The Hamster Wheel is institutionalized at the Oregonian

Newhouse-owned outlet imposes a digital quota

This misbegotten document is what it looks like when HR spins the Hamster Wheel:

Oregonian Employee Policy Presentation

Willamette Week breaks the news, reporting that The Oregonian will require its reporters to increase their bylines by 40 percent this year and to boost their web traffic by 27.7 percent (pity the poor soul who can only muster 27.64 percent). It will require at least three posts a day, plus two “major projects” every three months, which will be graded on clicks and comments. It will move toward a “pay for performance” model.

And just to show how clearly Advance doesn’t get the Interwebs, it now dictates that “reporter will post first comment” on posts. As if OregonLive didn’t already have enough of those inane “What do you think about ____?” formulations.

Willamette Week goes with understatement:

The news has not been universally welcomed in the newsroom, where Editor Peter Bhatia presented the PowerPoint entitled “Performance Management Process Overview for Employees,” last month.

“‘Bummed out’ wouldn’t begin to describe it,” one reporter tells WW…

The logical end point of the Advance model is sensationalist and thinly reported news. Period. Full stop. My all-time favorite example of what the suits are incentivizing comes from the chain’s Harrisburg Patriot-News (aka PennLive online), which posted this two months ago:

The story linked to a New York Daily News story about a crime in suburban Chicago.

The reporter who had to write that Hamster Wheel Hall of Famer has had 19 bylines in the last two workdays. They range from a rewritten Daily News story about a 16 year old who died after a half-marathon (“Girl, 16, collapses, dies minutes after finishing half-marathon: ‘Her time to go,’ dad says”), one that turns criminal stalking into breezy clickbait (“Man allegedly caught trespassing at singer Taylor Swift’s beach abode: Price of celebrity?”), and then the aggregation of the aggregation:

Hawaii cops can have sex with prostitutes in line of duty; girl, 16, collapses, dies after half-marathon; substitute swim teacher charged in boy’s drowning: Daily Buzz

Not one of those stories has anything to do with Harrisburg, much less Pennsylvania, or has any original reporting.

The focus on buzz and cheap clicks comes at the expense of the most valuable thing a paper has: Its relationship with readers. PennLive is currently pushing a poll asking “Which of these state government employees earned more in 2013” as part of its series on state workers who make more than $100,000 a year. Mind you, the post doesn’t tell you the actual answer. You have to wait for tomorrow for that. Which seriously irritates readers, as you can see from these comments on the post:

“Check back Tuesday,…? ” Nonsense! I will not play this game, nor will I mark my calendar either.

Jan - Why have you dropped to this level. In the past you did some great investigative journalism and now it is the annual $100,000 club. What about the AG office and the LCB ethics problems? You should get back to what you are good at.

Just when you thought that Pennlive couldn’t get any sillier, they pull a juvenile stunt like this.

Really??? A poll??? Is this the back of “Highlights” magazine for children …. or a newspaper?

This is really weird and juvenile. Why would you have a “poll” on a question that has a definitive answer?

Meantime, here was the home page of when I started writing this post yesterday:

It drew one comment, from “AtticusFinch,”

Gosh, haven’t seen a bunch of drunk people shouting “Stella” before - no, never. Seriously, does ANY reporter EVER ask, “is there a unique way I could cover this event?”

All of the above does nothing to debunk the findings of the
class project of Tulane undergrads
that pointed toward real quality declines at, the website of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Here’s the bottom line: Real journalism should make people smarter. If your readers are losing IQ points reading your stuff, you are doing something wrong.

This is not to say that Advance’s papers are not doing any good, serious work anymore. They are. But the incentives put in place by the chain lead away from that. They make it much harder to do. Period.

The sad thing about Advance’s digital forced march is that its executives really think they’re getting ahead of the curve. But they’re implementing 2008’s conventional wisdom in 2014, and they’re doing it badly at that.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,