Italy: Journalism Rated By Algorithm

December 12, 2014 • Business Models • by

An online newspaper with a difference has been launched in Italy. Gli Stati Generali is a journalistic start-up with a strong IT component. The difference between this newspaper and others lies in its business model: contributors are paid according to the attention and interest their articles generate online. Performance is measured by an internal algorithm which also determines, and rewards, the best-performing articles each month.

Gli Stati Generali – People’s Assembly – is a digital platform based on native advertising, with a network of contributors, authors and writers called “brains”. These brains include not only journalists, but experts in politics, technology, culture, innovation and economics, as well as university researchers and bloggers. Every “brain” has their own public profile, where they can publish independently, with no editorial filters. The management of Gli Stati Generali acts as curator, overseeing the organization and presentation of the network of content generated by the brains.

In addition to this content, the management publishes one or two long features every day, which are commissioned to professional freelance journalists and remunerated according to the classic scheme of freelance work. Jacopo Tondelli, co-founder and a former executive editor of another Italian online newspaper, Linkiesta, said the space created for the brains is mostly suited for “those who want to participate in information but are not professional journalists. At Gli Stati Generali, we agree on the fact that journalists should be paid for the information they produce. Ours is a two-legged model: classic journalism that we commission, and evaluation of content generated by the brains network.”

The newspaper has created an internal algorithm: Interest Rank

Gli Stati Generali’s innovation lies in the second part of this model, the evaluation of the brains. The newspaper’s information technicians have created an internal algorithm, the Interest Rank. This proprietary algorithm monitors the performance of each article published by the brains in the ten days following its publication, measuring both the number of single users reached and the attention and involvement generated by the article. This model may not seem so innovative thus far, because other periodicals, with Forbes leading the way, have been experimenting for a few years with forms of compensation for journalists based on the performance of their articles, as Digiday has described. has been doing this since 2012. Its director, Lewis Dvorkin, has created and supervised a network of around 1000 contributors he calls “entrepreneur journalists”, freelancers whose success depends on their performance online. Many of them have a contract with Forbes for a set number of posts per month, for which they receive a compensation that is standard, but very low; this is then supplemented based on the online performance of their articles.

Dvorkin is convinced that this exchange is fair, because some of the authors manage to earn substantial sums, while for most of the others, who are often not professional journalists, is a platform that provides visibility and opportunity, meaning that journalists are “building individual brands and communities around their name”.

A unique gamification element has been developed – with a monthly contest

Compared with and others, Gli Stati Generali has created a new compensation model through its development of an element of gamification of journalistic work. The brains not only receive set payments that will be supplemented based on Interest Rank evaluations, but participate in a monthly competition; in the end, the algorithm determines the winners. The articles published by the brains compete for two awards per month: the “Best Reading” and the “Best Author” awards, for the most “effective” article and for the author that generated the most “interest”. Tondelli believes the most important thing is that an author “is able to attract attention, rather than generate clicks”. Each category grants three prizes, worth 250, 150 and 100 Euros each. “With the growth of the platform and earnings, we intend to extend and increase compensations, but we will keep the logic of the contest. Is it better to pay 50 authors five Euros or one author 250 Euros? We’re convinced that it’s better to pay much more for a few, well-written articles than to pay very little for all the articles, based on performance generated. If we had the numbers Forbes has, I’m convinced our mechanism would redistribute more than theirs”, Jacopo Tondelli asserted.

When I asked him if this form of gamification of journalistic work risks taking the logic of the journalist as a self-motivated entrepreneur to the extreme, burdening him with all the weight and responsibility for his success, Tondelli maintained: “The relations between Capital and Work have generated the entrepreneurial journalist, not us at Gli Stati Generali”.

The newspaper is helping to change traditional measures of the value of work

The case of Gli Stati Generali represents a further step towards the upending of the traditional measures of the value of work. In this model, work is no longer compensated for the simple fact of being done, but is translated into an economic value only if it has a (measureable) impact on readers. An algorithm, and no longer the hourly wage set by unions, defines the cap of the value of work. We are witnessing a shift in the value of work, from the time invested in research and writing to the effect this work has on the public.

This change underway in creative and intangible work has been critically interpreted by a group of Austrian artists, creators of the installation Bitcoincloud, in order to thematize the value of artistic production. The work formed a direct relation between the attention it received and its market value: the bigger the audience, the greater its value (in terms of bitcoins received by the artist). Art is often able to see beyond the present. Who knows, Bitcoincloud may be right: in the future journalists, and creative workers in general, could be paid with alternative money, earned based on the attention their work draws. But if every journalist is an entrepreneur, has a brand to manage and an audience to maintain, newspapers would no longer be needed. Instead, journalists are still needed, but what a tiring job (and what an opportunity) for journalists to also have to be their own newspaper.

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