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Summary:

A newspaper’s leaked internal presentation on performance metrics and expectations for reporters has caused a furor about the rise of “hamster wheel” journalism, but the strategy also gets a lot of things right about where media outlets need to be focusing

There’s been much sound and fury in media circles about a leaked internal presentation from The Oregonian that lays out the newspaper’s goals for its web content and sets performance measurements for reporters and editors. New York Times writer David Carr used the document as an example of how media outlets are compensating writers in part on traffic, and Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review described it as institutionalizing the “hamster wheel” approach — one that values shameless click-bait rather than value-added journalism.

Nieman Journalism Lab director Josh Benton took a slightly different tack on the subject, however, pointing out that newspapers like the Oregonian (part of the Advance Communications chain) need to shift their thinking away from print and towards a digital future. In order to help all of their employees do that, he said, it’s reasonable to assume that they would need to create incentives and metrics that allow them to measure how quickly that transition is taking place.

“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.”

Setting expectations and measuring them

The Oregonian document lays out what will be expected of reporters: the paper says it wants to increase its web audience by 27 percent (as measured by pageviews), that beat reporters are expected to post at least three items a day — including aggregation posts, news posts and “engagement” posts — that reporters also need to “demonstrate mastery of iterative reporting” and do enterprise projects, and that they need to increase the number of photo and video galleries they post to the website by a factor of 25 percent.

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In addition, the Oregonian presentation says that reporters need to be the first to post a comment on any post “of substance,” that reporters and editors need to host at least one public chat every month based on their subject area (more often for sports and politics reporters) and that beat reporters need to solicit both feedback and ideas for future coverage from readers on a daily basis through the use of polls, posts and comments.

In his CJR piece on the document, Chittum details how this kind of approach leads to a “hamster wheel” process of click-bait stories that add little value — such as a story from a sister paper in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania about a gruesome murder in Chicago that had virtually nothing to offer the newspaper’s local audience except a titillating report cribbed from the New York Daily News. As Chittum puts it, this kind of focus on buzz and cheap clicks “comes at the expense of the most valuable thing a paper has: Its relationship with readers.”

What the Oregonian gets right

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Although Chittum and I disagree about a great many things when it comes to digital media, I think he is right when he says a purely traffic-driven approach to digital media can lead to cheap click-bait, and potentially damage the trust that readers have in a publication. But does it have to do so? Not necessarily. And there is much that the Oregonian gets right in its strategic vision, which I think has gotten overlooked amidst the tidal wave of criticism. So here are a few things I think it is right to focus on, and why:

1) A quota system: Many journalists dislike the idea of being required to post a certain number of items per day, but I assume that this is just a goal, and that editors have discretion to allow writers to take more time for in-depth stories. And when it comes to beat reporters, if you don’t have three things of value to offer your readers on that topic — even small things — then you are probably in the wrong job.

2) The type of posts: I think the Oregonian is right to focus on different types of posts in its description of what is required — news posts, engagement posts, aggregation posts, etc. A news post could be a short item, or it could even be a pointer to a news story from somewhere else. That kind of smart aggregation doesn’t have to be cheap click-bait, but can give readers a one-stop place to see what is happening in a subject area they care about.

3) A focus on engagement: As Chittum mentions, requiring reporters to post the first comment is probably not a great approach, since there is little to say but platitudes such as “What do you think?” But they should certainly be required to respond as quickly as possible and to engage in the comments (and on Twitter and elsewhere) if they want to strengthen the relationship they have with readers, something even the New York Times doesn’t seem to feel is that important.

4) Using readers as a resource: Requiring a poll or comment invitation every day might be overkill, but here again the Oregonian‘s focus is a good one — in the sense that it wants to get reporters used to asking “the people formerly known as the audience” for ideas and feedback. The idea of a monthly chat in particular is a good one, and one which the pioneering crowdfunded publication De Correspondent in Holland is also using to great effect.

What’s the worst thing about the Oregonian‘s strategy? For me, it’s the singular focus on pageview growth as a measurement of performance. I think that’s probably the biggest “hamster wheel” risk in the entire presentation, although as a commenter on my previous post — Martin Belam of Trinity Mirror’s Ampp3d project — pointed out, even a focus on boosting pageviews doesn’t necessarily mean your content has to be cheap or disposable.

I would much rather that the Oregonian and other papers focused on something approaching engagement metrics instead of pageviews, whether it’s through the kind of approach that Forbes takes — in which returning visitors are seen as 10 times as valuable as first-time readers — or some other measurement that shows whether reporters are building long-term relationships with their audience. Because that is the only value worth talking about.

Post and photo thumbnails courtesy of Shutterstock / Be Good

  1. I’m going to go out there and say that any system of performance management that indirectly tells you that the best way to format a 250-word story is in a 70-page slideshow is probably missing the mark somewhere. But then you know how I feel about pageviews… :)

    Unsurprisingly, I think you’re right about more sophisticated metrics that might better speak to the long-term goals and mission of the site. However, I’m also conflicted about the pay-for-performance choice here. Metrics are fantastic feedback loops for improving performance, but there’s a ton of research from Deming to Kohn around what happens when you replace intrinsic motivation with extrinsic motivation in a situation like this. First casualty is typically the creativity with which someone approaches the role. The deck also suggests that a performance review should be about rating people rather than coaching people, which again goes against most research in this area.

    Use metrics (ideally the right metrics) to improve performance, but think long and hard before you implement a pay-for-performance plan.

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    1. I agree, Tony — it’s very important to be sure of what you are incentivizing when you reward specific kinds of performance, because it isn’t always what you think you are incentivizing. Thanks for the comment.

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  2. Yet more reasons why I may eventually cancel my subscription to The Oregonian. I really only want the Sunday print edition but am required to take several more days of the now “not really daily” print edition. BTW, the site was down on Sunday and the print edition was very late getting delivered.

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  3. I think that the recent research out of Poynter shows that pure clickbait is actually far less effective at driving engagement. I also think that Oregonian and other places should really look at West Seattle Blog as a guide. There is no fluff or cruft there, unless its local and locally relevant. There is just a steady stream of really useful local news. You have to read it to feel up to date on that community. That’s what the local sites should aspire towards. And think of novel monetization outside of ads.

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    1. Great point, Alex — thanks for the comment.

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  4. Having survived three years at a hyperlocal operation that was endlessly resetting its metrics, I’m suspicious of this. The first harm I see is that by forcing people to sit at their desks, looking for and at comments is time taken from reporting.

    Second, I wouldn’t assume that these numbers are simply goals, or targets. Again, I’ve seen “goals” become hard and fast requirements in the blink of an eye.

    I like the idea of hosting a chat, if indeed the community wants that from its newspaper/digital operation.

    And overall, I have serious doubts that this is what readers want–to sit around and chat with the reporters. I was fully on board with that concept with my former company until it became obvious that what people wanted was reporting–details about the school board meeting they couldn’t get to, police blotter updates, features about businesses, including new/closing restaurants, stories about their kids’ successes in schools, etc.

    I find the demand for metrics to be a bit of a house of cards, with no one having the answer as to what is successful. And I’m all for increasing engagment, though I find these demands excessive. I just don’t know what it leads to or whether it has any real value.

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