If all you want is clicks, open a porn site

The Oregonian plans to tie reporter’s performance evaluations and pay to the number of online page views of their stories. The goal, according to a presentation made to reporters, is to increase both total unique page views and page views in particular sections, such as sports, entertainment and business.

If all a site is seeking is page views, it might as well just shift to porn. After all, that’s where the real traffic is.

Even though The Oregonian will be joining a growing list of news sites using content metrics to influence coverage, pay and performance, great peril lies ahead.


It used to be that a newspaper story’s readership and impact were hard to measure. The paper knew its paid circulation and where its subscribers lived, but whether the general audience, or specific key influencers, were reading particular stories and getting engaged in them was a mystery.

Digital journalism has changed all that. Now a news organization can measure precisely the web traffic a particular story generates, allowing the readership of individual reporters and the appeal of certain types of stories to be measured.

In the new dynamic, reporting is being evaluated following the principles of crowdfunding, where success is measured by how much money your online pitch attracts.

The problem, however, is that popularity at an online news site isn’t necessarily the equivalent of quality. A digital story on a celebrity, accompanied by an amusing picture and a reader quiz, might attract a lot of hits, or be great “click bait” as the online world says, but that doesn’t mean it was worth doing.

Equally, a well-written deeply researched story on damaging political chicanery might draw page views only from a small number of public policy aficionados, putting the reporter at a disadvantage in the pay and performance sweepstakes.

There’s no doubt that audience metrics are valuable, and are going to play an increasingly important role in helping traditional newspapers survive. The issue is whether they will be used wisely and to the public good.

As Raju Narisetti, senior vice president, strategy, for News Corp. said recently in a Poynter.org piece, Editors continue to have a key gatekeeper role to play even in this era of promiscuous audiences, even when they need to become gate-openers. Part of that is exercising good judgment. And if we didn’t do that, stories on Syria, the U.S. fiscal cliff and even the NSA wouldn’t continue to get the play they currently get on our home pages, especially if such decisions were purely based on following cues from reader-engagement metrics.”

Click-based news also doesn’t necessarily translate into public attention. Tony Haile the CEO of Chartbeat, a data analytics company, recently argued in Time.com that more sophisticated measurement of reader engagement is necessary. What’s critical to understand, he said, is a reader’s attention. “… writers living in the Attention Web are creating real stories and building an audience that comes back,” he said.






Sometimes it pays to go with the crowd

By Bill MacKenzie

It seems like nearly everybody is trying to raise money for their personal use through online “crowdfunding.” It’s clearly not just for start-up businesses.

Crowdfunding — funding a project by raising many small amounts of money from a large number of people — is exploding in Hillsboro, throughout Oregon and across the United States.

Even Caroline Channing, the tall blonde in the TV show “2 Broke Girls,” is a believer. In a recent episode, she went on a crowdfunding website, gofundyourself.com, in an attempt to raise $1,500 for a new pair of pants.

If you believe in the wisdom of the crowd, the Internet is bursting with opportunities to join others investing in people.

Keith Merrow of Hillsboro recently sought to raise $15,000 on a crowdfunding website, Indiegogo.com. His band, Conquering Dystopia, wanted to use the money to record an album.

In just 45 days, his campaign raised $35,320, more than double his goal, from 792 contributors, some as far away as Australia.

Typical of arrangements on Indiegogo, contributors got no financial return on their investment, but could pick a gift based on the amount of their donation. A $10 donation spurred a digital download of the album; a $500 donation earned a VIP dinner with band members at the Hard Rock Cafe in Seattle.

Matt Peterson of Hillsboro tried to raise $3,000 on another crowdfunding website, GoFundMe.com, so he could go to a 28-day intensive wrestling camp. He reached $1,750 from 16 people in six months, then secured the rest from family.

At GoFundMe, participants usually raise money for themselves, a friend or a loved one for purposes such as medical expenses, education costs, volunteer programs and youth sports. Fundraisers can keep every donation they get or get the donations only if they reach a pre-set goal.

A different approach is offered by the crowdfunding website pave.com, an online funding platform that allows individuals to support promising high achievers. Pave claims it’s “a new investment option, not a donation.” If the investees achieve financial success, they agree to share that with their investors.

Oren Bass, who co-founded Pave in 2012, said his motivation was basic: “To provide people with what I consider a better financing option than debt — one that allows risk-taking plus the collaboration and support of the community; and to build something with both social and macro-economic impact.”

At Pave, the percentage of income an investee commits to sharing with investors varies depending on the amount of funding raised, along with how much the recipient is expected to earn.

Stephanie Walker, an engineering student at Oregon State University, recently launched a campaign on Pave. She hopes to raise $50,000 to pay off her student loans so she can pursue a career in sustainable engineering and product design with a focus on creating sustainable materials.

Close to 30 prospects have already raised over $400,000 through Pave, and a few have started making payments to their backers.

Though crowdfunding is gaining wide acceptance, there is reason to be cautious.

To guard against fraud, Pave does extensive checks to verify identities, review credit histories and check any “structured data” a prospect supplies, such as college attendance, GPA, and work employment history.

GoFundMe is much looser in its oversight.

“With hundreds of thousands of campaigns, it’s not feasible for GoFundMe to investigate the claims stated by each campaign organizer,” reads an excerpt from the GoFundMe website.

I’m not sure what motivates people to give money online to complete strangers. Maybe a lot of people who have had good fortune want to pay it forward. Maybe it’s just a charitable impulse.

But you can’t check the veracity of a lot of crowdfunding proposals. Some are the equivalent of the infamous Nigerian email scams where mass emails promise great riches to potential victims. The entire personal crowdfunding platform relies largely on trust, something scammers have always known how to exploit. So prudence should be the watchword.


Bill MacKenzie is a former congressional staff member, newspaper reporter and communications manager for a Hillsboro company.

Originally published in the Hillsboro Tribune,  Nov. 15, 2013