Inside the Big Metrics Fight at Insider

A newsroom known for emphasizing traffic quotas for its writers, Insider is the center of a union battle to end the use of metrics to discipline journalists

Insider Union members staging a walk-out with pizza at Zuccotti Park on Nov. 16. (Courtesy @InsiderUnion)

On Wednesday, November 16, instead of sticking around for the whole of Insider global editor-in-chief Nich Carlson’s monthly mid-day all-hands meeting, where he answers staff questions submitted in advance, members of the Insider Union staged a lunchtime walkout and had pizza together in Zuccotti Park near their Financial District offices. Their colleagues working from home sent Slack messages in solidarity that they were walking out as well. Nonetheless, Carlson soldiered on. “Hello!” he began, “It’s nice to speak with you. I know some members of our U.S.-based union are out to lunch right now, so we’ll keep this brief.”

The union action came weeks after Carlson had announced in a memo that Insider planned to restructure their newsroom, moving about half of the reporters whose work was meant to be published behind its paywall, for which Insider charges $12.95 per month or $99 per year, to the free, ad-supported portion of the site. Last week, Mark Stenberg reported in Adweek that the plan had hit a snag because of union objections to changing the metrics by which its members are evaluated. According to that report, Insider editor-in-chief for Business Matt Turner advised editors in an internal Slack channel that no writers whose metrics are based on selling subscriptions should have their stories published in front of the paywall where writers are judged by readership and traffic. “If you need language to share,” Turner wrote, “it would be, ‘We are still bargaining with the union over this and cannot make any changes at this time.’”

When the reorganization was first reported by Sara Fischer in Axios earlier this month, she wrote that about 60 writers out of its newsroom of about 650 people would be affected by the changes and, if they were unwilling to take new roles, they would lose their jobs. “Reporters affected by the change were told that there were jobs available to them in front of the paywall,” Fischer wrote, “and if they did not want to switch to a new role, they would be eligible for a severance payment.”

But the reality is that Insider’s paywall reorganization has never been the union’s central objection. The Insider Union, which unionized with the NewsGuild after winning a National Labor Relations Board election in June 2021, has made decoupling metrics from workplace discipline a top priority as they bargain with the company for their first contract. The union doesn’t necessarily object to a paywall reorganization, but the proposed changes in metrics involved in the shake-up brought the issue to the fore. “We’ve whittled down our requests to ONE demand: Immediately remove the threat of discipline from our metrics system,” the union wrote in a series of tweets after their lunchtime walkout. “If Insider wants to move forward with their proposed reorganization, they MUST agree to immediate implementation of no discipline for metrics!”

The November 1 paywall announcement inspired a new rush of organizing on the issue of decoupling metrics and discipline and potential work actions, including the union holding a “strike school” for members on Wednesday, November 9. But the decision to hold a walkout came after a meeting between management and the union on Monday when management did not agree to the union’s demands on the issue. Union organizers began talking with the membership about participating in an action during Carlson’s all-hands meeting. “Stewards have been calling everyone, one by one, asking, ‘Are you in?’” said one member. On Tuesday evening, Insider reporter Ellen Thomas, who did not respond to The Fine Print’s request for comment, distinguished this action from a more standard walkout in a messaging channel with other union members. “This is not a traditional work stoppage where consensus would be required to move forward,” she wrote. “This is more like a … collective lunch break … and it’s about showing our strength in numbers.” The idea was to make this demonstration before the next bargaining session, which took place on Thursday.

Union organizers declined requests for comment for this story, directing The Fine Print instead to a NewsGuild spokesperson, who did not respond to inquiries. Insider also declined comment.

As The Fine Print has previously reported, the pushback against using metrics in newsrooms has reverberated across media unions. At the time, unions at Sports Illustrated, Time, and BuzzFeed News had put stopping the use of metrics to discipline journalists on their bargaining agenda largely to head off their future use by management. But at Insider, which has a reputation among large newsrooms as one of the most focused on quotas, performance metrics has emerged as a particularly trenchant issue.

While Insider staffers who spoke to The Fine Print had varying opinions about how or if metrics should be used in the newsroom, they all agreed that reporters should not stand to lose out on pay or their jobs because of them. “Some people wish they never had to look at a spreadsheet or Chartbeat, but a lot of people, including myself, appreciate that we can adjust,” said a union member who said they believe paying attention to traffic stats help them get their work read by as many people as possible. “The issue is discipline over it.”

For those working on stories behind the paywall, the financial stakes in the goals did not seem to be worth the stress they put them under. “The average person’s subscriber goal is around 150 subscribers a month,” said another union member. “If we’re selling our subscriptions at [an introductory rate of] $1 — we’re forcing people to burn out over a dollar a subscriber.”

“I think that this place would function fine without metrics and it’s sort of sad that leadership believes that we have to keep them in order to keep the lights on,” said a non-union newsroom staffer who is in favor of shifting the burden of meeting quotas from writers to their editors. “I think the ideal solution would be to put metrics on the backs of editors and higher-up leadership and let reporters do what they do best, which is report.”

Another staffer said their problem with Insider’s use of metrics is that staff are not judged on a uniform standard. “Insider says they’re standardized in how they use metrics — but they aren’t. Some teams are graded on completely different metrics from subs or traffic. Others don’t have metrics at all. They allow exceptions for their stars in a way that’s not uniform,” said a union member. “Using metrics as a way to discipline people is, frankly, unfair.”

Also discomfiting to Insider union members is a sense that their metrics goals are subject to frequent revision. “You’re on shifting sand all the time. Insider gives us new goals every quarter,” said a union member. “The alacrity of all this has been spurred on by Insider management making organizational changes,” they said. “Everyone strongly believes that these changes are important for the health of the company, everything just needs to be negotiated. That’s the law.”

While union members ate pizza in Zuccotti Park, the issue of metrics and traffic came up several times in Carlson’s all-hands. One of the submitted questions outlined several suggestions for “making quantitative metrics more empowering and less arbitrary/punitive,” to which Carlson responded, “I love this question and think it has a lot of really smart clever ideas in it,” but then blamed the union bargaining process for tying the hands of management. “Right now we can’t adopt these or other creative ideas — and change our status quo — without negotiating them with our union first.”

At another point, referencing a kind of mission statement for Insider that Carlson often repeats — “great journalism that crushes the metrics in that order of priority” — another questioner said, “Our work is often praised and incentivized when it ‘crushes the metrics,’ not for its quality or other merits.” Carlson responded with a lengthy description of what he considers great journalism — “if you boil it all down, I think great journalism is work that leaves its audience changed for the better” — before landing on a definition that ultimately used quantity to define quality. “Great journalism is also journalism that is seen. Obviously excellent craft and hard work go into lots of stories that are not seen. But if that work is not seen, we — together, all of us, from reporter to editor to me — did not design the story right,” he said. “It is a rocket that failed to leave the launch pad. Great rockets go to space. Great journalism gets widely read or viewed.”

In this vision, as Carlson added at another point in the talk, he compared Insider’s content strategy to a movie studio where the blockbuster titles have to make up for the films that bomb. “We also care about how much our journalism is seen because we are not that different from a Hollywood studio which makes movies and will die if no one buys tickets to them,” he said. “Every time we make a piece of journalism it is not that different from a studio releasing a movie.”

He explained that the reorganization of the newsroom to de-emphasize the paywall was a short-term strategy to boost traffic and therefore advertising revenue. “Subscription revenue comes over the long term through small payments each month. Ad revenue comes in an ultimately smaller, but much greater in the short-term pop as soon as a story is published,” Carlson said. He added that goosing revenues was a more attractive option to the alternative, which would be to reduce costs. “One idea behind the proposal is to take several millions of dollars worth of costs and get a more immediate, margin-improving return on them during a challenging year. I’d rather improve margins via short-term revenue growth than cost cuts.”

The looming business challenges for Insider and other tech and media firms dependent on advertising were also dominant in Carlson’s remarks. “It’s tough times out there. We’re seeing layoffs across tech and media. We’ve so far been able to avoid these. To continue to avoid them will at the very least require hard work from all of us in a storm — through the end of this year and through the first quarter.”

The question of layoffs had been lingering in the Insider newsroom after a profile of Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Axel Springer, the Germany-based media firm that acquired Insider in 2015, in New York by Shawn McCreesh included the line, “Insider, which went on a Springer-funded hiring spree and set up a very tight paywall, is now making some of its content free to nonsubscribers, and insiders tell me layoffs are coming.”

Carlson pushed back on any imminent threat of job cuts in his remarks to Insider staff on Wednesday, but only to a point. “I can’t promise we’ll never have layoffs. Things could get much worse. And suddenly. But for this moment, we’re OK,” he said. And to that end, he said he was directing his newsroom leaders to ensure that the site did not repeat a traffic drop-off by too many people taking time off around the holidays. “Last December, we had a long, perhaps very needed, fallow period of low story production from mid-December to mid-January,” he said. “We cannot afford to do that again this year.”

At one point, he was asked, “Do you think metric goals are harmful to journalists’ mental health?” Carlson started his response by acknowledging the pressures that quotas can create. “I think engagement goals that are not personally tailored to motivate a journalist to do work they love to do and are good at are harmful to the company, the readers and viewers, this newsroom, and the journalist’s mental health.” But he added that stress comes with the territory — at least for anyone who wants to work for Insider. “That said, working at a company with a high performance culture like Insider’s will always be stressful and create some anxiety. I think Insider can provide some resources to address that, but that it is also the reality of working in a newsroom environment.”