USA Today considers paying bonuses for pandering?

As Bob Dylan once wrote, you don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.  And you don’t need a PhD in communication science to know readers will click a lot more often on your average story about Charlie Sheen or Britney Spears than they will an informative piece about global warming or an insightful one on China’s rising influence. 

All of which makes truly scary the news that USA Today is considering paying bonuses to staff members who get more page views.

 The story made the rounds late last week at such places as the Poynter Institute’s Romenesko and #journochat on Twitter after a blurb on bigleadsports titled, “USA Today Takes the Plunge: Paper to Pay Bonuses to Writers Based on Page Views.”

This may or may not be true, but it seems pretty clear it is still under consideration. Over at Poynter, Jim Romenesko reports receiving this email from USA Today’s veep of communication.

Jim, USA TODAY has and continues to consider bonuses based on page views but nothing has been decided at this time.

Ed. Cassidy
Vice President, Communications & Event Marketing

I can only hope USA Today doesn’t consider this too hard.  The newspaper has come a long way since its debut, when it was ridiculed as McPaper, a takeoff, of course, on McDonald’s contribution to cuisine.

 USA Today has done some serious journalism since then. But like most newspapers, it and its parent company, Gannett, are struggling.  Or rather, some of the people who work there are struggling.

As David Carr of The New York Times reported yesterday,  USA Today has lost 20 percent of its circulation over the last three years and staffers across the chain were asked to take an unpaid one-week furlough this year. He also noted that the chain’s brass seemed largely exempt from this pain; chief executive Craig A. Dubow received a $1.75 million cash bonus in 2010.

So why don’t these cash-strapped staff members deserve bonuses for bringing in more readers? 

The answer is this simple: if the standard of news becomes “he who gets the most clicks wins,” there’s really no need for professional journalism at all. Any amateur with a camera or a gimmick can go viral on YouTube. And any amateur tapped into hot gossip can beat the pants off a serious reporter in the contest for clicks. Clicks do not measure the quality of reporting, its depth, its accuracy or its importance to an increasingly ignorant populace in an increasingly complex world. 

In fact if clicks become the basis of news play and news pay, it’s just a matter of time before celebrities not only make news, but are news coverage. (As Ethel Merman once sang in the musical Gypsy, “you gotta have a gimmick.”)

Imagine the future. Quick, there’s a picture of Charlie Sheen leering at a barmaid. Slap it on the homepage. Hey, did you see that fight on Survivor?  Whoa.  Let’s do a Soundslide.

Forget about tsumanis and nuclear leaks in Japan.  Instead, read all about it: Five-legged frog found in New Orleans cat house.

Now that’s a story. You get the picture? C-L-I-C-K.


About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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