April 01, 2014

Advance Media hits full-stage "churnalism"

In this sense, I'm not talking about recycling press releases, although what Advance Media is doing with at least the Portland Oregonian, and possibly also at the New Orleans Times-Picayune could lead to that.

Rather, reporters are being paid bonuses based on how much they post online. And, they're being encouraged to be the first person to comment on their own posts. (I'm surprised that Advance isn't going a step further, and encouraging them to create fake accounts for commenting purposes only.)

Obviously, if you're spitting out pulp mill updates on stories, and filing each update as a separate item on your website, then writing commentary pieces about what you've just written, you can fellate management and easily win this game.

But, it's a very, very blunt "eff you" to readers, telling them that you're treating their mouse hand and eyeballs as click-for-views meat and ignoring their brains. 

Update, April 8: Here's how you do it, as a writer at the paper illustrates. You do a headlines roundup, and, if the paper formerly known as the Oregonian has website content software of the normal type, you stuff the SEO keyword box full of about 100 keywords. You've got two murder-related links, a couple of political endorsement links, local government story links, recreational links and more.  That's not even "churnalism" as much as it is a bulletin board service. Welcome to the early 1990s, Advance. Oh, and that link definitely gets a "no follow" in the HTML for this page! (End of update.)

And, Advance continues this "eff you" with this press release linked above. It includes this:
IS THIS ONLY ABOUT THE NUMBERS? Absolutely not. The primary goal always will be quality and impact in our journalism, and that is a topic built into competencies and objectives. At the same time, our ability to grow audience and engagement is directly related to our success as a business, and we need to build a culture that embraces growth and accountability.
Uhh, wrong. As Poynter and other folks have carefully documented, in the past two or three years, top editorial staff have fled your papers in droves.  

Meanwhile, per Willamette Week, which got a memo that somebody leaked at Advance, those bonuses aren't even guaranteed:
The Oregonian will hand out yearly bonuses—if the finances of the company allows it—to reporters who exceed these goals. The policy says “final performance ratings will determine merit pay.”
Who will determine if finances allow it or not? The CEO, who makes sure the board of directors votes HIM a bonus first?

And, will this affect quality, contra the blurb higher above? Absolutely:
 “There will be more bits and bites of content,” says Ken Doctor, a longtime analyst of the news industry and a one-time editor and publisher in Oregon. “But you’ll see fewer of those stories that require talking to 5 or 10 people, as opposed to talking to 1 or 2 people.”
Yep, that's about right.

Specifically how will this work? WW breaks it down:
The new policy will likely increase Oregonlive.com’s use of daily, short posts that follow an original news post by reporting on readers’ comments, creating polls to gauge reader reaction, and “aggregating” the site’s most popular stories—as a way to build page views.
Reporting on readers' comments? Wow. In other words, your entire website's going to be like a giant effing Facebook page. Wow.

Nicholas Carr of the NYT takes these thoughts further:
Beginning immediately, according to the documents, the company’s leadership will require reporters to post new articles three times a day, and to post the first comment under any significant article. It’s part of a companywide initiative to increase page views by 27.7 percent in the coming year. 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. Contacted by email, Peter Bhatia, who is departing as editor of The Oregonian, scheduled an interview, but then declined to comment.
What results? Carr looks at Kinja, started by Gawker, where anybody can blog, and gets paid for hits, and has the answer for that:
 It’s bracingly meritocratic, but there are hazards. Quizzes are everywhere right now because readers can’t resist clicking on them, but on an informational level, they are mostly empty calories. There are any number of gambits to induce clicks, from LOL cats to slide shows to bait-and-switch headlines.
Of course, you're not about "news" any more anyway, you're about "content."

And, since Advance still refuses to put paywalls on its newspapers, even as ad revenues continue to shrink, this isn't even good businss practice. It's fucking stupid.

And, at some point, when more traditional advertisers like furniture stores and realtors ask for demographic specifics of the eyeballs that are visiting your site, they'll start pulling their ads, or at a minimum, demand further rate reductions.

Advance Media — bad for your brain, bad for journalism. When you're doing stuff that BuzzFeed won't do, you're a real bottom feeder indeed.

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