writer_insideWhen we launched Bleacher Report, we did not pay our writers. This was out of necessity as well as principle.

From a necessity standpoint, we simply did not have the money to pay writers. We were operating on a shoe-string budget, and we had (correctly) chosen to invest our seed capital into building a platform. That platform continued to improve, and allowed the company to do some very innovative things for years to come.

From a principal standpoint, we felt that the writers did not need to be paid. It wasn’t because they deserved to make nothing. Rather, we (correctly) anticipated that there were thousands of passionate sports fans out there who wanted to share their opinions and had no other practical means of doing so. We were spending our time and money building the tools to let them. They weren’t asking us for money. Nor were we monetizing at that point. We had plenty of critics, but we didn’t agree with them. We saw ourselves as the Tumblr of sports.

As time elapsed, however, the company made the decision to start paying writers. Our initial budget for paying writers was substantial — well into the seven figures. That budget continued to increase significantly.

It was an outstanding investment. And a Yahoo-controlled Tumblr could learn something from our experiences. Why did our editorial leadership push for this sudden change? There were several reasons:

First, the quality of the content on Bleacher Report was not where it needed to be. We had a lot of critics, and we continued to hear one complaint in particular — people grumbled that there were talented contributors on Bleacher Report, but they were being drowned-out by a ton of weaker writers. We responded by eliminating the vast majority of contributors and paying the best of those who remained.

Second, we were finding that churn was expensive. The overhead cost of constantly finding new writers to replace the ones who left had become a real expense. Plus, we felt that a lot of these writers had developed their skills on Bleacher Report, and that it was a neglected investment for us to let them walk away so easily. Paying them solved the problem quite easily.

Third, we found that advertising injected a new moral imperative into the mix. After all, if we were charging clients large fees to advertise, shouldn’t the writers who created that content get a piece of the action? Also, shouldn’t our clients get the best content possible to support their campaigns? This was a classic “rising tide” scenario for us and our writers.

Fourth, we found that most of our writers had other jobs anyhow, and that our payments were often what “put them over the hump,” in terms of focusing on their writing. Our writers lived in all parts of the country, and many of them were able to pay their rent (in its entirety) from the payments we made to them. The rest of the week, they worked the type of jobs that most young University of Cincinnati graduates expected to find with an English degree and 15 percent unemployment. Some of our best writers had jobs at places like Home Depot or Sears. But getting a check from us allowed them to avoid overtime, second jobs, or all of the other things that might have kept them from writing each evening.

Fifth, we wanted to have relationships with our writers. We wanted them to develop expertise about their teams, and we wanted to be on the phone with them as we planned our coverage. It’s one thing to let somebody write for your site. It’s another to call them on the phone three times per week. As we tightened our relationship with writers, paying them became a logical next step.

There were many other reasons why we did it. Those are simply five major ones that stick out.

Today, some people still think of Bleacher Report as “that site that doesn’t pay its writers,” which just goes to show how long a reputation can stick with a company. There are very few sports publications that pay writers more than Bleacher Report  — not on a per capita basis, but on an overall basis.

Making a living as a writer is hard, and it’s going to keep getting harder. New media properties like Bleacher Report and Huffington Post are not going to accelerate or ameliorate those pains.

But they are proving that the business of content is incredibly complex and evolving so quickly that the economics are still being sorted out. It’s not just about how much a writer gets paid, but also what they get paid to do each day. Bleacher Report has created hundreds of editorial jobs in the United States, but a great many of them are in curation, as they power the immensely popular TeamStream aggregation app.

Ten years ago, I’m not sure there was such thing as an “aggregation editor.”

But that’s the essence of what’s going on at the largest and most successful new media companies. They are constantly assessing and re-assessing the rules for editorial. This could mean an increase in writer compensation. It could mean a major change in the day-to-day job of editors. It could mean constant changes in focus between creation, aggregation, and distribution.

Ultimately, the decision to pay writers proved to be more of a financial issue than an ethical one. It was a positive step in an evolution that continues. It advanced the business. But, in so doing, it improved the product, created jobs, and helped to make publishing a more sustainable enterprise. And those things were good for both consumers and contributors.

Yahoo’s recent purchase of Tumblr may force an examination of these concepts. The company got negative press when they eliminated their paid-writer Storyboard concept a few weeks ago. Industry pundits have also questioned whether the Tumblr contributors will tolerate advertising on their content.

I predict that Tumblr will find itself struggling mightily with everything that has been described above. It may not need its “bottom 90 percent” of blogs. Rather, it may find that the best bloggers welcome advertising with open-arms, so long as they get a piece of the action. That would still represent billions of page views, enough to make a titanic profit.

As for my future endeavors, the plan is simple — pay writers on day one. And never stop.

[Image courtesy gilles chiroleu]