Peter Kafka

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Man Bites Dog! Web Publisher Pays Writers

It’s a time-honored Web tradition: Build a business by getting people to give you interesting content to publish, for free. And it’s still a very popular one. See: Facebook, Twitter, Huffington Post, Quora, etc.

Which is why this qualifies as news: Financial commentary site Seeking Alpha is going to start paying some of its writers.

The seven-year-old site, which relies on a pool of several thousand contributors to stock it with chatter about stocks and anything else you can trade, will now offer them a chance to get paid for their work. It’s a one-size-fits-all rate: $10 for every 1,000 page views a story generates, as long as the story doesn’t appear anywhere else on the free Web.

That’s not going to make any of the site’s writers rich. Seeking Alpha CEO David Jackson says “it’s possible” that his most popular writers could generate a couple of thousand dollars per month, but most are going to make much less.

Jackson, on the other hand, is potentially on the hook for a decent-size bill.

Quantcast pegs his site’s daily page views at around two million. Not all of those views come from contributors–Seeking Alpha’s free transcript service, for instance, is popular and useful, and I assume the site gets a decent chunk of direct traffic. But if, say, half its page views were from volunteers who now want to get paid, that’s an outlay of $1,000 a day.

But why pay anything at all? Jackson’s longtime strategy has been to get people like newsletter publishers and money managers to give him free stuff, and offer them exposure/leads in return. Why change now?

You can read Jackson’s explanation of the move, along with some other details, in a letter he’s distributing to his writers today. But maybe he’s just following this sound advice from the Joker:

Dear Seeking Alpha contributor,

I wanted to let you know personally about three new initiatives that have rolled out on this morning:

1. Sharing revenue with contributors

I’ve always viewed Seeking Alpha as a partnership with our contributors: you provide us with outstanding articles, and we invest heavily (we now have over 70 employees) in technology, web design, editors and traffic partnerships to get your ideas in front of a large and valuable audience and drive customer leads to your business. But we’ve always known that some of our contributors don’t have businesses we can drive leads to, and that many contributors would appreciate additional direct income from their articles.

We’ve spent over a year building a direct sales team, and our readership has hit an all-time high and continues to grow (see: As a result, we can now share meaningful revenue with contributors: you’ll earn $10 for every thousand page views to articles which are published by Seeking Alpha and given to us exclusively (i.e. they don’t appear for free elsewhere on the Web). We call payment for exclusive articles our “Premium Partnership Program”. It’s on an article by article basis, so there are no contracts or forward commitments, and if for any reason you don’t want to receive payment yourself, you can pick a charity to receive your earnings instead. And if you don’t want to give us exclusivity for articles, nothing will change from the way we publish your articles now.

2. Upgrade to our leaderboards and reputation system

We’ve introduced a new reputation system and set of leaderboards, called “SA Opinion Leaders”. You’re now ranked by page views (trailing 90 days) to your articles according to the themes you write about. For example, if some of your articles are tagged “Media”, you automatically appear in the Media Sector leaderboard and are ranked by the number of page views you received to those articles. You can appear in multiple leaderboards, determined by the themes your articles are tagged with. Additionally, if you’re ranked in the top 5 for any theme, that information is displayed on your articles and also on your profile page.

We think this new reputation system has strong advantages. First, we’ve discovered that the number of followers a person has on Seeking Alpha (and, parenthetically, Twitter also,) doesn’t necessarily equate to reader engagement or influence. In contrast, the number of people who read your articles is a direct measure of reader engagement and thus your influence. Second, reputation is far more meaningful when measured in specific areas of expertise. So if you focus on media stocks, it’s far more valuable to know (and tell people) that you’re the number one on Seeking Alpha in the Media Sector than that you’re number 33 in some general ranking. We think that measuring real engagement and ranking contributors in categories will be valuable for contributors and — critically — valuable for readers.

3. Access to stats

You can now view detailed stats on Seeking Alpha, including total page views, page views by article, and page views by category. Additionally, you can track your page views and earnings for exclusive articles.

The future

Any major change carries risk, so why are we doing this? After all, churn in our contributor base is remarkably low, we’re about to add our 4,000th contributor, traffic is at an all time high, we recently crossed our 600,000th registered user, we have over 40,000 comments on the site per month, and our audience is of outstandingly high quality.

The answer is: this is about a vision. Investment research has been dominated by the sell side, but there’s a world out there of other people who have considerable knowledge and insight about stocks, options, bonds, ETFs and investment strategy. Whether you’re a fund manager, financial advisor, industry expert or a smart individual investor, we want to be the partner that brings that insight to light and unlocks value for contributors by offering exposure, reputation, customer leads and direct income. If this is successful, it should transform the investment research industry.

Thank you for your partnership with us, and wishing you a happy and prosperous 2011,