Blogonomics: When a Salary Becomes an Advance

At the beginning of the year, Gawker Media moved to a new pay scheme where writers were paid based on their pageviews. According to the memo, the new scheme was pretty simple:

While your base monthly pay remains the same, the chance of a bonus will depend on your individual performance. More specifically: it will depend on the popularity of your posts that month.

Got that? Base pay, plus a bonus if you’ve been popular that month. Except, it doesn’t seem to have worked out that way. It’s only February, and here’s Nick Denton, firing an employee:

You should be doing some 670,000 views a month to justify your advance.

Base pay, it seems, has already disappeared. No one at Gawker gets paid simply to do their jobs any more (except maybe the "site leads"): instead, that monthly paycheck is now being thought of as nothing more than an advance against pageview-driven income. If you don’t get a bonus, that means you’re not earning out your advance, and you’re liable to get fired.

It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one. Base pay is earned income; an advance is unearned income, or at least yet-to-be-earned income.

Maybe it’s this change which has caused Choire Sicha to change his mind so dramatically on this pay scheme. Immediately after leaving Gawker, he was very positive about it:

I think I’m one of the few who’s really in favor of it, essentially. Conceptually what paying people for their traffic does is it puts income in the hands of the worker; it puts control of the income, in some slightly messy way, in the hands of the people actually doing the writing. I think that’s actually kind of a huge advance.

Now, however, he hates it:

The millionaires like to cast the current, security-less system as a meritocracy–they say that their successful employees, and successful content, all rise to the top. But it isn’t true. "Merit," in terms of "content creation," isn’t what makes the employers money, and it isn’t what gets them attention. Crap does, though. And so they can spend all day throwing crap at the wall, and plenty of it will stick. That they have to dissemble about the nature of this system to the public and to employees is absurd. That people who work under this system actually conduct their business on these terms is sad, but what else shall they do?

What they shall do, of course, is work elsewhere. Yes, there’s a huge pool of hungry young media types desperate to make their mark in Manhattan; they will continue to be exploited, just as they always have been. But if Nick Denton (or anybody else) wants to attract experienced talent, they’re going to have a very hard time doing so on this system. Sales guys and bankers do better work and get motivated by bonus and commission systems. Writers, on the other hand? Not so much.

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