With Quotas and Incentive Pay, The Oregonian is Again Reshaping Its Experience for Readers

UPDATE: "This one is a doozy," writes David Carr.

Close readers of The Oregonian have borne witness to dramatic changes in the past several months.

In October, the newspaper became a "digital first" media company, with news stories posted first to its website, Oregonlive.com, then dropped into a print edition that was reduced to home delivery four days a week.

At the same time—coming after widespread newsroom layoffs—the journalism has often been less deeply reported, with more posts that rely on press releases, links to stories from other media outlets, or reader comments.

The East Coast owners of The Oregonian now say they want more.

Internal documents obtained by WW show that a quota system is being put in place that calls for steep increases in posting to Oregonlive.com, and promises compensation for those employees who post most often.

The new policy, shown to the editorial staff in a PowerPoint presentation in late February, provides that as much as 75 percent of reporters' job performance will be based on measurable web-based metrics, including how often they post to Oregonlive.com.

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.

In addition, reporters have been told to stir up online conversations among readers.

"On any post of substance, 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."

The Oregonian will hand out yearly bonuses—if the finances of the company allows it—to reporters who exceed these goals. The policy says "final performance ratings will determine merit pay."

Prior to this, merit increases were distributed among reporters in a far more subjective fashion, given by management to those who produced the year's best work, or distinguished themselves as leaders in the newsroom, according to longtime employees.

The PowerPoint (which WW has linked to here) also says that reporters are expected to produce "top-flight journalistic and digitally oriented enterprise" that have as their goals "page views and engagement." The policy says that the goal for this work is "two times each quarter."

This development is similar to planned changes in the newsroom of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which is also owned by privately-held New York-based Advance Publications Inc.

It puts the media giant on a fast track that critics say shifts the culture of journalism toward that of a factory floor.

The news has not been universally welcomed in the newsroom, where Editor Peter Bhatia presented the PowerPoint entitled "Performance Management Process Overview for Employees," last month.

"'Bummed out' wouldn't begin to describe it," one reporter tells WW.

Outside observers say the policy will change what kind of news is delivered to readers.

"There will be more bits and bites of content," says Ken Doctor, a longtime analyst of the news industry and a one-time editor and publisher in Oregon. "But you'll see fewer of those stories that require talking to 5 or 10 people, as opposed to talking to 1 or 2 people."

The new policy will likely increase Oregonlive.com's use of daily, short posts that follow an original news post by reporting on readers' comments, creating polls to gauge reader reaction, and "aggregating" the site's most popular stories—as a way to build page views.

The policy says Advance is aiming to increase Oregonlive.com page views by 27.7 percent by the end of the year. (The paper's traffic is already sizable, with online metrics site Quantcast showing 23 million page views last month.)

"Advance, for better or for worse, has been the most aggressive American newspaper company in moving to the web," says Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab. "This is their bet. It makes sense that they would want to align their staff with that bet.” 

Oregonian Media Group president and publisher N. Christian Anderson did not directly address the memo, but tells WW that web posting will be 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."

Bhatia did not respond to WW's request for comment.

Internal communications among Oregonian editors show they are still discussing how to apply the new standards to their departments.

In a recent email to other Oregonian managers, director of local content Susan Gage pointed to standards set by at another Advance newspaper, the New Orleans Times Picayune, and its web site, NOLA.com.

The NOLA.com standards set "journalistic excellence" as valued as 20 percent of a reporter's performance—the same amount as "continuous publishing, "a term that refers to meeting the quota of three posts per day.

In the March 11 email, obtained by WW, Gage told the other managers the NOLA.com standards could become a model at The Oregonian.

The changes come as The Oregonian is shaking up its top management. Bhatia announced March 6 he is leaving later this year, after 20 years at the paper. 

(Bhatia took a one-year teaching job at Arizona State University's Cronkite School of Journalism.)

Doctor says Advance's digital strategy is a "shock treatment” that may force reporters to produce better stories faster. 

But he says the company has had trouble implementing its plan.

"From the abrupt change from print to digital," Doctor says, "to how they talked to readers about that change, to now how they've been talking to their own staffs about it, it's been a remarkably clumsy process."

UPDATE, 11 am Monday: The New York Times' media business reporter David Carr examines The Oregonian's new policy in his Monday column.

"In the more-with-less annals of corporate mandates, this one is a doozy," Carr writes.

He 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."

WWeek 2015

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