‘Best, imperfect solution’: Insider’s metrics for measuring success are good for business, but leave reporters feeling frustrated and unionized
In any media company, newsrooms are inherently responsible for monitoring audience metrics and achieving growth, both to sustain their businesses and continue delivering what readers want.
At Insider, where each reporter must earn a specific amount of page views, unique visitors or subscriptions every month, that responsibility — and the system that enforces it — has gone from draining to confusing as the Axel Springer-owned publisher has shifted more of its focus to subscriptions.
Now, in the wake of Insider staffers’ decision to form a union, changes are likely coming for a system that some writers found so stressful it prompted them to quit.
“As we’ve grown as a newsroom and the breadth and depth of our reporting, sometimes that clashes with a rigid metric system,” said Rebecca Ungarino, a senior finance reporter and an organizing committee member of the Insider Union.
While opinions vary on whether this measurement system is necessary, or healthy for an editorial operation, at least having a better understanding of it (as well as negotiating how it works) was a key part of the Insider Union’s platform when it was announced earlier this week. The union was organized by a group of U.S.-based journalists in the Insider newsroom.
Ungarino said the union is not “strategizing with the ethos of ‘We’re going to just get rid of metrics,’” but is focusing on creating more flexibility in the system to help relieve worker stress and confusion. She added that this was a significant draw that helped convince 83% of the eligible Insider newsroom (more than 300 staffers) to sign their NewsGuild of New York union membership cards, at the time of publication. Dues right now are 1.38% of each paycheck.
The Insider Union has not yet had any formal discussions with management about their ideas for changes, but Ungarino said “something that we would like to see is more of a marriage [between] subscriptions-driven and impact. I know that impact is a controversial word with our newsroom, but I think something marrying [the qualitative and quantitative measurements] so it’s not such a rigid goal” is the first step.
Insider has had its metrics system in place since it was founded as Silicon Alley Insider in 2007. “We measure the performance of our journalists quantitatively, and we always will,” said Nicholas Carlson, editor-in-chief of Insider, who joined the company in 2008.
Carlson will not be a part of the union. Union eligibility for editors at lower levels will be part of the negotiations once conversations begin, Ungarino said.
The quantitative metrics are tied to either traffic or subscriptions, with additional measurements around impact and general helpfulness of articles being collected as well, but less formally. Each reporter is given a goal they have to reach every month or quarter, depending on their beat, team, rank and experience. Impact points and helpfulness points are self-reported by reporters based on a set of guidelines. Traffic and subscriptions are automatically recorded, but reporters are also responsible for self-reporting during annual reviews if they have hit their targets.
Digiday spoke with six current and former Insider reporters, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, to learn more about their individual goals. They ranged from 1.5 million unique views per quarter to 5-10 million page views per month to converting 120 paid subscriptions every month. Insider’s readership over a 12-month period from March 2020 to February 2021 averaged 44 million unique views per month, according to Comscore. In January, The Wall Street Journal reported that Insider had more than 100,000 paid subscribers.
Insider has more than 500 reporters on its global staff, 135 of whom were hired last year, Carlson said.
Metric-based evaluations of reporters were common among early millennium digital media companies that valued page views above all else — see Gawker, with its “traffic-whoring” experiment of 2012 and “Big Board” that displayed top performing articles in its newsroom. This strategy was largely abandoned by the industry, but recently some media brands have begun to consider the model again.
U.K.-based news site The Daily Telegraph has reportedly started talking about linking its reporters’ pay with article popularity. Last month, Insider reported that Fortune’s Union staged a work stoppage for a day to protest reporters’ new traffic quotas.
‘The best, imperfect solution’
Over the years, Insider’s measurement system has been modified and gone through iterations, according to Carlson, including moving away from being solely focused on page views to incorporating a subscription metrics model.
These changes were meant to reflect the goals of the company as well as provide fairer means of measuring performance. But because there is little standardization, it has left reporters confused on everything from how vacation time impacts monthly goals to why senior and junior reporters have the same traffic or subscription thresholds.
Carlson clarified that these goals are not quotas, meaning that if a reporter does not meet them, it does not necessarily lead to direct termination. “Everyone who is evaluated is evaluated by a human, not an algorithm,” he said. Goals are part of the overall review process and not meeting them can lead to missing out on promotions and advancement opportunities.
That said, he added that having a black and white metric system is a fairer way for journalists to achieve promotions and grow their careers, where other media companies might rely on who’s on the editor’s good side.
“It’s sort of the best, imperfect solution that we have so far,” he said.
As for the vacation policy, Insider has unlimited vacation days, which comes with its own problems — Carlson said in the past few weeks, his team has worked to create a universal rule that if an employee takes vacation time, their goals will be prorated for the amount of time they worked that month.
This was not a standardized practice prior to this month and several reporters said they would not take vacation time because working double time ahead of PTO to make sure they hit their monthly targets was not worth the stress.
‘It fundamentally changed my job’
Last fall, Insider increased its focus on subscription revenue by moving its beat reporters from having traffic-focused goals to producing paywalled, subscriber-only content. These reporters, who focus on industry-specific coverage, are now evaluated on how many readers their content converts into paid subscribers. The business news desk still writes breaking news, which remains in front of the paywall, and their goal is to earn traffic.
But with the change, reporters had to abruptly adjust their filing strategy, switching from fast-paced daily stories to spending longer amounts of time on thoroughly reported pieces that were likely to get readers to pay to read behind the paywall.
“I was never consulted on the switch. No one ever asked my opinion even though it fundamentally changed my job,” one former reporter said.
And the subscription conversion measurement system only counts conversions made on a single article page. While Insider’s executive team is working on ways to further measure the value and impact of Insider’s journalism, Carlson said he recognizes the current system only paints half of the picture. “What a lot of advertisers complain about with Google is it has attribution problems. It’s sort of similar with subscriptions,” Carlson said.
The impact points and helpfulness self ratings are meant to help address these issues by showing that articles have been read, linked to and shared across the internet. An email describing Insider’s “impact point” guidelines recently circulated on Twitter, indicated which publication pick-ups and which retweets from journalists counted as being “impactful.”
“It’s an effort to try to recognize that there’s more to good journalism than just traffic and subs, which are two things that are very valuable and do represent audience interests, but we think there is more to it than that,” Carlson said.
“To quote Nich [Carlson], there’s this idea of doing ‘transcendent, holy shit journalism,’ and a handful of reporters there [who have subscription goals] do that full-time and have that flexibility, but it felt like [for the traffic team] the real goal was just to churn clickable content that would sell ad views,” said a former reporter. “It seems to be working financially — the company was profitable during the pandemic. But in exchange for that, it’s this sort of insane system and work level.”
Page views at Insider are measured not by clicks to the page, but by how long a reader spends time on the article and how engaged they are while reading or viewing a story, Carlson said. About a year ago, there was an update to the system to help measure engagement within reporters’ goals.
For example, if a slideshow has 50 images, each image viewed equals one page view. In text-based stories, every 50 words scrolled equals another page view, according to a former reporter. This is because at about that interval of text and images, there is a new ad that generates on the page, equating page views to ad views. All of the data is automatically collected and generated into a shared audience data platform called Chartbeat.
“My journalistic ethics have always told me that there should be a big wall between business and editorial. But this model, it doesn’t really seem like there’s a wall. It seemed like the writers are expected to sell the stories” and deliver on campaign promises, said a former reporter.
Another former reporter said that it was never the goal to publish clickbait or write anything inaccurate or misleading headlines, but the types of stories that they would publish ended up feeling sensationalized within the context of their beat. Stories with flashy headlines were often encouraged by editors, even if the actual content of the story was rather commonplace for someone familiar with the industry.
“It was more like 2020 clickbait than 2010 clickbait,” the former reporter said.
‘Stressed to the max’
The reporters that spoke with Digiday said that regardless of whether or not they can easily hit their goals or whether they think this system benefits the company, having to actively work towards these metrics every week is an added layer of stress.
“I didn’t want to be promoted because it would come with higher goals,” said a former reporter, who said meeting their goals was relatively achievable.
A current reporter, with a quarterly goal of 1.5 million uniques, said they feel they are unable to write the more in-depth stories that take extra reporting time until they have hit their targets, which is not always easy to do on their beat. Every week’s schedule is planned around whether or not they are on pace to reach their targets, they said, and they check Chartbeat nearly hourly to update their work plan as a result.
“The last week of every month you’re stressed to the max. And then it resets, but then it builds back up. So it’s like this hamster wheel that was never ending,” said another former reporter.
And as the clock ticks down on reporters closing their traffic thresholds, there is temptation to jump off beat and compete with other desks in the newsroom for scoops.
“The traffic system forced reporters to cannibalize each other’s work,” said another former reporter. That didn’t leave a bad taste in their mouth, however, because they said they knew it was a systematic pitting of colleagues against each other. “There was very little collaboration effort with a system that prioritizes individual metrics as opposed to team metrics,” they added.
Often times, for example, members of the business news desk that are pursuing their traffic goals on a beat outside of their own will Slack request beat reporters for source suggestions, according to several reporters that spoke with Digiday, which is not always well recieved.
“It was very difficult to feel like you were in control of your beat because business news [reporters] were writing little traffic stories about it,” said a former reporter.
Carlson pushed back on that claim and said reporters are encouraged to co-write articles and will receive the full amount of page views or subscriptions that they would have received publishing on their own.
Still, competition felt like a core make up of the newsroom, according to several reporters interviewed, who said that the entire edit team shared a constantly updated spreadsheet of metrics that ranks everyone in the company by their uniques and their page views.
“It was that level of constant comparison. You don’t want to be seen as the weakest link,” said a former reporter.
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