Analytics at Gawker Media
“I’m actually concerned by the extent to which my emotional well-being is dictated by the number of hits on my posts. I talk to my therapist about it!”
-– Gawker Media writer
There is arguably no contemporary media organization more strongly associated with a metrics-driven editorial culture than Gawker. Throughout its 13-year history, Gawker has put a strong emphasis on numbers, though the company has prioritized different metrics at different times (most notably in 2010, when it switched from a focus on page views to one on unique visitors). Gawker’s focus on metrics was intended to not only boost profits, but also to serve as a positioning device that—along with its sharp, mocking voice and willingness to pay for scoops—set it against the media establishment. At Gawker, metrics have been:
Prominent: The company famously pioneered the Big Board, a constantly updating screen that hangs over the reception desk on the editorial floor at its Nolita offices. The board, populated by Chartbeat data, displays the top posts by concurrent visitors across all of the sites in the Gawker network. Shortly before I began my research at Gawker, the Big Board was supplemented by a leaderboard that ranks the top writers (staff and non-staff) on Kinja, Gawker’s publishing platform, by the number of unique visitors they have brought to the site in the previous 30 days. Red and green arrows, showing whether individual writers are ascending or descending in the ranks, reinforced the message.
Public: Gawker is known for its transparency, and many of the company’s metrics are publicly available online, including the Kinja leaderboard16 graphs17 showing each staff writer’s daily, weekly, and monthly contribution to her site’s unique visitors and page views. Tallies of page views and unique visitors are also displayed alongside the byline of each post. In addition, while most of Chartbeat’s clients keep their data proprietary, Gawker allows Chartbeat to use its data in training sessions and demos with new and prospective clients, cementing the company’s reputation as being heavily traffic-driven.
Powerful: The company has experimented with a range of traffic-based pay-for-performance schemes over the years. The one in place at the time of my research operated like this: Each site had a monthly growth target of unique visitors, calculated based on its recent traffic. Thus, the sites had different targets depending on their past audience size, but they were all expected to have the same rate of growth. When a site exceeded its target, it received a proportional bonus that the site lead (Gawker’s term for editor-in-chief) could dispense among her writers as she saw fit.vii While monthly bonuses were based on collective traffic, individual traffic numbers were also influential. The company calculates something called an eCPM for all editorial staffers, which is the measure of how many dollars an employee earns in salary for every 1,000 unique visitors her posts bring into the site. Writers were expected to maintain an eCPM no higher than $20, and those whose eCPMs exceeded this for a prolonged period were in danger of being fired. Raises were also closely tied to individual traffic numbers; writers had to demonstrate sustained growth in personal traffic that was roughly proportionate to the raise they were requesting.viii
This metrics-driven approach has paid off: the company’s estimated value is around $250 million; in 2014, it pulled in $45 million in revenue and $6.7 million in profit.18was a tumultuous one, even for a company that is known for being constantly in flux. Gawker faces fierce competition from companies like BuzzFeed, Vice, and Vox Media, and Denton was trying to move the company away from a singular focus on maximizing traffic and toward a more collaborative, interactive type of journalism.
This moment in Gawker Media’s history lent itself to two major questions: First, if Gawker was indeed an extreme example of the kind of metrics-driven approach that media organizations are increasingly adopting, what was it like for writers and editors to work in this environment? What effect do prominent, public, powerful metrics have on their work and morale, and what might this tell us about the future of digital media as it becomes increasingly measurable and measured? The second question had to do with Gawker’s attempt to pivot away from an exclusively traffic-focused model toward a more interactive and collaborative style of journalism. Much has been written about the struggles of legacy media organizations attempting to adapt to the digital age. But we know less about how digitally native media companies cope with changes in their missions, business models, or field of competitors. What does change look like at a digital media company like Gawker?