Advance defends bonuses for reporters who post frequently and join comment chains

Advance’s quota and bonus system at The Oregonian came in for heavy criticism last week, prompting a rejoinder from the typically close-mouthed private company.

In a note to senior executives shared with Poynter, Advance Local’s President Randy Siegel says that each newsroom “decides how to structure its own bonus program and what qualitative and quantitative criteria will be used.” He adds “every one of our local plans is different and will doubtless evolve over time.”

Siegel also includes recommendations on rewards from “an internal committee of Advance journalists.” It puts quality at the top of the list, and says prolific digital posters should not be considered “exemplary” unless their work rates high on that dimension too.

The Oregonian is in the middle of a switch having reduced print delivery to four days a week and giving higher priority to breaking news on the Oregon Live website. Willamette Week obtained a leaked internal memo establishing targets for daily posts by reporters and asking them to be first commenters on their stories. 

That prompted critical coverage from The New York Tmes’ David Carr and others, summarized well by Nieman Lab’s Mark Coddington (second item). A number of commentators including Poynter’s Sam Kirkland noted that even hot digital-native sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy do not offer incentives rewarding journalists for traffic or number of posts.

Siegel’s note underlines a bit of a paradox in Advance’s operation. The digital emphasis is a top-down initiative that has been phased in the last five years at most of the company’s 33 papers. But tradition at the company had been to let individual properties operate in a very decentralized way with infrequent visits from corporate bosses and only an informal budget.

The Advance pattern of reorganizing as a digital company and dismissing some senior print journalists in favor of new hires for the digital sites came last week to The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger. Unlike most properties that have made the shift, Newark will have no reduction in print frequency or home delivery for now.

While almost no other companies have made as drastic a print-to-digital shift, Advance has argued that scaling up digital and reorienting newsrooms to primarily focus on generating content for the digital sites is necessary. Siegel’s note says moves to accelerate digital growth are necessary “to offset the inexorable decline of our newspaper circulation and ad revenue.”

The full text of the note follows: 

The Oregonian Media Group in Portland, one of eleven Advance Local digitally focused news and information companies, received a lot of attention recently for a document its editors used to describe a new year-end bonus program that rewards journalists who do good work and engage with readers in meaningful ways.

Since the Oregonian program has stirred up some debate, here is some additional context:

Each Advance Local newsroom decides how to structure its own bonus program and what qualitative and quantitative criteria will be used. There is no corporate plan and every one of our local plans is different and will undoubtedly evolve over time.

Several months ago, an internal committee of Advance journalists put together these thought-starters on how to reward individuals who are excellent performers:

• QUALITY: Quality is an embedded, core competency. Quality is bedrock. As content staff adopts new forms of engagement and storytelling, a focus on quality should guide all work, whether it is live reporting on breaking news, smart aggregation of social media activity or longer-term enterprise projects. Quality is baked into the objectives, so simply hitting a number will not be considered exemplary performance.
• PRODUCTIVITY: How often does the employee post? And how often should that employee be posting? Those two questions begin a process of determining a productivity goal. A couple important points to consider:
» “Post” does not mean traditional inverted pyramid story. A post can be a video, an aggregation of links on a beat, etc.
» Consider how to set posting goals. The recommendation is to assign posting totals that relate to the expected productivity for a beat. They need a different posting goal. Peer groups and like beats – public safety, Tier 1 sports, entertainment, etc. – need goals appropriate for that group. Some will likely be higher than others.
• ENGAGEMENT: Engagement refers to the interaction an employee has with the public. For reporters, this can be how many comments they contribute, it can be how many comments their stories generate, or it can be how many times they participated in a public event. It might include social media activity. The key here is an audience focus: Listening and responding to what the audience wants leads to a more relevant report.

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.
We are fortunate that our newsrooms have the largest and most accomplished staffs in each of the communities we serve. Thanks to their commitment to quality journalism, five of the top 10 newspaper-affiliated websites in the U.S. for local market penetration are Advance Local websites, according to the latest Scarborough research. And our combined sites, which now reach 33 million readers each month, currently rank #8 nationally in comScore’s General News category, which includes sites such as Yahoo News, CNN and NBC.
As we scale our digital operations and accelerate our digital growth to offset the inexorable declines in our newspaper circulation and ad revenue, we will continue to hire more journalists and expand our news-gathering capabilities, including significant investments in the mobile and video platforms we need to succeed.  And our newsrooms will continue to measure their successes in a multitude of ways while rewarding the many talented individuals who are doing outstanding work and engaging more than ever with our rapidly growing audiences.

Longtime Oregonian editor Peter Bhatia announced earlier this month he is leaving for a teaching job at Arizona State University.

At a number of Advance papers including The Oregonian, the emphasis on digital has been accompanied by moving most of the newsroom to new, generic office space. That is meant to jolt reporters and editors from a print-first mentality that might persist in the cozy and familiar old quarters.

Whether the moves are working for readers or as a business remains an open question. On the one hand, the sites (nola.com is a good example) post breaking local news much more frequently and have seen audience growth and a younger demographic.

But for readers who prefer their local news report in print – still more than half according to a recent Newspaper Association of America analysis -- they have lesser frequency or convenience and may be pushed to the alternative of a digital replica edition online.

Growth of digital advertising generally has been disappointing for newspaper sites the last several years, with average rates continuing to fall.  Advance has not been specific about how digital ad gains compare with print revenue losses. There is no digital audience revenue because the sites remain free.

That may not be a huge issue. The real test will be whether Advance’s early swing to digital leaves the company’s sites and papers better positioned and more profitable several years hence.

Correction: The Oregonian’s print delivery is provided four days a week. An earlier version of this story included a different number.

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  • SocraticGadfly

    And, they still won’t paywall, which shows just how much Advance really knows about becoming a digital-first company.

  • gregwbrooks

    Really disappointed in the missed irony of Rick Edmonds not leaving the first comment on his own piece.