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Linking performance of articles to journalists’ salaries seems unfair, but it is not a new idea

Should journalists be paid based on how well their articles perform online? This was the chilling vista portrayed by critics of the Daily Telegraph following the publication last week of an internal memo suggesting that its salaries could be linked to how successful writers’ articles were in attracting traffic and getting new subscribers.

In an email leaked to its competitor, the Guardian, Telegraph editor Chris Evans told staff that "in due course" the newspaper wants to use its internal analytics system, which measures the impact of stories based on how many subscriptions they drive and how much traffic they get, "to link performance to reward".

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

Cue predictable outrage. "This is a recipe for clickbait Telegraph mediocrity," said former Financial Times editor Lionel Barber. "Which removes one of the joys of journalism: to delight, surprise and, yes, give readers something they did not realise they might like or need. Pass me the smelling salts."

Perhaps. Like “troll”, the word “clickbait” has evolved over the years. It used to mean a deliberately misleading, provocative headline designed to fool people into clicking on a link. Then it became online journalism that panders to readers’ baser instincts and prejudices in the pursuit of traffic and profit. And now it often just means articles with which you don’t agree.

Is it inevitable that data-driven deference to the desires of subscribers will lead to a policy of 'give them what we know they want'?

In fact, the idea of paying journalists in this way is not new – American digital news startups like Vox and Gawker were doing it years ago – but interestingly it has become less common in thst world now. It’s easy to see why; such incentives can lead to all sorts of unwelcome and unpredictable consequences, not to mention the fact they’re glaringly unfair.

As one Telegraph journalist put it: “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.”

Unsurprisingly, the Telegraph has hit back, with Evans’s rebuttal incorporating a dig at the Guardian, one of the few quality newspapers around the world which hasn’t introduced a digital subscription charge. “It’s not about clicks,” Evans wrote. “That’s the point the Guardian misunderstood. If you think about it, ‘working for clicks’ is exactly what you don’t do if you’re pursuing a subscription strategy such as ours. And the strategy is going well…”

Data-driven deference

It's true that Lionel Barber's jibe about "clickbait" may also be a little wide of the mark, but his broader point still stands. The past several years have seen a dramatic shift in emphasis, inspired largely by the Financial Times under Barber's own editorship, away from clicks and towards paid subscriptions. At the same time, news organisations have built increasingly sophisticated internal systems which allow editors and writers to track each article's performance online in real time. As a result, not all readers today are equal. If you came across this article by accident while scrolling Facebook in Ulan Bator, thanks for dropping by and cheerio. If you're an Irish Times subscriber, come in, pull up a chair and tell me all about yourself.

Newspapers have always cared what their readers thought of them, but the level of data now available means they have the capability, should they so choose, to nip, tuck, adjust and reframe all their editorial choices based on the analytics their loyal users provide. This may not be an altogether good thing. To take two examples, the Daily Telegraph and the New York Times are pursuing successful digital subscription strategies but both newspapers, to these eyes at least, seem to be becoming more homogenous and less interesting. Is it a stretch to suggest a connection, or is it just inevitable that data-driven deference to the desires of subscribers will lead to a policy of “give them what we know they want”?

And what of the journalists themselves, battered and bruised by years of decline, cuts and technological upheaval? Whether or not their pay ends up being linked to their performance, the feeling will persist of being the lab rats in a slightly deranged experiment with no pleasant outcomes. As one anonymous Telegraph staffer put it: “No one likes seeing how the sausage gets made. Especially when they turn out to be the sausages.”