Will Web Metrics Kill Professional Journalism?

The crumbling of mainstream journalism worries me. But am I just being nostalgic? Was it really that good in the past?

newspapers, Journalism, mainstream journalism, trends in journalism

The Portland Oregonian, one of the grand old daily newspapers they used to use an example when I was in J-school in 1971, and is still printing big paper newspapers every day, is changing the game for its reporters. They’re going to be paid for traffic. They have to post often on the live website. The should “stir up conversations among reader.” (More on that below)

David Carr followed the announcement with a thoughtful New York Times post on the underlying trend. Old-guard journalism seeking new-world eyeballs. (more on that below).

Paying journalists for traffic, and eyeballs? Carr suggests ironically:

Gee, it’s almost like news is supposed to be a business or something.

I’m worried too. I’ve posted about my worries for journalism occasionally on this blog for years. I’m most worried about who pays for local coverage and investigative journalism as advertising fades out of journalism and into other media.

But, trends aside, in respect for truth, when I was mainstream journalist, foreign correspondent in Mexico, during the 1970s …

  • In the wire services agencies, Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI), we got scores for every major story. Literally. While I was a foreign correspondent for United Press (1971-1974) my workday began with metrics. They tracked how many newspapers used our story against how many newspapers used the AP story for every major story. The scores looked like football scores, 15-10, 7-3, and like that.
  • When I was a foreign correspondent for McGraw-Hill, writing for Business Week and other McGraw-Hill magazines, I got paid by the column inch. The more inches published, the higher the monthly check.

Was it the same thing then, like now? No. There was a conceptual firewall back then. Although we all knew our salaries depended on our employers’ revenue, but we didn’t connect that to the quality, content, length, or frequency of the stories we submitted. By “we” I mean me, my colleagues at UPI, competitors at AP, friends in the correspondents’ club who worked for major newspapers, magazines, and television networks.

And back then we believed in Journalism as a profession. We cared about the quality of the news and being objective, and — yes — having facts and attribution. Those of us who didn’t get that like I did, in grad school, got it from their peers. I mentioned the foreign correspondents’ club in Mexico City. We met once a month. We also played squash, and chess. And when there was a big story, we’d see each other at the scene, and share stories.

Here’s more detail on the new trend:

Here’s what Willamette Week (a competitor) reported:

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.

“On any post of substance, reporter will post the first comment,” the policy says. “Beat reporters [are to] solicit ideas and feedback through posts, polls and comments on a daily basis.”

The Oregonian will hand out yearly bonuses—if the finances of the company allows it—to reporters who exceed these goals. The policy says “final performance ratings will determine merit pay.”

David Carr’s post was this one: Risks Abound as Reporters Play in Traffic – NYTimes.com. He identified a trend, and cited multiple indications of it. He said:

The availability of ready metrics on content is not only changing the way news organizations compensate their employees, but will have a significant effect on the news itself.

And this:

And journalism’s status as a profession is up for grabs. A viral hit is no longer defined by the credentials of an individual or organization. The media ecosystem is increasingly a pro-am affair, where the wisdom — or prurient interest — of the crowd decides what is important and worthy of sharing.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *