviews per day. The bread and butter of Splitsider will be the die-hard comedy nerd (“they have nowhere to congregate now,” Cho says), plus the casual reader.

Risk

Frucci and Cho are optimistic, but there’s obviously risk involved. Frucci’s contract offers him the perks of getting to build and shape the site, plus a share of site revenue. But, if the site doesn’t take off, there’s no base salary for him to rely on. His old job at Gizmodo paid him a base plus bonuses for big traffic.

Cho agreed there’s a risk, but said he wouldn’t push him into something he thought would definitely fail. He added that you pretty much need a sink-or-swim personality to make this kind of project work. If you’re looking for stability, “I don’t think that’s the type of person we’d want for a job like this,” Cho said. “That’s the type of person whose going to get burn out.”

Frucci mentioned his idea for the site to Cho, who had his eye out for talented writers and good ideas for sites. Why launch with Cho and share revenue rather than go it alone? “I have no experience launching a site or selling ads,” he told me. “Basically, it makes it possible to do.” Cho says he “can get him a significantly higher CPM than if he were trying to do it on his own.”

Cho told me back in June that he hopes to launch several new sites this year. He’s keeping his eye out for interesting ideas and great writers to lead them. The details on the other sites are under wraps, but Cho did say “in a lot of ways, this site is a pilot.”

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