…You can’t let go and you can’t hold on. – Garcia/Hunter
When my father, who’s now retired, started in the textiles industry almost four decades ago, he was quick to the see the drawbacks of the dominant compensation scheme at the time – known as “piecework” – which paid sewing machine operators based on the number of items they could crank out in a given day.
Piecework may encourage people to work harder, he observed, but it doesn’t encourage them to work smarter. By creating a system that values quantity over quality, paying by the piece leads to more mistakes and, over time, a less reliable product. As an entrepreneur seeking to differentiate himself in an industry increasingly dominated by cheap, low-quality imports, that didn’t sit well; so he broke ranks and started paying his employees a competitive hourly wage, even if it meant less bang for the buck in the short term.
Since then the value of piecework has been largely discredited and the practice is now most closely associated with sweatshop labor. Sadly, that message has been lost on the digital media sector – which has been advancing its own bastardized version of the piecework system under the guise of “incentivized” pay.
As David Carr reported this week, at least four major new-media outlets – and one established newspaper publisher – have begun limited transitions to a pay-per-click model that compensates journalists not by how many stories they break or the amount of actual reporting work that goes into them, but by how many readers they can lure behind the headline.
In the language of textiles, reporters at those outfits will now get paid based on how many people they can get to try on their clothes; the quality of the stitch, the durability of the fabric, the craftsmanship of the work – none of that really matters. The clothes don’t even have to fit. You just need to entice lots of people to squeeze into them for a few seconds and watch the pennies start rolling in.
The deficiency of this model hardly needs articulating. At best it will force journalists to make a financial sacrifice to cover stories that lack sex appeal but are still vital to an informed citizenry (“boring but important,” to journalists of a certain age). But more likely it will encourage them to avoid writing those kinds of stories altogether.
As CJR.org’s Ryan Chittum keenly predicts: “The logical end point…is sensationalist and thinly reported news. Period. Full stop.”
That’s because instead of rewarding good journalism, the new model incentivizes the look at me-ism that is already endemic to modern media and culture. From under our noses, the last bastion of thoughtful public discourse, the venerable Fourth Estate, is being auctioned off to the loudest voice in the room — or the first person to find the Rob Ford crack tape — under the guise of progress. Remember when viral meant something icky and treacherous?
That’s not to say “news porn” hasn’t always existed. It has. But it was relegated to the checkout aisle at the grocery store, the Maury Povich show, and the 30 minutes following the national news each weeknight. It didn’t compete for space on Nightline.
At no other time in the history of modern journalism would a story about the governor of Michigan suspending 300 same-sex marriage licenses show up on the same page — let alone directly next to — a headline that reads “Watch This Man Eat Every Single Burger On The Burger King Menu In One Sitting.” (Thanks for that BuzzFeed.)
For decades newspapers and networks enforced a strict separation of powers between real news and fluff. Each operated under a different mandate with their own budgets and metrics. News, it was understood, occupied its own unique domain, and its value was measured using terms like “credibility” and “integrity” rather than “page views” and “click-through rates.” There was no “news business” in any modern sense of the word. Journalism was a public service — or if you go back far enough (Hearst, Pulitzer) a more personal one. But it was never simply a mechanism for maximizing revenues.
Back then, the networks earned enough money from entertainment programming that they could afford to run their news operations at a loss. And so they did. Former CBS correspondent Marvin Kalb recalls Owner and Chairman William Paley instructing news reporters at a meeting in the early 1960’s that they shouldn’t be concerned about costs. “I have Jack Benny to make money,” he told them.
That barrier has been gradually dissolving for years under the pressure of market forces tied largely to digitization. But until recently at least, there was still an understanding that journalists performed a service so important that it rendered their valuation impervious to the whims of armchair voyeurs. Or at least publishers tried pretty damn hard to maintain the illusion that they did. Not any more. Now real reporters are being forced to sing for their supper in the same key as tabloid hacks. Journalism is going Top-40.
If pay-per-click isn’t bad enough on its own, the new piecework model is being coupled with new initiatives designed to eke even more work from overtaxed writers.
The Oregonian, writes Carr:
“…will require reporters to post new articles three times a day, and to post the first comment under any significant article…Beyond that, reporters are expected to increase their average number of daily posts by 25 percent by the middle of the year and an additional 15 percent in the second half of the year.
If that sounds like it won’t leave much time for serious work, the new initiative also calls for reporters to ‘produce top-flight journalistic and digitally oriented enterprise as measured by two major projects a quarter,’ which will include ‘goals by projects on page views and engagement.’ In the more-with-less annals of corporate mandates, this one is a doozy.”
(Remember what I said earlier about sweatshop labor?)
In simple terms this means Oregonian reporters will be required to factor potential click rates into their enterprise story pitches before they even start working on them. What could possibly go wrong?
These so called “incentive” efforts that value quantity over quality (and by extension image over substance) announce that a paradigm shift is underway in the field of journalism.
The evidence of this transition can be seen in two separate but tangentially-related events: the rejection of the low- (or no-) pay internship by young journalists and Ezra Klein’s decision to hire Brandon Ambrosino — a young gay essayist who’s made a name for himself writing contrarian opinion pieces based on his personal experiences that seem intentionally framed to incite the gay community (and Reza Aslan).
Ambrosino’s been writing semi-professionally for less than two years. His work is mediocre at best, and there is no evidence he’s ever actually practiced journalism (from what I can tell he has never interviewed anyone who doesn’t share his last name). His work reads like it came out of the worn moleskin journal of any one of a thousand recent college grads who have turned to the pen to work out their youthful angst. I’d be willing to bet some of it probably has.
There is nothing unique or wrong with that. I have a few of those journals myself somewhere. The difference is that someone had the good sense to deny my 20-something self a megaphone at a high-profile new venture dedicated to revolutionizing the craft of journalism. Call me curmudgeonly, but if the goal is to make the profession better, it should probably be a prerequisite to have actually done journalism first. (Would you hire someone to redo your kitchen that’s never handled a power drill?)
Writing personal missives about how your father is coming to terms with your homosexuality — no matter how heartfelt and honest — does not a journalist make.
Klein defended the hire by saying that while Ambrosino’s writing is not exactly a fit for Project X, he’s eager to learn. Okay, I’ll buy that; and I wish him the best of luck. But the same thing could be said about nearly every single kid coming out of Northwestern’s J-school this spring. And I’d bet my house there were dozens if not hundreds of better qualified candidates for Ambrosino’s post (full disclosure, I was NOT one of them). But the difference is those applicants probably weren’t also walking click-bait. (Sorry Ezra, I dig you I really do, but I have to call it like I see it).
Don’t get me wrong, being a journalist doesn’t require a college degree, let alone one in journalism; but like any craft or profession, to perform good journalism — and most certainly to revolutionize it — requires what Adam Gurri recently described as “practical wisdom,” which is “something developed by being inculcated into the conventions of a practice, and through sheer experience.”
This inculcation and experience used to be acquired from the ground up with your feet in the trenches — usually by starting off in a low-level apprenticeship or internship and spending a lot of time nodding and listening. But while today’s aspiring media professionals will gladly put themselves thousands of dollars into debt for four years of college, many have come to view four additional months of free on-the-job training subsidized by nights waiting tables as exploitative.
One can hardly blame them. How do you sell a new graduate on the value and necessity of paying their dues when all it takes is a free personal blog, one well-timed essay, and a smattering of orchestrated controversy to launch yourself into the journalism limelight?
Carr sums it up best when he writes: “Journalism’s status as a profession is up for grabs.”
I find that tragic. And it’s not just because journalism is my job. I’ll be just fine. I’m almost midway through my career and have earned the luxury of fully reporting a story out before I commit it to print. No, my heart goes out to the news consumers who will be forced to glean worthwhile knowledge from the drivel that’s destined to spew from this new pay-per-click regime and the suffering young journalists competing for a chance to write it. They will be the real losers.