Clicks over Quality…. Will the Ann Arbor News follow The Oregonian, demanding that all reporters post three stories a day?

Advance Publications, the owners of the Ann Arbor News, made the national news a few days ago when New York Times columnist David Carr announced that, in an attempt to drive increased web traffic to the website of their Portland paper, The Oregonian, they were requiring all of their reporters to post three stories per day, and assessing them on the their individual readership metrics… Here’s a clip:

…The Portland, Ore., newspaper The Oregonian, the much heralded home of many Pulitzer Prize-winning projects, is in the midst of a reorganization driven by the desire for more web traffic, according to internal documents obtained by Willamette Week, a weekly newspaper in Portland. A year after big layoffs and a reduction in home delivery to four times a week, The Oregonian, owned by Newhouse’s Advance Publications, is focusing on digital journalism — and the people who produce it — with a great deal of specificity.

Beginning immediately, according to the documents, the company’s leadership will require reporters to post new articles three times a day, and to post the first comment under any significant article. It’s part of a companywide initiative to increase page views by 27.7 percent in the coming year. Beyond that, reporters are expected to increase their average number of daily posts by 25 percent by the middle of the year and an additional 15 percent in the second half of the year.

If that sounds like it won’t leave much time for serious work, the new initiative also calls for reporters to “produce top-flight journalistic and digitally oriented enterprise as measured by two major projects a quarter,” which will include “goals by projects on page views and engagement.” In the more-with-less annals of corporate mandates, this one is a doozy. Contacted by email, Peter Bhatia, who is departing as editor of The Oregonian, scheduled an interview, but then declined to comment…

To state the obvious, it’s difficult to win a Pulitzer when you’re expected to publish three stories per day, and engage in online discussions with readers.

There’s not been any word, at least that I’ve heard, that a similar “three-stories-a-day” mandate has been handed down at the Ann Arbor News, or at any of the other M-Live outlets, all of which are owned by the Newhouse family, but clearly there’s a move in that direction.

I should add that this post wasn’t meant to be an indictment of our local reporters, or, for that matter, their immediate supervisors at the Ann Arbor News. These decisions are being made at the corporate level, and the local folks with M-Live are being forced to do the best they can in an increasingly difficult environment. I don’t envy them. They’re busting their asses to turn out quality journalism, but, given the time constraints they’re under, that’s getting harder every day. (It’s near impossible to develop meaningful investigative features when, by and large, you’re relying on relatively young reporters who don’t have established contacts, and you’re not giving them the time necessary to run down leads, etc.)

As much as I’d like to lay all of this at the feet of the Newhouse family, it’s worth noting that the public at large deserves some of the blame as well. It’s largely because we stopped paying for papers that this is happening. You can argue that, if the product was better, we would have kept paying our annual subscription fees, but, the truth is, we’ve come to expect our news in the post-internet world to be free. One hopes that changes in time, and people begin to see a value in underwriting the work of professional journalists, but, as of right now, that’s clearly not the case… And, as a result, circulations continue to dwindle, and, with them, advertising revenue.

And, because of this, we’re in this weird place right now, where, sans subscribers, the owners of newspapers need to demonstrate to their remaining advertisers that they have online readers. And, thanks to sophisticated analytics, they know exactly what kinds of articles drive those numbers. So, as a result, we’re seeing more divisive content from our local news sources. We’re seeing more sensationalistic, social media-friendly headlines. We’re seeing the stoking of more Comment Section Shitstorms (CSS)… It’s not about disseminating news. It’s not about building communities. It’s about desperately chasing clicks, however you can get them.

One last thing… I know that the newspaper business has always been a business. I’m not under any illusions in that regard. I know that there’s always been sensationalism. I know that journalists have always been rewarded by how well their work was liked in the community. I just think that, when we started driving our most senior reporters from the industry, and demanding that their replacements write three stories with click-worthy headlines a day, we crossed a line. And I think we’re all going to pay a big price for it.

Democracy cannot function without a free and aggressive independent press. And we’re about to discover that firsthand.

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46 Comments

  1. Topher
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 5:27 am | Permalink

    I feel like there has been a definite shift with aa.com – at least in the education reporting. Recently there have been articles that are essentially the same topic but published as different articles. In addition, there’s a lot of headline baiting, which makes aa.com look trashier than it used to be. Sometimes aa.com does have some in-depth articles that really demonstrate some stellar reporting, while other times there are articles with no interviews, bits of information, and lots of hearsay.

  2. Elf
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    This explains why every police report, no matter how trivial, leads to an article.

    “Ypsi student reports someone reaches into his room, steals handful of change”

  3. Alan Goldsmith
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    The more the Newhouse family degrades their local news outlet, the less people will click until the results are going to be so Walmart like, it’ll invite competition to spring up. If anyone thinks cutting and cutting and cutting is going to end up a happy ending for the billionaires who own the Ann Arbor News, they are on the wrong side of history. Some of the recent reporting has been embarassing and things are not going to get better.

  4. Thom Elliott
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    ‘Clicks’ are the all important data points creating the digital dust which the holographic surveillance apperatus collates to create a digital picture of your thoughts/interests to make the necessary probabilistic determinations on how much of a threat you pose to the cognitive-behavioral reproduction of totalitarian plutocracy. This of course determines to what extent you need to be monitored. If your words\interests\clicks ping, you go in the database, and you never get out. So-called “news” just stands for ‘north east west south’, an empty hyperreal simulacrum, a chain of appearences, a set of signifers without referents. Once time shifted to GMT ‘history’ as we know it ends, news reflattened the earth, and erased space. History was axial, local, and sporadic, news is electromagnetic, ubiquitus, and incessant. In other words, who needs depth or thorough analysis where we’re going.

  5. 734
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    This is also happening at a time when the entities being covered (like UM) are increasingly less transparent in their activities.

    http://www.freep.com/article/20140330/COL33/303300043/Stephen-Henderson-University-boards-need-to-be-taught-a-lesson-on-transparency

  6. Sparklemotion
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    Just imagine MLive giving us three times their beaming coverage of Ypsi.

  7. anonymous
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Speaking of Ypsi coverage, have they announced whether or not they’ll be replacing Katrease Stafford and hiring another full-time Ypsi reporter?

  8. dan
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    If CSS drives advertising revenue, you should thank your loyal cadre of trolls. Perhaps, troll day on MM.com, roll out some of their greatest hits. A little recognition…

  9. John Galt
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Just think of all the progress corporate America can make once the free press is gone and all if the elected officials are bought.

  10. Lynne
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Not to be obnoxious but I could put the blame on people like you, Mark. You provide a quality source of local news much of the time for free. It is like when my friend who is an author complains about the low pay, I just know that it is people like me who write a lot for free who are part of the problem. It is hard to compete with people who are giving their labor away for free. :)

    I love that everyone has a voice on the internet but it does mean that people have a LOT of content, much of it of high quality, available to them for free. I actually think that in this sort of “news economy” a PBS/NPR donor model may be best. Either that or figure out a way to create a market for the sort of reporting that generates awards or perhaps structure awards such that writers have an incentive to create quality reporting even if they are not compensated with a regular salary.

    As for democracy, I agree that we need information to have a functioning democracy but all of the information in the world wont help if people are too stupid to understand it well enough to use it. I am also not entirely convinced that we need paid reporters to provide us with this information although I am not in any way against having paid reporters do it. Still, I would rather listen to some ranty blogger than anyone on Fox News and I probably get more accurate information too.

  11. EOS
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    “As for democracy, I agree that we need information to have a functioning democracy but all of the information in the world wont help if people are too stupid to understand it well enough to use it.”

    Lynne,
    We are not a democracy, never have been, nor would becoming a democracy be beneficial. Wherever you are getting your information – it’s inaccurate. lol

  12. anonymous
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    We are a democracy. Our form of government is a representative democracy.

  13. EOS
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    Sorry anonymous – you must be getting your information from the same sources as Lynne.

  14. Eel
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    Technically the US is a constitutional republic. I believe most would still consider it a democracy though, as citizens have an opportunity to vote for their representatives and express their views. Perhaps you could enlighten us, EOS, on why the US is not a democracy. Please educate us.

  15. EOS
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    That many think we are a democracy is indicative of our dismal educational system. We are not a democracy because the framers of our constitution deliberately chose not to have become a democracy. A democracy is mob rule. The majority decides and the minority have no rights.

  16. EOS
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    In a democracy, once the majority elects a leader, he can do anything he wants, unconstrained by the limits of a written constitution or checks and balances from the other branches of government. He could enforce any law he wants, or only parts of some laws, or ignore any law he chooses.

    Oh wait, now I see why so many are confused.

  17. XXX
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    It’s like saying ice isn’t water because it’s ice.

  18. EOS
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    No. Democracies and Republics are completely different forms of government. You’ve been lied to all your life.

  19. Lynne
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    EOS, I am sorry to have confused you. I was using the word ‘democracy’ in a widely acceptable manner which simply means in American English, according to Merriam-Webster:

    de·moc·ra·cy
    noun \di-ˈmä-krə-sē\

    : a form of government in which people choose leaders by voting

    Don’t worry though, I understand full well the differences between various political systems and understand that the USA is a constitutional republic. It is not a pure democracy (where everyone would vote on every decision) nor is it some weird form of democracy where the people elect leaders and then have no restraints on them as you have described. While that would still be a democracy according the widely accepted definition of it that I have posted, I wouldn’t find that particular form of democracy appealing. Seriously, does that form of democracy actually exist without being some kind of sham democracy where the leaders just pretend they were elected fairly? I don’t know.

    Anyways, there hardly seems a reason to quibble over semantics so I guess I will just shut up now.

  20. EOS
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    http://www.diffen.com/difference/Democracy_vs_Republic

    No, it’s not a matter of semantics. There are significant differences. The individual citizens have more rights and are better protected in a republic.

  21. EOS
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Lynne,
    Even China and USSR allowed the people to choose leaders by voting. So I guess in your widely accepted American English language they are also democracies.

  22. Demetrius
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    This whole argument is ridiculous.

    Increasingly, the U.S. is neither a democracy, nor a republic — its a plutocracy.

    And the slow, painful death of serious journalism is both a cause, and an effect.

  23. Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    I’m finding this “argument” quite entertaining.

    I’m waiting for James Madison to comment.

  24. Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    I am still entertained.

  25. EOS
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    Sure. Can’t wait to hear how his views have changed since his death.

  26. Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    If I’m not mistaken, we’ve had this discussion before. Can someone find the link?

  27. Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    I’d forgotten all about this post of mine… which I think it somewhat relevant to this conversation.

    AnnArbor.com heroically pushes yet further into the post-journalism frontier, selling their front page to Pete Hoekstra for a desperate, ill-conceived Stabenow smear

  28. Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    OK, I found one of our conversations on American democracy. (There may be others as well.) Just follow this link, and scroll through to the comments:

    Bernie Sanders introduces the Saving American Democracy Amendment, needs our support

  29. Lynne
    Posted April 2, 2014 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Well, according to the common usage of the word, a republic is a form of democracy. They are NOT entirely different things regardless of some people’s opinions. Good luck trying to change how language works and what words mean, it has been my experience that word meanings have lives of their own and seldom can be controlled although goodness knows some people give it a good try.

  30. Grumpy
    Posted April 2, 2014 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    I don’t work in the scientific field like EOS so correct me if I’m being dense here, but doesn’t the term “republic” also include the People’s Republic of China and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics also republics?

  31. Posted April 2, 2014 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Don’t forget the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

  32. Grumpy
    Posted April 2, 2014 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    EOS didn’t mention the PDRK to mock the way the dismal educational system has lied to us all our whole lives that demo-cracy means rule by the people

  33. stupid hick
    Posted April 2, 2014 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for posting those links to old blog posts, Mark. I was puzzled by EOS’ fixation on political terminology. I thought perhaps EOS was staking a position that an informed electorate is less important in a republic vs a democracy. Silly of me. Easy to understand now that I’ve been exposed to Tea Party origin mythology.

  34. EOS
    Posted April 3, 2014 at 4:10 am | Permalink

    Yes, most countries today have a republic form of government and it’s very different from a democracy regardless of anyone’s willful ignorance. Demetrius, I agree that we are operating more like a plutocracy today. How do you think that happened? We haven’t ammended our constitution to accommodate this. Our constitution requires that Congress declare war, not the president. The last war declared by Congress was WWII, yet since then we have engaged in endless war, unsupported by the majority of citizens. By what authority can our government collect and store massive quantities of personal communications of it’s law abiding citizens? Our constitution does not recognize any international body having any jurisdiction within our borders. By what authority does the U.N. have any say in our domestic policies? By what authority does the president alter the laws that have been passed in Congress, and implement only those parts that he deems appropriate? When did the courts lose their interpretive authority over the actions of the presidency? What can be done to restrain our government to acting only within it’s constitutional restraints? If people think we are a democracy, they figure we elected our representatives and now they can do whatever they want. An informed electorate, recognizing that the elected leaders are restrained by the constitutional limits, will not tolerate this widespread abuse of power. Why don’t we stand together against an ever-growing government intrusion on personal liberties?

  35. Posted April 3, 2014 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    It’s interesting that the same stupid conversation happened twice.

  36. Grumpy
    Posted April 3, 2014 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    EOS if you are going to spout a bunch of ill-informed nonsense about how everyone but you is willfully ignorant, please try to avoid using “it’s” as a possessive.

  37. Thom Elliott
    Posted April 3, 2014 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    The problem is that with the unlimited amounts of cash plutocrats have and the way they have cynically manipulated the fears/racism of so-called “social conservatives” (white nationalist fascists) they have effectively ‘hacked’ our form of govt so that it runs exclusively for their benefit. All those wars of choice since WW2 (in which 30-40M people have been murdered) are solely to support profits for plutocrats. Thankfully Karl Marx analysis of globalism is objectively correct, and the seeds of the deconstruction of hegemonic global capital are intrinsic to its very operations. There is no way plutocracy will persist indefinately with 55 people hoarding the buying power of 3.5B, and in fact plutocrats themselves know this. The next 30 years will be a critical era for sucking up all the surplus value they can before the inevitable catastrophe of global capital.

  38. EOS
    Posted April 3, 2014 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Thom,

    Do you think we’ll really last another 30 years before the inevitable catastrophe of global capital?

    By the way, fascists are leftists and certainly not social conservatives. Conservatives want less government, not oppressive levels of government.

  39. Thom Elliott
    Posted April 3, 2014 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    You’ll note that I qualified the signifier ‘fascist’ with ‘white nationalist’, fascism is clearly a phenomena which can occur on both sides of the political spectrum. I of course was using it as a euphemism to refer to Tea Party adherents, and other similar white nationalist/false xtian groups that are played like a fiddle by global financial elites. In order to accomplish their totalitarian ‘libertarian’ agenda of complete rule by wealth, (thanks to scumbag John Roberts) they buy politicians who stoke the paranoiac delusions/racial animus of American white nationalists, so they will vote for them (like Ted Cruz). These white nationalists support these politicians because they are foolish enough to think they share the same false xtian views as they do, but Ted Cruz or Paul Ryan and other plutocrats are obviously cynical atheists who only exist to enrich themselves and the people they represent; the fraction of a fraction of 1% with 40% of all wealth.

  40. Thom Elliott
    Posted April 3, 2014 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I think it will be about 30 years. I get that from the recent NASA study which points to several historical instances of civ collapse when the level of grotesque inequality between elites and serfs can no longer be sustained through force. Also the MIT study from the 70s on the natural limits of economic growth given the consumption conditions of late capital. We are already in dire straits, lurching from one crisis to the next in a negative feedback loop with ever diminishing intervals. It will just take time before all the complex elements that lead to the tipping point to coalesce, and the serfs are no longer able to stand their cynical exploitation by plutocrats.

  41. Posted April 3, 2014 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    “Do you think we’ll really last another 30 years before the inevitable catastrophe of global capital?”

    I’m not an expert in either, I don’t think that anything in economics or finance is “inevitable.” So far, economists have done a piss poor job of making broad predictions of the next 5 years, let alone 30.

  42. Thom Elliott
    Posted April 3, 2014 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, I don’t think 30 years is a hard prediction, its a figure I read somewhere about how long global plutocracy can possibly continue to rape the earth without any form of accountibility whatever until any serious mass movements against it begins. The “dismal science” of economics is clearly closer to philosophy than science. I also dont know how it will shake out, what will happen after the catastrophe of global capital is anyone’s guess, but the elements that will lead to it are already clearly on the scene. There is no way that inequality of this monsterous magnitude can sustain itself indefinately, even with the complict puppets of white nationalists voting to maintain their own oppression, at least there are no historical reasons to think it will.

  43. Posted April 3, 2014 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Possibly.

    “Dismal science” or no, I don’t think the future of the earth or humanity is all that easy to predict. It hasn’t been so far.

  44. alan2102
    Posted April 6, 2014 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    circa 30 years is the timeline of Rifkin’s (highly optimistic) scenario, here:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeremy-rifkin/collaborative-commons-zero-marginal-cost-society_b_5064767.html?utm_hp_ref=world&ir=World
    The End of the Capitalist Era, and What Comes Next
    Posted: 04/01/2014 9:05 am EDT
    Jeremy Rifkin
    Author, ‘The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism’

  45. Stupid Hick
    Posted April 6, 2014 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Everyone, don’t be so quick to dismiss EOS. Today I learn that even the Republican appointed Chief Justice of our Supreme Court has been compromised. Behold as Chief Justice Roberts refers to ‘democracy’ in the McCutcheon ruling:

    “There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.”

    See? The tryants who have captured our republic no longer even pretend to respect the Constitution. Proof EOS is right. Now will you all please apologize?

  46. anonymous
    Posted March 23, 2015 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    I heard that the Ann Arbor News recently axed their arts writer. It doesn’t seem to have impacted quality, though. There’s a great article today on the new Downtown Home and Garden cat, Wallace.

    http://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/index.ssf/2015/03/ann_arbors_downtown_home_and_g.html

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