The Return of “Pay for Play” and “Checkbook Journalism”

July 14th, 2009

We’ve seen it all before in the long-forgotten days of print journalism. One minute you’re reading a story about a great new restaurant in a newspaper or city magazine and then you turn the page and, oh-my-gosh, there’s an advertisement from the very same restaurant. What a coincidence! Publishers have struggled with paid “journalism” since the beginning of (publishing) time. Mostly they’ve accommodated it. Some even specialize in it. The purest form is the most unabashed, such as those magazines and glossy hardcovers you discover in your hotel room. You learn to suspect that “Bob’s World-Famous Steakhouse” may be world-famous only because they named it so and because they advertise it as such to the ill-informed and the unsuspecting visitor. This practice is generally called “pay for play”. (When the publisher discloses the financial relationship it’s then clearly noted as “advertorial” or just as “advertisement”.)

Well, Nick Denton, proprietor of Gawker Media, has updated the practice for the online world.


According to a report at the reputable Nieman Journalism Lab, Gawker has internally re-introduced the practice of paying bonuses to writers based on pageviews.

Nieman quotes from an internal memo to staffers from Denton:

Each writer on a site will have a (pretty demanding) individual pageview target…That target will be proportional to a writer’s base compensation. i.e. the more your monthly pay, the more people you’re expected to reach. If you go 10% over target, you get a 10% bump in pay. The target will rise as the traffic of the site as a whole increases. Your site’s editor-in-chief will be in touch to discuss the details later this week.

Gawker also follows the practice of the sleaziest tabloid newspapers by paying for photos and video that can generate pageviews. This is a version of another much-maligned practice known as “checkbook journalism” (defined by as “the practice of paying for a news story or an interview, or for exclusive broadcasting or publishing rights”). Gawker has no shame, and posts the policy publicly, offering “$5.00 for every thousand views, with payment made to the charity or liquor store of your choice.”

The Nieman article concludes by noting that Denton recently explained to The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz: “‘We don’t seek to do good. We may inadvertently do good. We may inadvertently commit journalism. That is not the institutional intention.'”

How admirable!