Daily Telegraph plans to link journalists’ pay with article popularity

The Daily Telegraph wants to link some elements of journalists’ pay to the popularity of their articles, an email seen by the Guardian reveals, in a plan said to have “alarmed and dismayed” staff who fear it will “seriously warp our editorial priorities”.

An email sent by the editor, Chris Evans, last Thursday told staff that “in due course” the outlet wants to use the “Stars” system, which scores stories published online according to factors such as how many subscriptions they drive and how many clicks they get, “to link performance to reward” using subscription data.

“It seems only right that those who attract and retain the most subscribers should be the most handsomely paid, and noted that working out the details would be “complicated” so that “we’re not ready to do that … yet” said Evans.

But staff are said to be up in arms about the proposals, with some registering their objections in meetings held to explain the plans since Evans’ email was sent.

Executives “tried to convince everybody that it’s just experimental, not a big deal”, one journalist told the Guardian. “They were squirming at the questions. Everyone is just hoping it’s one of those mad ideas that eventually they quietly chuck out. Everyone is outraged. People feel compromised.”

Another said: “I’d call the mood mutinous. If you’re writing royal stories or big political news or coronavirus stuff or you’re famous then you’re going to get huge numbers. Most reporters are at the mercy of editors and it’s not their fault if they’re getting assigned boring things – and now that’s going to affect their pay packet.”

Internal WhatsApp discussions seen by the Guardian reflect that strength of feeling, with staff attacking the system as confusing, unfair, and likely to discourage good work. One veteran staffer told colleagues: “No one likes seeing how the sausage gets made. Especially when they turn out to be the sausages.”

Michelle Stanistreet, the general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, said the move “shows scant regard for the importance of diverse quality journalism” and would “massively demoralise journalists”.

It is understood that executives at the newspaper view claims of a mutinous atmosphere as inaccurate.

Evans tweeted that the story was a “complete misrepresentation” and said the Telegraph’s analytics are “all about establishing what intelligent readers will pay for and will continue to pay for. That’s the opposite of clickbait.” He suggested that the Guardian had “decided on a knocking story”.

Telegraph journalists across the organisation have access to Stars to assess the impact of their work. Some already say they are uncomfortable with a system which allows their bosses to view a page that ranks journalists by their Stars score and can be reordered to show who leads in comments on each piece, length of time readers spend with a story, or total page views, among other metrics.

The Telegraph has 600,000 online subscribers in total, with 150,000 added in 2020 and a target of 1m by 2023. In his email, Evans noted that Stars is “helping us establish what’s working best when it comes to attracting, engaging and retaining subscribers”.

The system – which Evans said rewarded quality journalism that was “imaginative, intelligent and distinctive” – is one of many attempts in newsrooms, including at the Guardian, to quantify the work that readers value most. Defenders of such an approach argue it is a matter of obvious fairness to say that the most popular journalists should be paid accordingly.

But while such metrics are key to the success of digital journalism, there are also fears that when used to drive decisions on pay or editorial priorities, they can lead outlets to an approach that demoralises staff and incentivises them to game the system.

The Telegraph previously faced a staff backlash in 2016 when it installed motion trackers under reporters’ desks. While it said they were intended to measure energy use, employees feared they would be used to check when they were at their desks and responded angrily. After the plans were revealed the monitors were removed.

In his email, Evans sought to reassure staff about the plans by saying that “the articles which score well for Stars range from new formats which use words with pictures in original ways to time-honoured formats such as the letters page. What all these pieces have in common is their quality. They are obviously imaginative, intelligent and distinctive.”

But a journalist who works outside news said: “He can say what he likes, the reality is that subscriptions are driven by the stories that get people frothing at the mouth. It will seriously warp our editorial priorities.

“The idea that I’m punished and meanwhile a columnist writing about woke culture gets a bonus really grates. If you’re doing reviews or environmental reporting you’re screwed.”

Another staff member said in an email: “It’s grotesque. Algorithmic commissioning linked to pay is a crime against journalism. It will tip the Telegraph down a clickbait plughole.”

Linking pay to web traffic was once relatively common in digital native media outlets, particularly in the US, but has become rarer in recent years. A Digiday article in 2015 noted that Gawker and Vox Media had both stepped back from the practice “partially because of concerns about how the model affects editorial decisions. Online publishing, the thinking goes, has gone too far in eroding the wall between publishers’ editorial and business sides.”

Stanistreet said: “The Telegraph’s plan to introduce clickbait scoring to pay and reward journalists is crass and shows scant regard for the importance of diverse quality journalism. For a publisher that purports to have high journalistic standards at its core, this is a foolish move that will undermine its reputation and massively demoralise the journalists whose work is at the heart of the business.”

Telegraph Media Group declined to comment.

Source: The Guardian

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