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Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

In the Portland alt-weekly Willamette Week, Aaron Mesh has word of a new evaluation system for journalists at The Oregonian — one of Advance Publications’ daily newspapers that have been rendered less than daily in print.

Internal documents obtained by WW show that a quota system is being put in place that calls for steep increases in posting to Oregonlive.com, and promises compensation for those employees who post most often.

The new policy, shown to the editorial staff in a PowerPoint presentation in late February, provides that as much as 75 percent of reporters’ job performance will be based on measurable web-based metrics, including how often they post to Oregonlive.com.

Beat reporters will be expected to post at least three times a day, and all reporters are expected to increase their average number of posts by 40 percent over the next year.

In addition, reporters have been told to stir up online conversations among readers.

David Carr has a column tied to the same information and riffing on the general idea of tying compensation to metrics.

Mesh called me a few days ago to ask what I thought of this arrangement, and I think it’s fair to say I’m less outraged by it than a lot of people:

“Advance, for better or for worse, has been the most aggressive American newspaper company in moving to the web,” says Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab. “This is their bet. It makes sense that they would want to align their staff with that bet.”

Here’s what I mean. Advance has decided the way forward for newspapers is to get to a digital orientation as quickly as possible. Remaining tethered to print means that reader behaviors won’t change fast enough, ad sales behaviors won’t change fast enough, and editorial behaviors won’t change fast enough. Keeping the focus on print may well mean more revenue in the short term, but it delays the changes that’ll be necessary for the long term, since no one thinks print is going to make a stunning comeback anytime soon. So Advance has chosen radical action: stopping daily printing and/or daily home delivery at its papers, laying off a big chunk of their newsrooms, and demanding a shift to shorter online content and audience engagement.

That’s their bet. It may be a good bet or a bad bet. I tend to side with Ken Doctor when he argues the print losses end up being greater than the digital gains. And it’s a strategy that relies on the assumption that you’ll have the remaining print market to yourself — which is what makes the incursion of Baton Rouge’s Advocate into New Orleans so threatening.

But it’s their bet. And even though there are parts of it I don’t like — and even though there are good questions about whether these metrics and these standards are the right ones — I for one am happy to see newspaper companies making big bets. Because even if some (most!) of them are wrong, we know that continuing down the road the industry’s been on the past decade — cuts every year, smaller papers, weaker but still traditional journalism, neverending advertising decline, constantly aging audience — leads nowhere. That really can’t be emphasized enough: Other than what’s looking like a one-time bump from paywall revenue, the basic narrative of metro newspaper revenues has been virtually unchanged for years.

So we need big bets. And if we’re going to have big bets, we should have staff and incentive structures that line up with that bet.

Look at a paper making a different bet, The Globe and Mail. Canada’s national newspaper is betting that a paywall will be a big part of its financial future. So how is it aligning its staff resources? It’s tying compensation for some employees to paywall performance — how successful a given section’s articles were in converting readers to subscribers. A very different bet, but a similar alignment of incentives and goals.

— Joshua Benton
                                   
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  • John C. Osborn

    Isn’t tying compensation and evaluation to frequency of posts and metrics run the risk of inspiring link bait articles that might not have real substance to them over hard-hitting posts that may not yield traffic?

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Joshua Benton

    It certainly could! That’s where editors come in.

  • Jim Lynn

    There is no planet in this solar system, at least, where quotas for journalists contribute to quality journalism. Quotas and over-filing have always been a bad idea and still are,

  • http://peopleforbikes.org/ Michael Andersen

    Hear hear! Experiments are good for the industry, including experiments with metrics.

    Understandably harder to swallow, of course, for those of us who live in cities served by said experiments and would be affected by their failure. But OK.

    My own worry is that Advance is looking at the wrong metrics. Gawker’s Denton, quoted in the Carr piece, puts lots of faith in metrics and incentives but he also seems to put lots of attention into choosing the right ones. I’m not convinced that Advance is acting with comparable thoughtfulness.