The Oregonian plans to tie reporter’s performance evaluations and pay to the number of online page views of their stories. The goal, according to a presentation made to reporters, is to increase both total unique page views and page views in particular sections, such as sports, entertainment and business.
If all a site is seeking is page views, it might as well just shift to porn. After all, that’s where the real traffic is.
Even though The Oregonian will be joining a growing list of news sites using content metrics to influence coverage, pay and performance, great peril lies ahead.
It used to be that a newspaper story’s readership and impact were hard to measure. The paper knew its paid circulation and where its subscribers lived, but whether the general audience, or specific key influencers, were reading particular stories and getting engaged in them was a mystery.
Digital journalism has changed all that. Now a news organization can measure precisely the web traffic a particular story generates, allowing the readership of individual reporters and the appeal of certain types of stories to be measured.
In the new dynamic, reporting is being evaluated following the principles of crowdfunding, where success is measured by how much money your online pitch attracts.
The problem, however, is that popularity at an online news site isn’t necessarily the equivalent of quality. A digital story on a celebrity, accompanied by an amusing picture and a reader quiz, might attract a lot of hits, or be great “click bait” as the online world says, but that doesn’t mean it was worth doing.
Equally, a well-written deeply researched story on damaging political chicanery might draw page views only from a small number of public policy aficionados, putting the reporter at a disadvantage in the pay and performance sweepstakes.
There’s no doubt that audience metrics are valuable, and are going to play an increasingly important role in helping traditional newspapers survive. The issue is whether they will be used wisely and to the public good.
As Raju Narisetti, senior vice president, strategy, for News Corp. said recently in a Poynter.org piece, “Editors continue to have a key gatekeeper role to play even in this era of promiscuous audiences, even when they need to become gate-openers. Part of that is exercising good judgment. And if we didn’t do that, stories on Syria, the U.S. fiscal cliff and even the NSA wouldn’t continue to get the play they currently get on our home pages, especially if such decisions were purely based on following cues from reader-engagement metrics.”
Click-based news also doesn’t necessarily translate into public attention. Tony Haile the CEO of Chartbeat, a data analytics company, recently argued in Time.com that more sophisticated measurement of reader engagement is necessary. What’s critical to understand, he said, is a reader’s attention. “… writers living in the Attention Web are creating real stories and building an audience that comes back,” he said.