Peter Kafka

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Jason Calacanis Tries Turning Mahalo Into a Wikipedia That Pays

mahalo-logo2Jason Calacanis’ Mahalo is getting a two-part makeover.

There’s a visual overhaul for the search engine,  which involves cramming a lot more stuff on each results page. This is becoming standard operating practice on the Web, both because it offers readers a lot more stuff, and because it seems to help improve search engine rankings. (You can see the before and after pages at the bottom of this post.)

The other change isn’t as easy to see, but it’s a big change for Calacanis, who originally envisioned his company as “human-powered search engine,” where his employees would build out results pages one at a time.

But now he’s hoping to get Mahalo users to do the work, Wikipedia-style, with a twist–he’ll pay them.

The pitch: Calacanis will offer users the chance to “own” a results page, and split any advertising revenue the page generates, primarily via Google (GOOG) AdSense. He’ll be paying users with “Mahalo bucks,” which cash out at 75 cents on the dollar, so users are really keeping 37.5 percent of each dollar their page generates.

Calacanis says some of his pages are generating up to $10,000 a year, but most will make far less. Will that be enough to encourage people to build and maintain Web pages on a piecework basis?

He is betting it will: Right now Calacanis employs about 50 people to make his results pages, but he says that over time, that number will shrink to a couple dozen editors who will oversee “hundreds” of workers: “We think this will become a half-time to full-time job for a large number of out-of-work people.”

Calacanis says the move isn’t designed to save him money, since he’ll be carving out a chunk of his ad revenue to pay his people. He’s raised $20 million and says that will last him four to five years, thanks in part to cuts he made last fall; he predicts he’ll be breaking even within a year.

Here are the before and after screenshots:

Mahalo 1.0

Mahalo 2.0

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald