by Pam Baker, veteran freelance journalist
Note: Names have been withheld to focus this discussion on the issues rather than on the personalities involved.
This story began, as so many do, with a slip of the tongue. It was just a quiet mention butted on each end by unremarkable sentences. It floated in a pitch by a PR pro who really wanted me to include her client in the story I was writing for a huge online publication.
But this slip was no mistake. It had been carefully choreographed to give both me and the speaker plausible deniability. I could easily ignore it, pretend it unheard, and it would be as though the incident never happened.
Though not directly spoken, the implication was as clear as church bells: a large number of page views could easily be delivered on this article and any other articles I might write.
Page views: the new Holy Grail for struggling journalists trying to stay employed. Publishers have long since set the stakes: write stories powerful enough, sensational enough, or popular enough to rack up huge numbers of page views – or lose your job. It’s not an empty threat. Thousands of unemployed journalists stand in the wings to fill the space and join the page view race.
Yet no one has ever been able to predict which stories will find favor in the eyes of readers. There is no apparent rhyme or reason behind which stories take fire, which burn the house down and which flicker to nothingness.
So, writers spend hours of what would otherwise be billable time promoting articles in places like StumbleUpon, Digg, Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn Groups, and on and on. These are hours writers can ill afford to give away given today’s low pay rates per article. Yet, failing to do so often leads to the unemployment line.
Journalists are cynical by nature. My thoughts immediately turned to “what’s in it for the PR gal?” Page views of any given article typically mean little to PR people compared to a site’s overall traffic. If a single story’s page views were important, then adding to the number could be beneficial to the PR firm but not so much to the firm’s client. Planting a super number of page views would give a false reading of how many readers had read the story containing the client’s super-duper whirlymagig.
As a freelancer, I write for many publications. The total readership of the online publication I was writing for on the Day of the Slip is huge. The article would most likely be read by some percentage of that traffic. Large exposure was a near-given or could be feigned by the PR firm by quoting the web site's overall traffic to the client instead; and, being able to point to an article in such a respected publication has its own rewards. No worries for the PR Lady on that front.
Plus, the high number of planted page views would bump the article to the top of search engine lists. This would mean more readers beyond those that follow the publication. A large number of whirlymagig units would likely be sold.
The PR firm would remain employed having satisfied the client’s need for media exposure. Make no mistake, the client’s need is very real as commerce cannot happen and profits cannot be made if the buying public does not know about products.
As journalists are laid off by the thousands and publications fold by the hundreds, there are fewer and fewer ways for manufacturers and retailers to get the word out. Getting the attention of the few remaining (and heavily overworked) journalists is ridiculously difficult to do. Obtaining a simple, unbiased review is another near impossibility.
Articles by respected journalists add credibility to products. Buyers often make buying decisions based on a journalist’s review or analysis. By comparison, advertising carries little credibility and costs a lot of money (especially in a recession).
So, If I accepted the offer:
- the PR Lady’s client would obtain credibility and an audience before that publication’s readers without the expense of advertising. Plus, a high ranking in search engine results was probable.
- a writer, in this case me, would remain employed, having gained the required number of page views which would presumably be provided by a large PR firm’s dedicated staff.
- my publisher would get his treasured page views ---and presumably the advertising dollars that follow.
- the reader would be negligibly affected since the story – other than an added quote from the PR Lady’s client – would remain unscathed. Its angle slanted precisely to the degree it was before The Slip request. Balance would remain untipped. Other views in the article would remain unaffected. PR Lady was not asking for an article exclusively about her client or that client’s product. She asked only that her client’s quote be included in the story.
PR Lady confirmed my analysis of her slip. Yes, she said. That’s what it means. See, everybody wins.
But no, I said. Everyone does not win.
If planted page views are added to existing ploys such as planted reader comments, paid reviewers and other manipulations of online content, we could soon find ourselves in the ‘age of misinformation’ where nothing is unsullied, nothing entirely truthful.
Or, is this merely the evolution of news? Is this pay-by-page-view play inevitable given that journalists are judged less by the value of their content and more by the number of people that arbitrarily read their work?
I know where I stand: I passed on the offer. My page views per story are organically grown, the same as my followers on Twitter and other social media. I have not gamed the system in any venue.
But was that the right decision – or an outdated stance?
It is clear that ethics are evolving as publishing models continue to shift and churn. I am asking you to help shape that evolution with an open discussion. Please share your comments below.