Unions Target Newsroom Metrics and Quotas

Sports Illustrated’s union became the first to ratify a contract forbidding the use of traffic stats to discipline journalists. Unions at BuzzFeed News and Time are pushing for similar terms.

Before “fake news,” the laziest way to insult a journalist was to accuse them of doing something just “for the clicks.” After all, the content creation arms race has turned mainly on developing novel methods of juicing the stats. Slide shows proliferated since every photo counted as a page view. So did pagination, magically turning one long (or vaguely long-ish) article into six. Some publishers, like Gawker, tried to enlist writers’ egos by putting the page view stats at the top of every story they published and paying bonuses to the writers who got the biggest numbers. Others, like Upworthy, hacked reader psychology by deploying a “curiosity gap” headline style which, rather than summarizing a story’s contents, deliberately obscured them. A “big board” showing a real-time Chartbeat dashboard became de rigueur for any mid-2010s newsroom wanting to show it had fully absorbed the lessons of the digital revolution. But a decade or two later, the use of metrics in newsrooms — and specifically their use to reward and punish journalists — is under fresh scrutiny by media unions.

Last Thursday, the Sports Illustrated Union ratified its first contract with The Arena Group that operates Sports Illustrated under license from the Authentic Brands Group, which in turn purchased the title in 2019 from Meredith Corp. Along with a raised salary floor, a new wage structure, and a hiring policy meant to increase workplace diversity, the bargained terms also ban punishing newsroom employees on the basis of metrics or production quotas. The BuzzFeed News Union, which says it’s nearing the end of contract negotiations that have lasted more than two years, announced last Tuesday that management had tentatively agreed to similar language on metrics in their bargaining.

“If you just look around the industry over, I don’t know, the last 10 years, this isn’t just a Sports Illustrated thing. It’s an industry thing,” said bargaining committee member and senior editor Jason Schwartz. “You see what happens to newsrooms where clicks become the coin of the realm. It’s not good for employees, and it’s certainly not good for the publication.”

Article 25 of the union’s new three-year contract, which comes after two years of negotiations, includes language stipulating that “Neither revenue nor traffic metrics (e.g., page views, visitors, engaged minutes, social referrals, social interactions, and the like) shall be used as indicia of poor performance for any Employee” and “The Company and the Guild agree that different types of content require different assessments of quality and productivity and that uniform standards are not appropriate.”

Sports Illustrated may have been the first to win such language, but the issue has come up at other publications. When the BuzzFeed News Union staged a walkout on December 2, the day the company approved its SPAC, to urge management to offer better terms in its contract negotiations, metrics were included among its demands under “Clicks and Discipline”: “We believe when you come to BuzzFeed News, you should be able to trust that we are motivated not by clicks, but by honest reporting.” In its update on its contract negotiations last week, the union said that after the action, “management made notable movements on some of the key issues we organized around, like whether writers can face discipline for not meeting traffic or revenue goals.”

The union at Time, which is also negotiating its first contract since Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff purchased it from Meredith in 2018, has also included the matter in its demands: “Our journalists should be focused on journalism—not hitting arbitrary quotas. While we understand the importance of building an audience, we’re fighting so our journalists are judged on the work they produce instead of the numbers their work brought in.”

“Metric-based bonuses are literally incentivizing clickbait,” said New York NewsGuild spokesperson Wen Zhuang, “and the Guild believes strongly that that in turn, undermines the purpose of journalism.”

At BuzzFeed News, unit chair Addy Baird, a political reporter in its D.C. bureau, said the union has been discussing the topic for just over a year now, especially in the context of employee performance reviews. “When the bargaining committee sat down and started crafting this proposal and thinking about what was important to us, on the performance evaluations front, one of the things that we kept talking about was that we didn’t believe that profit or revenue should be considered,” she said.

The prime objection for both the Sports Illustrated and BuzzFeed unions is that while individual reporters and editors are responsible for the work they create, most of the tactics to maximize traffic are out of their control. “You can write a great story, but if the editor doesn’t put a good headline on it, if the homepage editor doesn’t give it good play, if the social editor doesn’t write a good tweet about it, and if there’s not some huge, breaking news in the rest of the world that would crowd it out, all of these factors go in,” Schwartz said.

The first clause of the job performance section of Sports Illustrated’s contract translates some of these sentiments into legalese: “Criteria, including but not limited to production metrics and expected work output, to assess an Employee’s job performance for disciplinary purposes shall be limited to criteria that are both reasonably attainable by a skilled employee in a particular job (taking into job classification, coverage area, specialization, job assignments, and other criteria) and reasonably within the control of the Employee.”

The unions also note that, while tech firms sometimes talk about content performance as if it’s a science, traffic spikes still feel capricious to practitioners of journalism. “We’ve all had the experience of writing something that shockingly goes really viral in just 20 minutes,” Baird said. “And a lot of times, you have a piece or an investigation that you spent many months on, and it doesn’t take off in the same way.”

Or as Schwartz put it, “If I could figure out the alchemy of how to write a really good, high-quality piece of journalism, that we can be proud of, that every time would get a ton of views, I’d be making a lot more money.”

Baird said that BuzzFeed management has pushed back on the issue in negotiations. “For a good, solid year, [management] tried to make carve-outs to our language, make exceptions to our language to argue that employees do actually have control over traffic, that we were being alarmist, that we were trying to get out of work,” she said. There was no specific instance in which a BuzzFeed writer has been disciplined for not getting enough clicks, but there was always the looming possibility that one could be punished. “They even said to us at the table once that they wanted to be able to fire people if they didn’t have enough traffic,” she added. “Even though this is not something that we had seen, when we wrote this language, we thought it would be pretty clear and simple to agree. And instead, it took us a year of bargaining,” Baird said.

BuzzFeed senior publicist Lizzie Grams disputed the union’s characterization of management pushback as “not accurate.”

As much as job security, the unions say they’re also concerned about the corrosive effect stat-chasing and metrics-based evaluations can have on their work. “Any publication that gives its writers metric targets or quotas is compromising its journalistic values because that’s inherently going to influence the choices that people make,” Schwartz said. “We were trying to prevent any scenario where someone could be sitting there on a Friday afternoon, saying, ‘Oh, no, I’m five stories short for the week and 10,000 clicks, and I gotta come up with something that’s really gonna have the internet on fire.’ And then all of a sudden, maybe that person is doing or writing things that they shouldn’t.” Schwartz said that had not happened before at Sports Illustrated but added, “If you look around the industry, it doesn’t feel that unrealistic.”

Baird argued that the greatest cost of asking journalists to meet quotas is the doubts such newsroom policies instill in readers. “There’s a level of trust there — that you can know that this reporter is not writing this to get clicks, because they don’t have to do that,” she said. “That is not what they are coming to work every day to do.”