News or Noise? Gather CEO Tom Gerace on New England’s Fastest Growing Web Property

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go out and find someone who wants to read what you have to say. So the questions that face the market are, how do you compete in a space where search is driving a majority of content discovery and consumption, and how do you create sufficient content to go across topics that are very broad? We believe that by creating a model that is pay-for-performance based and that leverages an ecosystem, we can spread out very cost-effectively and own a meaningful share of the market. And that’s exactly what we are doing.”

Everyone on Gather is encouraged to contribute content to the site, whether that means blog posts, recipes, photos, or videos. The material appears on users’ profiles, and Gather editors promote the best and most popular content on subject-area pages covering topics such as books, celebrities, entertainment, family, fashion, food, health, money, news, politics, spirituality, sports, and travel.

Gather rewards its contributors in two ways. Casual or infrequent contributors earn “Gather Points” each time they share, and can redeem the points for gift cards from companies like Home Depot, Starbucks, or Amazon, or for cash credits on Paypal. A second, much more exclusive group of members, called Socialwriters, must post at least 20 written articles per month, and are paid cash based on the number of page views they attract. (That’s the pay-for-performance part.)

Under the Socialwriter program, launched this spring, contributors earn $2.50 for a post if it draws at least 250 page views, $5.00 if they cross the 500-page-view threshold, and $10 for 750 page views or more. They also get monthly bonuses of $25 if their articles draw 25,000 page views in aggregate, $50 for 50,000 page views, $100 for 100,000 page views, and so forth. Gerace says that some of Gather’s socialwriters are earning more than $2,000 a month. “We fully expect that some will end up at $4,000 or $5,000 a month, earning a living Socialwriting,” he says.

Only 1 in 14 of the applicants for the Socialwriting program are admitted, Gerace says, and the company is careful to train Socialwriters how to “select topics and write content that will get maximum pickup on search engines, media sites, blogs, and social networks,” to quote from Gather’s own site. It’s through the Socialwriting and Gather Points systems that the startup, which has only 23 employees, has been able to surge past other Web publishers and grab an increasing percentage of search-generated traffic.

From my own point of view as an online journalist, there’s just one catch: paying for performance is not the same as paying for quality. As any blogger knows, it’s all too easy to win page views and gin up “Google juice” simply by penning provocative headlines. Gerace and I spent more time engaging on this subject than anything else—largely, I admit, because most of Gather’s content ruffles my own (elitist) sensibilities about good writing and newsworthiness, and I wanted to know how Gerace thinks about the issue.

I put it to Gerace that most Gather posts are rehashes of information already published elsewhere, and that even the original information is of questionable value to Internet surfers. To cite some examples, the April 27 “News” page on Gather featured a piece about David Letterman calling Jay Leno “a complete boob,” a reposted YouTube video about a missing Utah woman whose body may or may not have been discovered in Idaho, a report about a porn video starring a Tiger Woods look-alike, and an article about a group of evangelical Christians from China and Turkey who are “99.9 percent” sure that they have found pieces of Noah’s Ark.

Overall, I can’t imagine that this sort of thing is what American Public Media had in mind when it invested in Gather back in 2005. But Gerace’s reply to my criticism was articulate and unusually transparent, so I’ll quote it at length. “Our goal is not to be the capital-J Journalism site in the market,” he says. “The New York Times starts a million conversations a day by breaking the news; our goal is to be the place where those million conversations happen. We are providing … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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