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With so many ways to track a writer’s popularity online, should that popularity be tied to a journalist’s or blogger’s pay? That is a question that’s come up quite a few times over the years, and last week I took Gawker Media to task for paying writers based on page views. My basic point was that there should be a better way for judging the work of a writer beyond raw page views, something like a “Loyalty Index” that proves the writer has an audience that spends more time on the site.

That idea came to me from a conversation I had a few months ago with Jason Kint, now the general manager of CBSSports.com and CBSNews.com. I was wondering how a news organization should value the online writing of someone beyond those simple page views. Kint told me CBS was considering some kind of Loyalty Index because he thought page views were not a good metric for how well a writer was doing. I called up Kint late last week and we had a longer talk on the topic.

Here’s an excerpt of that conversation.

How would you like to gauge a CBS columnist’s performance?

Jason Kint: It’s a function of unique repeat visitors, that steady traffic. You have fly-by traffic reading your various columns and being exposed to your talent and your authors on the site. But how many unique visitors are coming back in a habitual way to read and follow the writer? It’s really a core following, and that base of readers is ultimately what drives success metrics for the site. It also drives high-quality consumption by users that advertisers want to associate with.

We’re just formulating our plan right now. What I do know is that it doesn’t work saying, ‘This columnist is better than that columnist because he drives more page views.’

What do you hear from others in the industry? Are people still judging by page views?

Kint: I think people still do judge by page views. They do the simple math of X number of page views and the CPM [cost per thousands] from advertising revenues and ask, ‘do they pay for themselves?’ And when you think about what really establishes a voice for a brand and website, it’s not just a function of page views. That’s crude math. Just like page views don’t convert to market [value] for a business either. That’s too simple a math.

And do advertisers feel the same way about page views?

Kint: Yes, it’s interesting because it touches on the question of, ‘Are all page views and ad impressions equal?’ I don’t think they are. Some advertisers buy it that way; the direct response advertisers do because they are just paying for performance, for clicks. But the sophisticated advertisers and a lot of our ad market that’s buying high quality sponsorships integrating with premium websites like March Madness realize that not all ad impressions are created equal and not all sports fans are created equal.

Having their brand on a page with CBS Sports with a passionate college hoops fan and reading a column from someone at CBS Sports is different than something on a social network or on a portal site.

Are you trying to also count the number of reads via RSS or mobile or other formats?

Kint: RSS feeds should be part of it, because I don’t care where people get our content. Omniture is working on something that would allow us to get unique visitors for each columnist. So you could find out how many unique visitors Mike Freeman got this month, and how many visited X number of times each month. So if Freeman had 100,000 unique individuals read him each week or month, then I could see each month if it’s trending up or down. If it’s trending down, then that’s a bad sign.

I want to see a higher number of people reading three or more times per month if he’s filing weekly. I want to see who’s driving repeat traffic. It will provide us with more information than just page views.

I think it’s fascinating from a journalism standpoint and it’s also interesting from a sustainable business standpoint because whether it’s columnists or networks of websites, we saw this last time when we went through the [dot-com] crash. We saw lots of sites that were driving traffic, but it wasn’t high-quality traffic because the economics and behaviors were driven by the wrong indicators. There are a lot of sites with a lot of traffic and no revenues.

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While Gawker and other blog networks take a very blunt assessment of a writer’s performance by page view, it’s good to know that CBS and other sites are trying to take a broader view of a writer’s work. That means looking at what kind of repeat visitors a writer gets, and also checking on stats via RSS feeds and other media beyond simple web visits.

So a possible Loyalty Index might look something like this:

Repeat unique visitors + RSS subscribers + email newsletter readers + mobile alert subscribers + comments

At CBS and elsewhere, this is a work in progress, and obviously hasn’t been perfected. All of these numbers in the formula above could be manipulated and don’t really count the quality of the writer’s work or the responses from the community of readers.

Another big hurdle is the audience’s fascination with the “Most Popular,” “Most Emailed” and “Most Blogged” stories on every site. You see it on the main CBS sites and on every major news site. It’s a list that audiences click on constantly and writers probably aspire to make. That omnipresent popularity index is tough to displace by people who write the checks each week for reporters and bloggers.

And CBSSports.com even has a list of “Most Popular Columns” on its site. What makes the Gawker sites stranger still is that they all have running stats for their writers right out in public. You can see each writer’s tally of page views by typing in the blog site and then “/stats” after it. For instance, check out the main Gawker blog stats here. You can see how Ian Spiegelman had 10 times the page views as Nick Denton last Sunday.

As many people noted in MediaShift comments, the Gawker blogs are obviously more attuned to gossip than hard-hitting civic journalism, so their focus on raw page views might make more sense. But in the long run, page views are not going to sustain a content site forever if advertisers don’t value them highly. And as Kint noted, “not all ad impressions are created equal.”

So whether you’re a niche blogger or a sports columnist, you’ll have a better chance for success by building a loyal audience that returns repeatedly rather than drive-by folks who drop by and leave forever.

What do you think? Can you think of variations on the Loyalty Index that might work? Or do you think paying by page views can work in certain cases? Share your thoughts in the comments below.