Newspapers long have balanced news and entertainment on their pages. America’s founders probably didn’t envision sports sections and comic strips when they protected the free press in the Constitution.
Those popular sections bring in readers who might also then look at the story about a budget hearing at City Hall. There’s the news people want and the news they need.
Now, a contract dispute at a California newspaper has revealed just how delicate the balance is in the digital age.
The Sacramento Bee has been negotiating a contract with its news guild for almost a year. (A news guild is just the fancy term at a lot of newspapers for the journalists’ union.)
The guild and the Bee have agreed on most of the terms, but a sticking point remains: The newspaper wants to tie reporters’ annual raises to digital metrics. Reporters would work with their editors to set quarterly goals for clicks on stories, subscriptions generated after reading stories, etc.
Linking performance reviews to clicks, or page views, would encourage reporters to focus on the news readers want over the news they need. Many hard-hitting stories that take weeks or months to research wind up generating a lot of internet traffic. Many run-of-the-mill local government updates don’t, but that doesn’t mean they are less valuable.
As the guild put it in a recent letter, “It would create incentives to pursue clickbait headlines over in-depth, accountable journalism that serves the community and forms the basis of a sustainable, subscriber-based business.”
Theresa Clift, a city hall reporter and the guild chair at the Bee, hoped that by going public with this, the guild could generate support from readers.
“We’re asking for the readers to help us because we know readers hate clickbait like we do,” she said.
Her optimism about readers might be misplaced. People claim to hate clickbait, but they still click. Stories about celebrities, kittens and wardrobe malfunctions do well.
That doesn’t mean studying clicks is bad. From “Moneyball” in sports to quants on Wall Street, carefully analyzing large data sets has helped smart people rethink conventional wisdom and gain an edge. The local free press needs to get in on that.
The Seattle Times uses digital metrics to better understand readers and their interests, but that’s all.
“We closely follow metrics, including page views and subscription influence, but do not offer pay incentives around them,” said Managing Editor Ray Rivera. “We encourage our reporters and editors to think about quality, deeply reported stories that drive subscriptions and audience engagement, but not to the exclusion of stories that may not draw as much traffic but are critical to our public-service mission.”
The Bee should follow that model, but its owners might stand in the way.
The McClatchy Co. newspaper chain owns the Bee, and hedge fund Chatham Asset Management owns McClatchy.
McClatchy runs 30 daily newspapers in 14 states, including papers in Bellingham, Olympia, Tacoma and Kenewick. According to Clift, the company already is using metrics in reporters’ performance evaluations at non-guild papers.
This contract disagreement predates Chatham, but the new hedge-fund owners aren’t intervening on behalf of good journalism.
Tony Hunter, Chatham’s hand-picked McClatchy CEO, was upfront about his goals in a memo to staff after the guild went public. “As we continue our efforts to create a digitally driven business model, I want to address the most urgent strategic priority for our company: driving more consumer revenue,” he wrote.
I’d have thought that the “most urgent strategic priority” for a news organization would be producing quality journalism. Having revenue to pay for journalism is essential, but which side of the equation takes priority in the CEO’s mind says a lot.
There’s hope, though. Bee Editor Lauren Gustus sees the advantages of analytics but also wants to work things out with the guild.
“I believe that local journalism must survive. If we are to survive, we have to figure out how to get more people to subscribe. And if we want to get more people to subscribe, we have to figure out what they want and how to give it to them,” she said. “I’m open to compromise. I want us to move forward.”
I hope she gets that compromise soon or, better, persuades Hunter to back down. The longer this sort of internecine argument stays public, the greater the risk that it will harm the credibility of a newspaper with a tremendous history of producing powerful journalism and spill over onto other local news publishers.
Use analytics, just not to encourage reporters to write clickbait.