Critical Thinking

As the Importance of Data and Metrics Goals Rise in Newsrooms, Should Pay be Tied to Clicks?

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Jack West, 21, senior, Auburn University, Auburn, Ala.

West is from Huntsville, Ala. and is set to graduate this May with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and history. Since 2018, West has worked at The Auburn Plainsman, the school’s student-run newspaper, where he currently serves as editor-in-chief.  

It is undeniable that newsroom revenue is becoming more and more dependent on website and social media clicks. This also means that it has become easier to track exactly how well an individual article does in relation to the rest of the organization’s content. While the combination of these two phenomena might encourage some organizations to incentivize their writers by directly linking their pay to the number of clicks their articles get, I think this would instead incentivize bad journalistic processes which would further plunge this industry into corporatization and sensationalism. 

This would be especially true at a local level—a place where journalism has already faltered and fallen victim to the economic ravages of the internet. If you were to take a hypothetical reporter whose pay was reliant on the number of clicks her stories brought in and ask her to either cover a city council meeting or a sporting event, she would obviously choose to cover the sporting event. Afterall, that story will get a lot more attention than one about city bureaucracy. 

The problem is that we need people to cover city council meetings. So much governing is done at a local to state level, and our job as journalists is to ensure that the public has a chance to know about what is going on in their communities. 

It’s inevitable that newsrooms’ revenue will—at least for the foreseeable future— heavily rely on clicks. But even when revenue was based on advertising, journalists’ salaries weren’t tied to the number of ads the paper sold. 

When journalists have to make editorial decisions based on their own salary, other things start to fall through the cracks. Now isn’t the time to let that happen. 

Brian Martin, 50, managing editor, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Cheyenne, Wyo.

Brian Martin, 50, managing editor, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Cheyenne, Wyo.

Martin has been an editor for the Tribune Eagle for 22 years, the last five as managing editor. He currently oversees a staff of 11 journalists, who cover the capital city of Cheyenne and other parts of southeast Wyoming. Before that, he served as a reporter and editor in Geneva, N.Y. and Ontario, Ore.  

The easy answer to this question, of course, is no. Since most people spend their time reading “click-bait” material online, the last thing traditional news sources like our newspaper should do is link reporter compensation to the amount of clicks their stories get. If we did that, our papers would be filled with nothing but the latest community and celebrity gossip, the car crash of the day and one-sided stories that lack multiple perspectives.  

That said, though, I do think it is valuable for newspapers to review website analytics and see which stories are getting traction with readers and which aren’t. Although certain stories must be written simply because our communities need to know about those things and it’s our watchdog role to do so, we should know what stories resonate with readers. 

For example, if our readers are very interested in local personality profiles, why wouldn’t we strive to write more of them? Or if cooking is popular, why not dedicate a section in our print editions and a separate place online for reader-submitted recipes? 

Although readers shouldn’t completely dictate our content, we need to be open and responsive to their interests. I believe to ignore them and pretend we know what they want (or should want) is to doom ourselves to failure and obsolescence. 

I am grateful that the management of our parent company, Adams Publishing Group, believes in creating strong, broad news content and building relationships with readers. They’re not focused on counting clicks. Instead, they know that for a newspaper to continue to be important and relevant in the lives of its customers, it needs to provide a diversity of content that informs them, challenges them and helps them feel connected to the place they’ve chosen to live. 

I’m proud to work with a team of talented journalists that strives to accomplish that goal each and every day. 

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David Chavern

This is a straw man debate. Are there any legitimate news publishers who actually tie pay to clicks - particularly now? Also, I flatly reject the assertion that "it is undeniable that newsroom revenue is becoming more and more dependent on website and social media clicks." See https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/five-myths/five-myths-about-the-news-business/2020/12/03/49f871ee-34e1-11eb-b59c-adb7153d10c2_story.html, and https://www.vice.com/en/article/n7w3zw/silicon-valley-elite-discuss-journalists-having-too-much-power-in-private-app. Framing this as an actual "debate" just perpetuates myths about the economics of news publishing today - and the real challenges we have.

As indicated by much of Brian Martin's response, it would probably be much more interesting to ask "what role should readership metrics play in editorial choices?"

Friday, January 15