The Globe and Mail’s bonus plan could backfire

By Kelly Toughill, The Business of Journalism Editor

The Globe and Mail’s bold new compensation experiment is its riskiest innovation yet, with the potential either to make—or break—the paper’s migration to the digital era.

By Kelly Toughill, The Business of Journalism Editor

The Globe and Mail’s bold new compensation experiment is its riskiest innovation yet, with the potential either to make—or break—the paper’s migration to the digital era.

Bonuses for 30 Globe editors will be pegged to online analytics in 2014. Executives at the paper are confident the new system is key to digital success, but few in the industry have followed the Globe’s lead, and both experts and competitors warn the system is deeply flawed and could destroy the brand.

“We want the subscription model to work,” said editor-in-chief John Stackhouse. “And editorial choices drive subscriptions. One way to do that is rewarding people for doing it even better.”

Editors were given individual targets in the fall, but it’s only in 2014 that the targets will be tied to annual bonuses, said Stackhouse. Targets include audience metrics such as page views per unique visitor, minutes on page per unique visitor, video views, mobile usage and the conversion rate of readers to subscribers.

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“This is by no means a race for traffic,” Stackhouse said. “The focus is on engagement and subscriber growth.”

But many are skeptical of the plan, and one expert predicted it might backfire in particularly nasty ways.

Julian Barling is a Queen’s University professor who has spent his career studying how companies are organized and which systems lead to success. He said the new system has three flaws: He predicted it could undermine the quality of the paper, fail to generate the intended metrics and destroy team dynamics in the newsroom.

Focusing on short-term audience engagement could hurt the Globe’s brand, he said.

“The Globe is trying to be the most thoughtful newspaper in Canada, but the most thought-provoking articles often are not the best read. Their significance may not be understood and appreciated for some time,” he said. “It sounds as if they are willing to sacrifice that identity.”

The second problem is that editors can’t control the results by which they are measured, he said. Citing influential theorist Edward Lawler, Barling suggested that editors need a clear “line of sight” between their actions and their rewards.

“You are unlikely to see a clear line of sight between a piece of journalism and subscriptions,” Barling said. “So that one would be ineffective.”

Barling also warned that the system could destroy team dynamics in the newsroom.  A basic rule of compensation systems is not to reward a single person for a team effort, he said.

“You have a person leading a team of a few people and they are the only one being rewarded for the hard work of individual members? Good luck. That can’t be motivating for journalists.”

Barling is not the only expert worried about the new system.

Robert Picard is director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University and a world-renowned expert in media economics. He told J-Source in an email exchange that other papers have discussed similar systems, but the Globe and Mail is the first he knows of to actually try it.

“Papers obviously have to be more appealing to maintain readers and gain new ones in digital,” he wrote. “The risk is short-term gain and not worrying about consequences to the longer-term value and quality. I think we are in for a bumpy ride.”

The new bonus system is the latest in a series of innovations pioneered by the Globe in an industry struggling with declining revenues and online competition for readers and advertisers. The Globe was the first major daily in Canada to require a subscription to access the paper online. The Globe was also the first to halt printing on low-traffic holidays and one of the first to offer staff unpaid days off as a way to cut costs.

Stackhouse said some critics simply don’t understand the new system. For example, editors can directly influence some metrics by doing things like timing the posting of stories on the website.

Results were “remarkable” after targets were introduced in the fall, he said. “We’ve seen significant shifts in readership in core areas: politics, business and international,” he said. “We are getting better and better at everything from time-bombing to headline writing.”

The Globe developed the bonus plan itself, without using an outside consultant or looking at systems used by other media, he said.

Cherilyn Ireton, executive director of the World Editors Forum and Bertrand Pecquerie, chief executive officer of the Global Editors Network, both said they were unaware of other news organizations that reward editors or journalists based on audience metrics.

In Canada, the bonuses of a few senior news executives at CBC are influenced by audience metrics, but the system is rare in other platforms. Even the Huffington PostCanada does not tie compensation to audience metrics, according to managing editor Kenny Yum. Ratings, however, are used to compensate some broadcast journalists in the United States.

John Cruickshank, former managing editor of the Globe and currently publisher of its chief rival, the Toronto Star, was sharply critical of the new bonus system, predicting it will not generate the journalism or the audience engagement the Globe seeks. He said the best way to serve the needs of readers is to ensure that reporters are smart, dedicated and deeply connected to the communities they cover.

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