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March 26th, 2014 AARON MESH | News Stories
 

The Click Factory

With quotas and incentive pay for reporters, The Oregonian is again changing its readers’ experience.

news1_4021ILLUSTRATION: WW Staff
The future of The Oregonian is filled with questions. 

Do you believe Portland is America’s fittest city?

Should dogs be allowed in grocery stores?

Would you accept a donated organ from a convicted murderer?

The newspaper’s website, Oregonlive.com, has put these questions to readers in online polls in the past week. The polls—intended to hook readers and earn more clicks for the website—have become a mainstay of the newsroom since the paper moved to a “digital first” model last fall. 

Coming after widespread newsroom layoffs last year, the changes left many at The O worried that the paper’s journalism would be diluted by more reliance on press releases and links to stories from other media outlets. Since then, they’ve seen a greater dependence on gimmicks such as polls, news stories written solely about readers’ comments, and photo essays on such subjects as obese cats.

Now the paper’s East Coast owners say they want even more.

Internal documents show the newsroom’s staff faces steep new quotas for feeding the website. The documents, reported by wweek.com March 23, say 75 percent of reporters’ job performance will be measured by Web-based benchmarks, including how often they post to Oregonlive.com. The most productive reporters at meeting their goals will have a chance at earning merit pay.

Reporters and editors tell WW they fear the new policy will take even more time away from serious journalism, and that it’s merely the latest fusillade in a campaign by the paper’s New York-based owners, Advance Publications Inc., to change the culture of the newsroom to that of a factory floor.  

They say Oregonian management faces growing pressure from Advance to increase Web traffic at the same pace as the chain’s other newspapers—even if that means more posts on celebrity gossip and sports.

“Our posts are still news-driven,” says one Oregonian reporter, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Advance is mad at us, that we haven’t gone deep enough into the Web world.”


In October, The Oregonian became a “digital first” media company, with news stories posted first to its website, then dropped into a print edition that was reduced to home delivery four days a week.

Since then, The Oregonian has continued to report in-depth investigative stories, including repeated exposure of lapses at the Cover Oregon health-insurance exchange. And it has used the Web to produce elegant features, like a profile earlier this month of hip-hop artists in St. Johns. 

The paper’s latest policy—one of the most aggressive efforts yet by a legacy media company to force reporters onto the Internet—has sparked renewed debate over whether journalists should be compensated based on their Web traffic. 

“In the more-with-less annals of corporate mandates,” wrote New York Times media columnist David Carr on March 24, “this one is a doozy.”

Carr compares the Advance directives to the policies of several Web-based media companies, including Gawker, where financially rewarding reporters for drawing traffic is common practice.

“And journalism’s status as a profession is up for grabs,” Carr writes. “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.”

Under the new quotas, 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.

“On any post of substance, [the] 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.”

Already, reader polls and roundups of reader comments have become pillars of Oregonlive.com, along with noon and evening posts listing the five most popular stories of the day. 

And when a topic gets lots of traffic, reporters milk it further. The March 10 story of a family that called 911 to report the aggressive behavior of its housecat led to a slide show about “5 famous Portland fat cats.” 

The paper’s traffic is already sizable, with online metrics site Quantcast showing 23 million page views last month. But its monthly average page views only grew by 4 percent in 2013, according to Quantcast. 

That growth is similar to other Advance holdings last year—its papers in New Orleans, Alabama and New York also saw modest Web gains. But the company’s ambition is to grow Web traffic far faster: The new policy says Advance is aiming to increase Oregonlive.com page views by 27.7 percent in the next year.


Editor Peter Bhatia informed staff of the new policy last month. Bhatia tells WW that high-quality reporting will remain at the center of how The Oregonian evaluates its employees. “These are goals,” Bhatia wrote to WW in an email. “We will, of course, adjust and refine for individual situations, changing assignments and the necessities of individual beats.”

Bhatia announced March 6 he is leaving later this year, after 20 years at the paper, to take a one-year teaching job at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism.

Bhatia tells WW that The Oregonian has for several years used an evaluation system to determine bonuses. Longtime employees say management has distributed merit pay in a far more subjective fashion, giving it to those who produced the year’s best work, for example, or distinguished themselves as leaders in the newsroom.

Oregonian Media Group president and publisher N. Christian Anderson said in an email to WW that Web posting will be only one of many factors in evaluating reporters.

“Incentive pay is not tied exclusively to any one goal,” Anderson says, “but rather to the full range of journalistic achievement.”

Ken Doctor, a longtime analyst of the news industry and a onetime editor and publisher in Oregon, says the new policy at The O is part of a “shock treatment” by Advance to force reporters to do better work faster.

“They’re trying to lead a cultural revolution,” Doctor says, “but they’re doing it by the numbers and through quotas.”

Doctor says the inevitable result of the policy is more “bits and bites” of coverage.

“If not leavened by journalistic judgment,” he says, “it will tend to dumb down the product.”

Doctor questions whether Advance’s insistence on increasing page views—instead of creating a paywall, and enticing readers to subscribe online—is the smartest strategy for making money on the Web.

“They’re still focused on spinning page views, as opposed to deeply engaging with paying readers online,” says Doctor. “Advance is marching off in the wrong direction.”

Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, tells WW that Advance’s new policy makes sense given the company’s strategy. Benton says newspaper companies are doomed if they don’t find new ways to attract readers and make money. While he doesn’t agree with everything Advance is doing, Benton says he admires the company’s courage to take a big gamble by pushing its traditional publications toward the Web so aggressively.

“I wish we still lived in an era when owning a newspaper was a license to print money,” he says. “But the harsh reality is, that era is over. So newspaper companies are making bets. This is their bet.” 

 
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