Newspapers: Someone Else Is Successful At Something So We Need to Do That

Just because Buzzfeed is good at what Buzzfeed is doing, does not mean that you need to be Buzzfeed:

Internal documents obtained by WW show that a quota system is being put in place that calls for steep increases in posting to, 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

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.”

This is what happens when you have management by panic, and that’s how newspapers have been run for at least the last 40 years. Forget the Internet: The minute TV news came around, newspapers had to be more immediate, more visual, because that’s what TV was good at. Then the 24-hour networks, so let’s all cover whatever they’re covering, in the same half-assed way they’re covering it, because people like that now.

And now this jumping at every goddamn online trend that whistles past the door. I don’t actually think this is an impossible goal or anything, and good reporters usually can throw out enough cheap stuff to keep editors happy while still working on longer term stories, but the rationale is what burns my ass:

The new policy will likely increase‘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 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.”

First of all, can you think of anything less compelling than reporting that is based on reader comments? (If they were my reader comments, this would make sense, but in the case of a newspaper web site it’s more likely to lead to headlines like, AREA RESIDENTS SAY THEY HATE OUR BEET RECIPE, BLAME NEGRO PRESIDENT.)

Second, if the paper already has good web traffic, why screw with it? I mean is there any other business that says to its customers, “So this thing you like, we’re gonna make it like this other thing instead, because people like that thing, too?” In what universe does that make any kind of sense?

You don’t have to be everything to everybody. You don’t have to sell floor wax and pizza. You do have to figure out whether you’re better at producing pepperoni or shining the linoleum, pick one, and go with it. That can be hard to do, but flailing from one Internet trend to another is just going to make it harder.


3 thoughts on “Newspapers: Someone Else Is Successful At Something So We Need to Do That

  1. The Oregonian appears to be well into its death spiral. Once upon a time it was locally owned, and styled itself as the newspaper of record for Portland. Its ownership wasn’t sterling, preferring to sweep news inconvenient to the City Fathers under the nearest rug, but not everything that happens has a political slant, the paper could work some civic magic.
    But over the last several years, the Oregonian has become more and more a vehicle for its big advertisers and doesn’t claim to be the paper of record (which is good, because it ain’t). They’re looking to get out of their long-time downtown building. Writers used to start at the alt-papers and hope to make it to the big time of the Oregonian. Now, you’re as likely to see a writer escape from the Big O and begin writing some really good stuff (again) at one of the weeklies.
    The Oregonian’s website is a nightmare of small print, big ads, confusing links, and it takes forever to load. I used to try to look up high school football scores or read the letters to the editor online, but it was such a pain I simply gave up. And your point about reader comments is correct, though the problem with knuckle-headed posts isn’t exclusive to the Oregonian by any means.
    The print paper is in the process now of being whittled down to a few days a week, but the seeds have been germinating for a while. The daily edition used to have the big four sections: News, Opinion, Living, and Sports. But several years ago, the Monday edition was trimmed down to three, combining the News and Opinion sections into one as a cost-saving measure. Such were the first pebbles that presaged the avalanche to come. The editorial policy has turned more conservative and nastier, and a paper that was once seen in a majority of homes is becoming the province of the hoi megaloi, whispering reassuring affirmations that they’re still on top.
    The newest changes should just about slam the lid on the coffin, leaving only the hammering of the nails to be done. A bright entrepreneur looking to start up a daily metropolitan newspaper might be well advised to look to the Rose City.

  2. Those sad folks out there in Oregon. I’m not sure if I mean the employees of OregonLive or the readers of it.
    When the employees are presented with as something to go by, it’s almost pathetic. The only possible good that will come from this is that the readers will be able to have quite a bit of fun tearing apart the pieces put online for them to read. I can’t count the number of articles commenters have corrected on and about all the writers can offer is a “thanks for the info”.

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