Ed. Note: I will probably revisit this issue at a later date when I’ve had more time to reflect on it. This is my initial thought process. Let me know what you think in the comments section.
Today I read on The Big Lead blog about Gannett’s plan to pay bonuses to writers according to how many page views their online posts generate.
Gannett is a company that owns USA Today and several other newspapers, and has a reputation of working its employees to the bone.
While I support rewarding journalists for their work, I also support programs, such as the New York Times Co.’s Chairman’s Award, that reward journalists for breaking challenging stories that better inform the public.
Paying journalists bonuses according to page views does not encourage better stories. It encourages reporters to cut corners and headline writers to embrace their more salacious instincts.
Gannett’s plan sounds like a scheme to become more like patch.com, and others who rely largely on search engines. It does not encourage community-driven reporting, and make no mistake many of Gannett’s properties are considerably smaller than USA Today.
As you could probably tell, I am skeptical of Gannett’s motives here. Are they trying to get out of paying their reporters competitive wages?
Yes, theoretically Gannett’s plan gives reporters a chance to earn more money. Potentially it also puts them in control of how much they can earn. But the chain also seems to be turning the journalist’s job into something of a quasi-advertiser.
Identify the key buzzwords of the day and you land the most page views. This flips the script on what it means to be a good reporter. No longer does fact gathering, sourcing, clarity and other abilities matter as much as picking the correct headline.
Also: As my former colleague, Eric Heisig, said, Gannett’s bonus method favors reporters of certain beats, such as crime and government, whose stories are more likely to get page views over education and the environment stories. This inequality won’t do wonders for newsroom morale, I’m guessing.
Before I go further: I am not a fan of USA Today, the Gannett company’s centerpiece. That paper has championed morsel-sized articles, graphs, and charts, but does not excel at context or thoroughness. You can’t be thorough when every story is 10 inches or less.
The biggest reason I am opposed to the concept of paying reporters bonuses according to page views is it invariably will make the content weaker.
Will an intricate story about healthcare get more page views about a councilman having a Charlie Sheen-like meltdown, which references the actor in the headline? The answer is no.
This method encourages reporters to shoot for what they think audiences will want to read rather than report on the news of the day. That is infotainment. That is not news.
Of course this push toward infotainment is nothing new. The evening news traffics a mix of news and entertainment and utter foolishness every night. But while that is easily digestable, it does not necessarily feed us the information we need to know as a society.
For more on this story, check out www.thebiglead.com. I would also encourage you to check out www.poynter.com.