October 26, 2020

The brewing battle between a local newsroom, its hedge fund owner and its guild hit Twitter last week and managed to hold its own against the story of a masturbating legal analyst, foreign threats to the U.S. election and the cancellation of actor Chris Pratt.

It’s a story about metrics, but don’t let that stop you.

There’s a back and forth here that played out on social media, starting with The Sacramento Bee’s guild launching a #NoPayForClicks campaign. The short version is that the guild said on Twitter that the Bee wants to tie pay to clicks (screenshots of a letter went more in-depth.)

Incorrect, said Bee editor Lauren Gustus in a tweet.

“We are proposing metrics that measure readership and engagement to better serve our communities. This is a concept both parties agreed to in prior bargaining sessions.”

The Bee is owned by McClatchy. McClatchy CEO Tony Hunter sent a company-wide email, which included this:

“At a time when all our efforts are focused on creating value and ensuring the mission of the company is sustainable, any effort to minimize the importance of data and metrics in judging how well we serve and engage our customers is misguided.”

Let’s cut through the back and forth.

The Sacramento Bee’s management wants to include metrics goals in annual reviews, and those reviews are tied to promotions and raises.

The newsroom’s most recent proposal, according to the guild, includes this:

“It is understood that for reporters no more than 30% of the final overall review score shall be tied to numerical performance metrics. These metrics include items such as page views, subscriber page views, conversions, time on site and other metrics that measure reader engagement.”

The guild did counter with 15%, said Theresa Clift, The Sacramento Bee’s guild president and a reporter who covers the city of Sacramento, in negotiations before there was a new owner and to avoid having an open contract. The guild then withdrew the offer because the company said it would not sign a contract before a new owner took over.

So let’s be clear: The hashtag #NoPayForClicks does not tell the whole story. But the cause behind it is legitimate, and it gets at something newsrooms have been wrestling with for years.

How do we use data to make journalism both better and sustainable? And who gets to decide?

The evolution of metrics

Why are we even talking about metrics days before the election, seven months into the pandemic? Because for many local newsrooms, building a loyal base of subscribers is seen as one of the ways to stop the slow evaporation of local newspapers as the advertising-based business model buckles (and, in the pandemic, completely breaks.)

The thinking is this: Focus on building news people want to pay for.

But what impact does a focus on metrics have on the news itself?

Renée Kaplan spent 15 years in traditional newsrooms before joining The Financial Times in London as its founding head of audience engagement. She moved into that role in 2015, and “that’s like a century in what is the accelerated timeline of digital transformation.”

Back then, some newsrooms were already building a culture of analytics, she said, with basic dashboards and an understanding of a story’s relevance, “but it truly was just pageviews,” said Kaplan, now head of digital editorial development.

Since then, there’s growing agreement that in order for data to be useful and relevant, it has to be nuanced. There’s a difference, Kaplan said, between being data-led and data-informed.

A 2018 study offers two examples.

It looked at two newsrooms, which were anonymized and referred to as The Heavy Metrics Herald and The Lighter Metrics Ledger. The first incorporated metrics into their daily operations, from choosing stories to assessing them after publication. The latter had metrics tools but didn’t focus on them.

Pageviews were the dominant metric used by both newsrooms. (Again, the Bee’s proposal isn’t just about pageviews.)

Here’s what the study found:

  • The Heavy Metrics Herald wrote more stories, wrote fewer civic issues stories and their work contained fewer sources than The Lighter Metrics Ledger.
  • Some of the reporters at the Heavy Metrics Herald learned to churn out stories and then did the work they cared about, writing quick-hit pieces to meet their goals and make time to work on more meaningful journalism.
  • The Lighter Metrics Ledger newsroom wasn’t oblivious to pageviews, said Tom Arenberg, one of the two authors and a journalism instructor at the University of Alabama, but they were just one force among many in news judgment.

The struggle between McClatchy, the Bee and its guild is in part about a revenue strategy, said Betsy O’Donovan, who co-authored a 2019 study for the American Press Institute about how to build a metrics savvy newsroom. And in part, it’s about “journalism’s civic mission, ethics and standards — the things that set our field apart from other kinds of internet content.”

“We have to be interesting to earn the first click. We have to be useful to get the second one. So, yes, we should focus on ‘interestingness’ metrics like pageviews and likes, but the money is in the metrics like subscriptions, conversions and even things like sending emails to reporters or providing news tips or story ideas,” she said. “Those things, which are harder to measure well, tell us whether and how people use or value our work.”

But digital metrics of any kind can only tell us so much, she added.

“Not, I would argue, enough to use them as a factor in evaluating someone’s skill at gathering, evaluating and organizing information, which are journalism’s entire value proposition.”

2020

2020 has probably felt like five years in one for local journalists. For McClatchy newsrooms, it might feel like even more. The company:

The Sacramento Bee has also had one heck of a year.

2020 has been one of the newsroom’s best years for pageviews and digital subscriptions, said Clift, with the Bee’s guild. The Bee recently celebrated getting 30,000 digital subscribers. It launched an Equity Reporting Lab.

And, unlike many other newsrooms, it hasn’t had furloughs, pay cuts or layoffs since the pandemic began.

Journalists at the Bee already have goals around metrics, Clift said. They include pageviews, stories that lead to digital subscriptions and pageviews from digital subscribers. Reporters have gotten training on writing for search engine optimization, McClatchy has a growth team to help with SEO, headlines and to monitor Google Trends.

Metrics are already on everyone’s minds, Clift said.

The next negotiation between the guild and the Bee will happen after the election.

“Local news is under tremendous pressure,” said Gustus, the Bee’s editor. “If we don’t learn how to reach people and ask them to support our reporting, we will get smaller, and nobody wants that. We are open to compromise, and we hope to work with our colleagues to get there.”

Attention

In his study, and from his career as a journalist, the University of Alabama’s Arenberg saw that, despite pageview pressures, journalists are civic-oriented. It’s why most of them became journalists. #NoPayForClicks is, if anything, a testament to that, with story after story from journalists sharing how long it took to cover critical issues that did not yield clear metrics wins.

One challenge for local news, the FT’s Kaplan thinks, is getting access to data training and the kinds of data cultures that help journalists understand what they’re seeing. And that matters to the very survival of a newsroom itself. Journalists have to be aware of the business model and they have to produce work that benefits the publication.

She was careful to note that she’s only talking about the culture at FT and not taking a view on what other publications do.

But the FT does not tie metrics to pay.

“And we 100% never would,” she said. “It would be completely counterproductive to achieving our overall objectives in the newsroom, which really are about growing the value of our journalism to our readers and hence the overall value of the mission of the FT.”

There are local newsrooms, O’Donovan added, including The Dallas Morning News and Whereby.us, that have committed to coaching their journalists to use metrics to make their work more powerful and valuable.

“Metrics measure attention,” she said. “But there are a lot of kinds of attention, and we need to be smart about which attention we want.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story notes that the Bee took a version of the metrics/review proposal off the table. That is incorrect. The story has been updated and language around negotiations have been clarified.

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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