Rewarding good subscriber content is not the same as rewarding clickbait

The Telegraph's plan to incentivise subscriber-friendly content doesn't look like clickbait payments, whatever Twitter says

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

There’s a Guardian article blowing up on Twitter at the moment, thanks to a simple tweet from Marina Hyde:

Are we really going back a decade to the discussion about clickbait payments? Well, actually and thankfully, we’re not because nobody is reading the detail of what’s quoted in the piece, and The Guardian has framed it unhelpfully. Let’s look at what we actually know.

Subscriber conversion not clickbait

There's a problem with The Guardian framing it as linking pay with article popularity. There's little evidence for it provided in the piece. Even within the extracts of the letter quoted in the piece The Telegraph's Chris Evans is clearly not talking about clickbait, or even traffic:

Evans said: “It seems only right that those who attract and retain the most subscribers should be the most handsomely paid,” and noted that working out the details would be “complicated” so that “we’re not ready to do that … yet”.

Notice nothing in that quote specifies traffic: just retaining and attracting subscribers. I’ve been working with paywalled sites for nearly 25 years, and those measures are way more indicative of such sites’ success than raw traffic, much of which will never convert to paying subscribers. Given the article’s determination to make a clickbait point, I’m sure they would have used a direct quote which supported that angle if it existed. So, I’m assuming it doesn’t.

A sensible proposal filtered through the Twitter meat-grinder

In that context, tweets like this are witty but not terrible useful in the debate:

But then, Twitter is a machine for destroying nuance and replacing it with outrage. The discussion of the piece there is full of performative outrage at incentivising clickbait, and precious little discussion of the nuance of trying to encourage journalists to write pieces that contribute to a subscriber-based business model.

With any system of this type, the devil is in the details. There’s a long and ignoble history in the digital journalism trade of talking a better game on analytics and performance-related pay than we actually play. And the staff are right to be sceptical about how this will be implemented. But equally, the management are right to cautiously explore this route.

Clickbait rarely helps a paywall

I’m much less worried about this leading to clickbait than the Twitter commentariat. Clickbait is common, easy to replicate, and available everywhere — you really don’t need to pay for it. The Sun’s short-lived paywall experiment proved that nicely. Conversely, the role of breadth of journalism in keeping readers subscribing has been a key element in the success of, say, The Times. Generally, speaking, that which attracts and converts readers can be quite different from what keeps them subscribing.

In that context, there should be a path to assuaging worries like this:

Another said: “I’d call the mood mutinous. If you’re writing royal stories or big political news or coronavirus stuff or you’re famous then you’re going to get huge numbers. Most reporters are at the mercy of editors and it’s not their fault if they’re getting assigned boring things — and now that’s going to affect their pay packet.”

Managing the analytics and pay relationship

The success of a system like this will also depend on numerous factors, including training and coaching the journalists, to help them understand the key skills they need to adapt their commissioning and writing to serving paying or potential subscribers rather than the drive-by outrage market. (And this isn’t a self-interested remark — it’s been half a decade since I did any training work for the Telegraph and the key staff who hired me have all left.)

It also requires more active management, checking in with the journalist, and helping them shape their work in a way that contributes usefully to these goals. And it requires editors who can actually manage people, rather than just tell them what to do.

It will also mean an enhanced role for the audience team, who will have a critical role in helping get the right content commissioned — and the right promotion done of that content. There are a huge number of moving parts to get a system like this working.

Promise — but many pitfalls ahead

On the other hand, yes, there’s plenty of scope for this to go badly wrong, demoralise the journalists, and undermine the title. But there’s also scope for it to facilitate a more audience-centric culture, to build more profound relationships with paying members and to leave high traffic, low-value clickbait behind, as it rarely supports a paywall usefully.

Indeed, even a bonus structure that rewarded people who deliver measurable subscriber retention or acquisition would be less likely to go wrong. Anything that can get journalists thinking about delivering value to paying readers, rather than massaging their egos by writing high-traffic but low-value stories is a good thing.

In that conversation, comments like this from the NUJ general secretary are just not helpful:

Stanistreet said: “The Telegraph’s plan to introduce clickbait scoring to pay and reward journalists is crass and shows scant regard for the importance of diverse quality journalism. For a publisher that purports to have high journalistic standards at its core, this is a foolish move that will undermine its reputation and massively demoralise the journalists whose work is at the heart of the business.”

The attempt to brand any attempt to link journalists’ pay to some element of performance as “clickbait” just undermines any useful discussion of news sustainability — especially for paywalled sites.

Paywall management is tough

Eight years ago, I co-delivered a training course for senior editors at the Financial Times, and one of our key remits was to get them thinking about how subscribers read the site. We were to wean them off big traffic stories that converted few new subscribers, and did little to retain existing ones. This is a conversation any title with a paywall needs to be having.

Does that conversation need to be linked to pay? No. Is there a benefit in doing so? Of course. You get more of the behaviour you incentivise. And that means, obviously, you have to be meticulous about exactly what you incentivise.

Update: an earlier version of this piece described Michelle Stanistreet as the president of the NUJ. She is, of course, the general secretary. Thanks to Martin Cloake for the correction, and the reminder of why everyone needs good sub-editors.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.