Amid mass layoffs, strict quotas about online posts, a new “digital-first strategy” that slashed delivery days, and a dramatic new print redesign, the Oregonian has hired a new top editor.
Mark Katches comes to the paper after leading the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting, and a long history of leading investigative teams at various papers for decades—including at the Orange County Register, where conservative Oregonian publisher N. Christian Anderson III was his boss.
Katches appears to be a respected journalist with a deep commitment to investigative reporting. Which leads to the question: How in the world is he going to fit into the Oregonian’s new business model?
Investigative journalism, when done right, is time-consuming and expensive. Reporters can spend months, or even years, running down a story—and sometimes come up empty. It doesn’t come with daily updates or rewards. That’s also why newspapers—as well as TV and radio outlets—have largely slashed their investigative efforts. Investigative reporting can be a money-loser that most news companies no longer care to float.
If the Oregonian is a model, modern journalism is about clicks, clicks, and more clicks. Content has to be fast and provocative enough to go viral. It also has to be easily recycled into more content, like polls and reposts of blog comments. In other words, the exact opposite of the investigative model.
Last spring, Willamette Week got their hands on some of the internal documents Oregonian officials were using to roll out their new performance / payment model to their writers. Here’s how WW outlined it:
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.”
The metrics are focused on clicks and “engagement,” with little mention about the quality or depth of the journalism that would be expected. In fact, one could convincingly argue that the new model is largely incompatible with in-depth investigative journalism.
It’s not that the O doesn’t have good investigative journos; it’s just that the new business model doesn’t make a lot of room for their work. So what does that mean for a veteran journalist like Katches?