I had a fun time in Afghanistan working with people who called themselves journalists but were from artistic backgrounds like painting, sculpture and poetry and don't even get me started on American journalists and their 'liberal arts' background.
Like many of today's journalists here in the UK they had no understanding of the financing of publishing or the economics of journalism. Write story/publish/sit back/congratulate self/move on. The readership was a black hole of customers who should think themselves lucky that they are able to read my words.
Beyond the editor (if not at lunch/Rotary/important meeting etc), news editor and a few vociferous local worthies nobody really had a view on whether what you did was good, bad or indifferent.
Now that pesky internet thing has moved the goalposts. A weekly newspaper reporter has gone from:
a) Write a story, wait up to six days for it to be published, see if phone rings or letter comes in.
b) Write a story, wait 30 seconds to see who is reading it, in 10 minutes rewrite/change headline/spike as necessary.
So what's so wrong with journalists being accountable and being measured on what they achieve?
Unprecedented in the industry
Trinity Mirror has done everyone a favour and come out and said it:
“Your performance will be assessed regularly, taking into account audience traffic to your stories and therefore encompassing page views, unique users, local audience and other metrics. You will be expected to grow your page views and uniques in line with the growth we require as a business,” says a widely leaked internal memo.
Back comes the NUJ’s Birmingham chapel as reported in Press Gazette
with: “On the face of it these targets would be unworkable, counter-productive and unprecedented in the industry."
Yippedeedoo, at long last something "unprecedented in the industry", just what we need to revitalise the dying patient.
Counting key strokes
Twenty years ago I laboured with some very senior figures at Thomson Regional Newspapers (TRN) to come up with workable productivity targets for journalists and just a few years ago one the great newspaper executives of our time (you may know him: short, Scottish, spectacles) engineered a scheme which actually counted key strokes.
The legions lined up against the TRN scheme ("You can't put a figure on originality", "Genius doesn't count come cheap" or "Doing important background research",) and like a lot of original thinking it foundered for want of buy-in from those – mainly editors – who would need to make it work.
The key stroke scheme was of course bonkers, but I did issue some lazy reporters with the threat that "the system is counting what you do" (it wasn't) with remarkable effect.
Now the sophisticated metrics is doing all that counting, and in real-time too.
As Trinity Mirror Midlands managing director Simon Edgley explains: "The proposals we have shared with colleagues today are quite significant in the change in structure we need to equip ourselves as a flexible, multi-skilled newsroom of the future.
"The decision taken to implement these proposals has not been taken lightly, it is necessary for us to adapt to commercial challenges and provide a structure that gives longer term sustainability of the business."
Immune from reality
For too long journalists have thought they are immune from reality. Doing important stuff and getting rewarded from a pot of money that magically appears from somewhere. Not that I blame them. Not enough is done on university courses or within industry accredited qualifications to get new entrants to understand the business of publishing and with it the business of journalism.
And inside the office (if indeed there still is one) the demarcation lines between editorial/advertising/circulation are as obvious as ever so there is little encouragement to find out what those noisy, bell-ringing, over-dressed people are doing.
Mr Media Commentator, Roy Greenslade
, put it this way: "The cuts reveal a truth that Trinity Mirror (and other publishers) have previously denied: they are all about private profit and not about public interest."
T'was ever thus, Roy…
Alan Geere is a journalist, academic and international editorial consultant