For the millennial journalist, a workday doesn’t pass without checking views, unique visitors and dwell time. These metrics are now so embedded in the culture of digital media that it’s as much a case of checking one’s hitting one’s targets to ensure the pay check keeps a’ coming, as it is to confirm your sense of self worth; for if you aren’t getting the clicks, do you even exist? Why, then, is metric measuring still a source of anxiety for some journalists and a point of contention between the business and editorial sides of digital publishing?

Making journalists and reporters the masters of their own view-based destiny is nothing new – hacks of old with good scoops sold more papers and secured themselves more work. It’s just that the dawn of free digital content, inextricably linked editorial and commercial as the former’s ability to snag audiences became the way the later monetized the business by selling ad space. That’s old news, but a couple things remain current. Firstly the flywheel of editorial, business and audience, whereby each component part has a role in keeping business progressing, and second – a persistent tension between them all. 

This tension has been played out in various ways over the years – with the death of print versions; the scramble to digitize successfully; audience ad-annoyance, blindness and blockers; the age of fake news and a return to paywalls. Most recently, this tension is reportedly revealing itself in the form of strung out journalists feeling the pressure of stringent, performance-based goals, especially as publications have returned to reader revenues to sustain their businesses. If the onus is on journalists to produce work that results in a certain amount of subscriptions or drives a certain number of page views, the structure has to be clear, flexible and, most importantly, not punitive. 

For journalists being asked to define their success with metrics, there’s a lot at stake. There’s the jeopardy of  journalistic integrity as writers churn out polarized and popular stories. The replacement of a meritocracy with a metric-ocracy whereby the success of a journalist’s work has a direct impact on their career progression; and there’s the creation of an environment in which challenging metrics induce stress rather than motivate, and create a sense of cut-throat competition between colleagues who would rather collaborate. 

On the business side, what’s at stake is the future of the business. Simply – revenue models turn engagement into cold, hard cash. Consideration is given to how best to do so without provoking annoyance from audiences at best and defection at worst. But whether it’s reader or ad revenue or a combination of both that keeps the business going – from a commercial perspective, editorial has to be invested in ensuring that subscriptions and traffic flow into the business. 

So we return to the question of how to create a model that works for both parties. The conservative (and fusty) argument would be to keep editorial and commercial completely separate because driving up traffic to sell ad space against is the job of an engagement team in partnership with sales. Leave the writers to muse, investigate, analyse! This is unrealistic and dated for obvious reasons. For one – social publishers (which, as the name suggests, create their content specifically for distribution channels on which they have already built up audiences) are the competition. Secondly, it suggests that journalists aren’t open to winning themselves a slice of the monetization pie; the high profile departures in recent years from well known media companies to revenue-share newsletter subscription platforms like Substack, would suggest this isn’t true. So if the onus is to be on journalists to ensure their work performs, they should be incentivised with a share of the revenue that content generates rather than penalized if it doesn’t.

The dissemination of journalism has always been integral to the future of the craft. What that means in the modern age is that journalists exist in an ecosystem in which a certain portion of their work has to be mapped to existing audience interests or intent in order that it is guaranteed to “perform”. If this part is well-oiled, then the opinion-forming, interest-defining, integrity intact journalism can exist, worry-free, beside it. American publishers in particular have understood this to a large extent – with the likes of Vox developing and standardizing their traffic-driving pieces of content for certain brands, or investing in diversifying content types to increase reach to unlock new revenue streams. The New York Times is always cited as being one of the most pro-active print to digital publishers and itself weathered the Covid-19 storm by focusing on increasing subscriptions as ad revenues plummeted. 

Segmenting business can have a positive effect on working culture in a success-measuring system that risks becoming rigid, and therefore pressurizing. If journalists are given both the opportunity to write the traffic-driving pieces as well as to pitch stories for behind the paywall in the knowledge that they’ll be measured against qualitative metrics (like ensuring they’re producing in-depth content that reflects the value subscribers expect) a level of flexibility is introduced that makes the system more tenable. 

Who's counting?

Still, there’s no one answer to the problem of monetization in digital publishing. Many publishers years ago took a leaf out of SaaS companies’ books who tended to hire content people who could both produce and distribute. Digital publishing houses formed dedicated engagement teams that were responsible for growing audiences but also for ensuring, as an old ad for ‘engagement editor’ at Curbed (a sub-brand of Vox) reads, that “writers should do everything from creating social-friendly content to optimizing their stories for readers who find us through search—all under your wise counsel.”  

So where should the onus should be placed to produce journalism that performs, the answer is – across the board. If journalists feel there is flexibility in the system, hitting metrics can be motivating not least because of the potential for increased remuneration via revenue share models. They should also share metrics with engagement teams tooled up to build audiences for content. In short, the answers already exist, it’s just that the success of the revenue models has fluctuated in recent years and, that being the case, collaboration has been lost in the scramble to ensure the profitable future of digital publishers. 

Header photo by Kolleen Gladden