A recent article I came across discussed one British newspaper which proposed paying its reporters based on how popular it was. Basically, how many “clicks” did it get online?
I truly hope that’s an idea that doesn’t migrate “across the pond.” I can’t think of a worse idea as journalists around the country try to build trust with audiences who have grown, some with good reason, suspicious of the media in general.
Once upon a time, at a couple of my papers, I counted the number of stories my reporters produced per week. One staffer called it the “bean count” report, figuring I’d abandoned my newsroom roots and had gone to the dark side. I explained it wasn’t the “be all, end all” measure of productivity or, certainly, quality. However, I’d had a staffer at one point whom I realized I rarely saw anything from. I asked the editor, his boss, about it and she assured me he was intensely productive, but I didn’t buy it. I did my little survey, and figured out he was only producing about one story in an eight-hour day and she was positively stunned to find out that’s all he was doing. He told her about all he was working on, but in reality produced very little. That changed pretty quickly.
This idea, though, seems to be the opposite end of that spectrum. A method like the British media outlet is proposing lends itself to clickbait headlines and salacious reporting just to drive clicks. It doesn’t produce any meaningful results, or meaningful journalism.
Some stories, by their nature, can be titillating. I review the stats of our most read stories each day. It’s a mixture of good news and bad news, but leans a little to the negative side of things. People will often tell us there’s not enough good news in the paper, but sadly our statistics tell us it’s what people read. Day in and day out, controversy, crime and intrigue seem to pique more readers’ interest than the good that people do.
But that’s usually short-lived. Two of the most read stories The Constitution has published in my tenure was the story about Perry Hudgies who was named McDonald’s employee of the year in January 2020. Likewise, the story we did about the Holy City facing financial distress and possible closure was read over 64,000 times and was one of the top stories on our website for more than a week.
Responsible journalists will, of course, write the story with fairness in mind and disregard how it will affect their paycheck. Just like you wouldn’t want police officers being paid based on the number of tickets they write, or paying a legislator based on the number of bills they sponsor. All of those tasks are necessary for a variety of reasons, but I think everyone would agree these tasks, as well as others, should be judged with a quality over quantity metric.
We all hope the people we work with will be as productive as possible. Sadly, I see this as more counterproductive to the larger mission of providing consumers with credible news.
At this newspaper, I can promise you that won’t happen. We do look at the numbers to see what you and your neighbors are reading (at least online). It helps us figure out what people are interested in, what stories need to be followed up on, etc. And we are thrilled when we see a particular story has resonated with our audience. But tying a reporter’s pay to website clicks is just bad journalism.
David Stringer is the publisher of The Lawton Constitution, a past-president of the Oklahoma Press Association and a media professional for over 40 years, more than half of that in Oklahoma. He can be reached at email@example.com.