Last week, a report in the Guardian newspaper revealed nascent plans at the Daily Telegraph, a competitor British daily, to link journalists' pay to the performance of their stories on the newspaper's website. The argument is that journalists should be subject to some performance metrics, such as the ability of their stories to drive traffic to the site, the main engines of revenue growth for most newspapers.
Predictably, the idea created an uproar in the Telegraph's newsroom, as per the Guardian's story. Full disclosure: I used to work at the Guardian as a foreign correspondent. Naturally then, the alarm bells went off in my head. It is almost journalistic dogma for writers to argue that most people don't want to read stories like climate change or complex policy debates, but these issues must be written about anyway.
Had I been subject to the rule of performance metrics, I might have been fired. My reporting on chemical attacks in Syria, refugee issues and the arbitrary detention of Turkish journalists rarely inspired the sort of passionate debate that was stirred by a recent column I wrote attacking chocolate hummus. Colleagues covering important foreign stories, and even essential domestic ones like infrastructure or criminal justice, would have been left in the dust by those on the coronavirus or public health beat. If it were a case of only clicks-per-article determining the evaluation of a journalist's performance, the public health policy reporters might have been fired long before the pandemic, leaving us with a dearth of reporting expertise during a critical period.
A big part of the problem is that journalists see themselves and their newspapers as public services first and businesses second. As institutions dedicated to witnessing history, keeping the citizenry informed and holding the powerful to account, many journalists bristle at the idea of their worth being tied to clicks. A public employee is not paid based on how many road tolls have been collected on a particular week or how many public parks have been maintained.
That disconnect has endured even as newspaper managements globally have become increasingly consumed with digital metrics and analytics, fine tuning engagement, subscriber retention and other factors in the digital ecosystem, with publications trying hard to monetise content amid falling advertising revenue.
Of course, part of the trouble with the Telegraph's approach is that the popularity of articles is a poor proxy for impact. The figures vary, but social media is responsible for a significant share of newspaper audiences, and social media algorithms can be both fickle and a menace to society. One need only look at how hate speech online has been amplified over the past five years, and how viral controversies have stoked greater division and hatred, amplified by bot networks and state influence operations, even as the reach of legitimate news stories has been diminished by companies like Facebook. Under this model, tying journalists' pay to reader traffic and engagement is a recipe for elevating manufactured controversies and hate speech clickbait, rather than accurately measuring reporter performance.
It is clear, given the ongoing pandemic, that newspapers play crucial roles in society. Many organisations have seen their subscriber base grow as readers search for trusted voices to help make sense of the world. So it is clear that newspapers ought to continue investing in stories that are relevant and important to the public, even if the returns do not appear significant at a particular point in time. It makes business sense in the long run to build and maintain this expertise. Journalists can play a vital part in moving the needle on critical, undercovered stories that need to be put in the spotlight for the well-being of our communities. But their role here is obscured by the faultiness of the Telegraph's approach. In my view, articles around a compelling story that do not hook the reader are simply telling the story wrong.
It is difficult amid low attention spans for an important, slow-moving story like climate change or the war in Syria to retain audience engagement. But it is imperative that journalists find new ways to tell those stories so that readers remain interested. There is no one way to go about this. But I have found focusing on the human experience and human stories to be the most effective way to generate engagement. This is why stories like that of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who drowned while his family tried in desperation to cross the Mediterranean, shook so many out of their apathy. All around the world people could see themselves and their families in that tragedy, much more so than any headline about the number of refugees in neighbouring countries.
Journalism plays an indispensable role in building healthy societies. Its practitioners should be empowered to pursue important stories even if they are not the biggest draw. But again, reporters need to tell those stories better, leveraging useful storytelling tools at their disposal to reach wider audiences and sustain their interest. Readers do care about the world. That is exactly why so many still turn to newspapers.
Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National