Is it time to tie journalists’ pay to revenue?

The days of editorial teams being quietly sheltered from the rigors of the sales team are long gone. Instead, journalists today increasingly double as numbers-crunching audience-hunting analytics wizzes, often paid based on the reach, not the quality, of their output.

But the nature of incentives also tells us that when systems exist, those within them are going to try their best to manipulate them. While this reality isn’t lost on publishers, many are still pushing ahead, tying pay to performance and shoving writers into the world of pageviews, uniques, shares and, increasingly, engagement time.

But like any divisive issue, there’s no one take on what performance pay does to writers and their output. Here are a few opinions from within the industry:

Troy Young,  president of digital, Hearst
At the spirit is the need to align editorial teams with the company’s traffic and engagement goals and have them share in the success. The new generation of editors are analytically inclined anyway. Traffic is a reward in many ways because it gives them credibility. This is a blood sport now. Still, you have to be careful that the pursuit of traffic doesn’t overwhelm the editorial mandate. When writers get too psychotic about chasing traffic, they can end up doing something that hurts the brand.

Rich Antoniello, CEO, Complex Media
Five to seven years ago, writers were just writers. Now they’re also marketers of their own product. When you know what you have to deliver and your goals are clear, you become a better employee. You know where you stand. There’s an integration of our entire team where we don’t have this split between business and editorial. That line should not be so harsh.

Julie Hansen, president and chief operating officer, Business Insider
As Sports Illustrated legend Rick Reilly liked to say, “Are you reading my stuff?” Writers want to be read. And smart pay incentives – focused on readership, quality and impact – reinforce that drive. They’re also a great opportunity to have some fun and enhance team-building. Business Insider each month honors “Rock Stars” who do a stand-out job of achieving the goals we jointly set out for them.

Ben Smith, editor-in-chief, BuzzFeed
We don’t do traffic bonuses. I think good writers are mindful of  trying to reach readers, and what’s succeeding and failing in that regard, as are good editors. We do have an internal page where writers can see how many people are reading their work, which is a useful tool. But we also understand how the Internet works, and that every post has a different possible audience, and that the goal is to reach the largest share of that possible audience.

Amy Schmitz Weiss, professor, San Diego State University’s School of Journalism and Media Studies
I think in today’s industry we find that journalists are faced with this kind of situation of performance metrics for their stories in addition to just getting a quality story done. It’s a challenge as reporters shouldn’t sacrifice their ethical principles to make a story more click-worthy than another. I think if the story is well written, has solid reporting and is a quality piece, it will naturally get the public’s attention and will drive traffic to the story. I think the focus should not be on the numbers of how many clicks or shares to get on a story but how can this story inform and engage the community in the conversation for this given topic?
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