Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
5 mins read

“Pay for popularity”: Publishers need to experiment more, not less, with performance tools

Publishing is a talent-driven industry and right now the fight for talent is arguably the sector’s biggest challenge.

Recently, a piece announcing the Daily Telegraph would link content creator pay with popularity drew snarky criticism from the media community. That’s a pity. Retaining talent is arguably the industry’s biggest challenge – meaning we need more experimentation with performance management tools, not less.

Most of the analysis that followed the Guardian publication was not particularly deep. “This is very dumb,” read one Harvard lecturer’s tweet. (It is worth noting a lot of the criticism seemed grounded in dislike of the conservative Daily Telegraph itself).

Others attacked a series of straw-men. Many predicted a future where journalists would either write about the royals (or other Kardashianesque stories) or face life in penury.

No one mentioned actual user behaviour (people generally don’t pay for trendy glam content, which is widely available for free; actually, they subscribe/pay for crosswords and turkey recipes – go figure). Nor did people mention that similar models work well (for example, at poster-child for reader revenue Dennik N).

That’s unfortunate. Publishing is a talent-driven industry and right now the fight for talent is arguably the sector’s biggest challenge. The battle is only heating up with the rise of the creator economy. We should not ignore experimentation – and at that very least dig deeper in our analyses.

Targets, bonuses, etc. are tools – you have to use them the right way

There’s a lot of grief about goal-setting in our industry. Asked about what tools to manage performance their newsroom should use – roughly half of editors (in my experience) will retort they don’t want to incentivize bad behaviour and have everyone writing about celebrities and cats.

That’s like saying coffee is bad because chugging three large instant coffees each evening gives you heart palpitations and anxiety. Sure, that’s not really that surprising. But a cappuccino in the morning, or an espresso in the afternoon, can provide the perfect spark.

Badly using a tool is a poor argument for saying a tool is bad.

It isn’t clear what exactly the Daily Telegraph has planned. The Guardian piece hints at a relatively complex system that would mix clicks, new subscriptions, and format innovation.

That’s actually not unexpected – user journeys in subscription models are complicated (the first article can matter as much as the one that “converted” a user). Moreover, the Daily Telegraph has a super-hard paywall that makes it even more dependent on that first click.

Experimentation is needed (and so is better branding)

The Guardian piece paints a picture of a mutinous and fearful staff. This clearly highlights issues with the working culture at the Daily Telegraph (more on that later). But it also reflects a problem with framing.

Journalists will understandably be uneasy about losing part of their earnings because their work doesn’t do well. But many would probably welcome a revenue-share agreement.

Over the past year, a lot of top content creators have left media for Substack or similar platforms. Revenue-share agreements are one of the main ideas that management has to keep people in the newsroom. Naturally, this only works if distributed proportionally to a person’s ability to draw paying followership.

It remains to be seen how effective such tools will be. But media need to find a way to retain top talent.

Unlike other industries, however, most media outlets can’t offer equity that vests with time. Tailored career paths, for example, increasing seniority without team management responsibilities (if that’s something you don’t want), are still relatively rare.

The media can and should do more about building a complex set of benefits. They should create work cultures people would be sad to leave.

But this is only part of the solution. We desperately need more experimentation, including with pay-for-performance schemes. (Although to be fair, such schemes should also cover non-editorial staff).

Actually, “pay for popularity” is already working

Doubtless many of the people criticizing the Daily Telegraph would/ have praised Slovakia’s Dennik N – a star performer in terms of reader revenue and inspiration for many.

As the outlet’s head of digital Tomas Bella regularly explains, Dennik N journalists see the impact of their work, and specifically, subscriptions sold, on a daily basis.

“Journalists earn a monthly bonus if their articles convert people to subscriptions. On average, this amounts to between five and 20 percent of a journalist’s salary, and helps to incentivise reporters to think carefully about the stories they pitch”, summarises a case study for the Engaged Journalism Accelerator.

According to Bella, this has actually made journalism better. People want to pay for quality content, and journalists want to make content that people value.

This is not to say that the same scenario would play out at the Daily Telegraph. A whole range of small issues could make the model not work – or work better. But for that, we need to study its impact, not dismiss it out of hand.

Tools vs. culture

Some of the criticism in the Guardian piece seems far-fetched. “Most reporters are at the mercy of editors and it’s not their fault if they’re getting assigned boring things”, it quotes a Daily Telegraph journalist.

You would think measuring the popularity of articles would make it less likely that unpopular topics get assigned. Moreover, it undermines the argument that paying for popularity would lead to important but less trendy work being dropped (if journalists themselves describe those pieces as boring).

But other criticism – of pushing emotionally polarising content – is much more valid. Indeed, this is a problem with both left-wing and right-wing media. People prefer to support teams rather than pay for content (they end up not reading).

Equally important is a different problem this highlights – one linked to the overall context in which people are working. Using KPIs, performance reviews, bonuses etc. does not happen in a vacuum.

Feedback, role-modeling and general managerial guidance are important to ensure a set of incentives are used in the right way. Perhaps as important, there are discussions that should involve performance metrics, while others should not.

This is where the bigger problem lies. The people quoted by the Guardian clearly are already struggling with a difficult (perhaps even toxic) work environment. That is something the managers at the Daily Telegraph need to address – whether or not they pay a premium for popularity.

Jakub Parusinski

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its weekly newsletter here.