As the Hamster Wheel Turns

As productivity demands soar, journalists need to talk

In a piece on growing discontent on The Associated Press’s business desk, Gawker reported that the desk has a deal with an Internet client that is speeding up already brutal productivity goals. The contract:

…obliges the business desk to hit a specific quota of daily stories, in the range of “several hundred,” according to one insider. Staffers find this target all the more “ridiculous” and “a constant source of misery,” the source said, because the quota has not changed since AP laid off 10 percent of its staff last year.

The piece quotes the unnamed staffer:

Often there just isn’t enough news in the day to fill the quota. This is especially true during the summer when corporate announcements drop off. At these times, we scrape the bottom of the barrel by writing up two-line filler stories based on information nobody cares about. Sometimes the info is days old, even a week old. We produce a large number of worthless stories just to fill our quota.

I asked the AP for comment because Gawker doesn’t seem to do that. Paul Colford, the AP’s media-relations director, declines to comment. I’ve asked Gawker reporter Ryan Tate for comment about that. He didn’t write back.

Sure, there is irony in Gawker reporting about the media-churn machine that might possibly lower journalism standards. But this isn’t about Gawker.

Tate reports separately that Reuters has begun to link pay to scoops, not a bad thing in itself, but it has led to a frenzy of memo-writing as editors tout marginal gets or non-news as exclusives to the point that Martin Howell, company news editor for the Americas, issued his own memo, reported by Chris Roush, asking staffers to cut down on all the memos.

Gawker puts one of its trademark headlines on the story:

Culture of Fear Inflames Financial News Wires

A Reuters spokesperson says:

Beats and exclusives are one of a series of criteria on which Reuters reporters are appraised. Others include performance on major stories, the quality of analysis and interviews, multimedia involvement, timings, accuracy, and team leadership where relevant. Desk editors have different goals from reporters, including improving copy through rewrites, presentation and packaging of stories, accuracy, speed, and initiative, among others.

To suggest that anyone’s performance, and therefore pay, is to be determined solely on one beats and exclusives metric is false.

A couple more news events:

Ex-DealBook reporter Zachery Kouwe says it was nobody’s fault but his own that he plagiarized unremarkable Wall Street Journal stories about a Madoff lawsuit and other matters, the New York Observer’s John Koblin reports:

When we asked Mr. Kouwe if he felt he needed stronger editing, or if perhaps the breakneck pace was to blame, he said, “It wasn’t anybody else. I was pushing myself to do as much as I possibly can. It was careless.”

The “careless” part is overly generous to him and the plagiarist’s perennial plea, but I’m sure the other part of the quote is right: the plagiarism is nobody’s fault but his own. Who does that?

Still, I couldn’t help but notice the amount of words he says he cranked out a week: 7,000.

That used to be a lot of notes for a reporter to take, let alone published words, but we all know that’s not uncommon now.

Gerald Posner resigned from the Daily Beast, amid his own plagiarism problems uncovered by Jack Shafer. His apology I find heartfelt. He’s not making excuses but in it he talks about his trouble adapting to “the warp speed of the net.” This is not a young DealBook reporter, as anybody who’s read Case Closed can attest.

Shafer nicely deconstructs all excuse-making for plagiarists, and rightly so. But once that not-particularly-difficult judgment is made, the discussion should not end there.

We’ve written on the subject of accelerating productivity demands, more than once.

A couple of points:

Wire services, blogs, and newspapers, for that matter, are demanding work environments, and always have been. The AP was never anybody’s idea of a spa.

The macho news culture—more, faster—has served us well over the years.

But we know that news-productivity demands are increasing. We also know that there are limits. We thirdly know there are trade-offs: Quantity up, quality down. I’ve said it before: you can practically graph it. The do-more-with-less thing—nobody believes it.

We need more reporting on this issue; we can’t just leave it to Gawker.

This isn’t just a journalism workplace issue, like speeding up the line at the chicken-processing plant. Actually, it is kind of like that, come to think of it. It’s about the quality of information that is getting out to the public, and, more importantly, from my point of view, what’s not getting out because it doesn’t pass the time/productivity stress test.

Us chicken workers have got to start talking among ourselves.

There’s a danger here, and it’s not just for journalists.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.