Your Newfangled Media Algorithms are Bullshit

Media startups won’t be successful until they start assigning value to quality writing and reporting.


I’m only getting paid two and a half cents per click on this story. That’s more than what 99.9% of contributors on Medium get paid. I have a $60,000 graduate journalism degree from Medill, nearly a decade of writing experience, and, let’s be honest, I’m super smart and seriously good at what I do. I can write and report a kickass story with my eyes closed and one hand tied behind my back. But the algorithm that decides how much I get paid for all that badass-ness doesn’t put any value on how good I am. It cares not at all how well written this story is or how much experience I have. All that’s important is how many times you guys click.

When you become a freelance writer you spend a good deal of your time weighing what the marketing industry calls ROI — return on investment. How much time do you put into writing a story versus how much money you’re ultimately going to make on it? Often, I am forced to turn down perfectly good writing jobs because they are so low-paying I simply can’t justify the investment of my time. And while I’m all in favor of this new world of media startups, where truly well-intentioned people are trying to figure out how the heck to make money from journalism on the Internet, I just need to step up right now and call bullshit on pretty much all the algorithms. Cause you guys just aren’t understanding the importance of a good writer.

Granted, I’m totally biased. Of course *I* think I’m hugely valuable. But I’m also really comfortable assuming the editors I work with on a regular basis—at publications that pay me a living wage— who keep coming back to me time and again for work based on my talent, critical thinking, ability to ask the right questions, and skill in explaining super complex topics would agree. There is huge value in a good reporter. And there is a huge difference between a well-written, well-reported story and one that’s merely OK.

I love the idea of a new world of media that exists solely on the Internet. And I really, really want to be part of it. But I also want to pay my rent and feed my cat. I don’t think that’s a lot to ask. In fact, I’m gonna go ahead and say I’m pretty irritated that I have to ask at all. Actually, screw that, I’m INSULTED by how much you’re trying to pay me. Or not pay me.

Until you guys coming up with newfangled ways to bring journalism online start valuing writers, I’m going to have to keep on dedicating the majority of my time and brainpower to traditional media organizations. They might not always be able to quantify the value of my contribution to their business by counting clicks, but they know they’re benefiting from being associated with me. And, mostly, they assign a reasonable value to that benefit (that’s debatable, but it’s rarely an insulting number). They understand that sometimes great stories aren’t always the most popular ones. They understand that EVEN A STORY WITH A LIMITED AUDIENCE CAN BE WORTH PUBLISHING. The alternative is having a world of journalism written entirely by amateurs with no experience, no education, and limited talent. Or a world in which great writers bypass fantastic stories because not everybody in the universe is going to read it. And that’s a pretty lame world, frankly.

Now, can you all please click the shit out of this story so I can make a few bucks on it? My cat really appreciates it.

Erin Biba is a talented, experienced, smart science writer with a few degrees whose writing and reporting ability is valued by publications like WIRED, Scientific American, Newsweek, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and The Mythbusters’ Tested.com.