Last year, the Oregonian marked its lurch into the 21st Century by cutting delivery down to three (or is it four?) days a week, and laying off more than 100 staffers. Veteran journalists, each with decades of experience, were shown the door—later to be replaced by newbie reporters with little knowledge of their beat.
This was all part of the newspaper’s new “digital-first” approach, with efforts concentrated on delivering content through Oregonlive.com (and the unintentionally NSFW-sounding MyDigitialO.com).
In the months that have followed, online readers have started being inundated with post after post of surface-level click-bait: Instead of in-depth reporting or investigative journalism, we see a never-ending parade of “polls,” inflammatory questions designed to drive equally inflammatory online comments, and posts composed entirely of the most inflammatory comments from previous posts.
The results have been pretty clear—in many cases, reporters are often seen practically begging for comments on their articles.
Now, we have a better idea of why.
Internal Docs Paint a Bleak Picture
Willamette Week has gotten hold of some internal documents outlining the new compensation performance review structure at the Oregonian. It’s depressing.
Rather than being rewarded for the quality or relevance of their work, reporters will now be compensated based on how many posts they publish on a daily basis… and potentially how many comments and clicks they get.
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.”
“’”Bummed out” wouldn’t begin to describe it,’ one reporter tells WW.”
In short: The newsroom has been transformed into a factory floor, cranking out blog posts like cheap trinkets. Even worse, the model specifically incentivizes reporters to troll their readers for comments. If you think the current Oregonlive comments section is a hotbed of anonymous, disrespectful trolls, what do you think will happen when a reporter’s pay is based on how much they can rile up these commenters?
If you want to see some clear examples of the Oregonian’s new policies in action, head on over to their PolitiFact arm. Reporter Dana Tims has been trying to drum up comments on his recent posts, asking for feedback on which “facts” should get “checked.”
In one case, he’s even asking for readers’ opinions on a fact that he hadn’t even checked yet: Whether public school students are allowed to skip math class in order to go to religious classes.
Instead of investigating real claims that matter, PolitiFact is now crowdsourcing opinions about facts they may check in the future.
It’s all part of the Oregonian’s brave new approach to journalism: Focus on clicks, quantity of comments, and web traffic. And if there’s time, think about reporting on the stories that actually matter to people’s lives.
For more on this story, check out Willamette Week‘s news story from this week’s paper.