Why Quotas Still Don’t Work for Journalism

(Jonathan Torgovnik / Getty Images)

Imagine you work in an industry where accuracy and precision are hugely important. Your work is scrutinized by an ever-growing field of critics eager to catch any misstep, and if you get something wrong it has the potential to do people serious harm.

Your job often requires making dozens, if not hundreds of calls to obtain or even just verify a single fact. You spend your days wheedling information out of people who don’t want to provide it. You pore through mountains and mountains of documents which may only include one salient fact buried deep in a dense bog of data. Often these documents are difficult to find, or require the assistance of lawyers to access — lawyers you personally can’t afford and your higher ups may not want to pay for.

Now imagine this industry is failing at being a viable industry.  People in a different department than you are supposed to be responsible for that aspect — business, finances, the bottom line — but your department creates the product that is being sold. When “innovators” are brought in to come up with dynamic ideas, they pin them on you. There’s nothing to suggest the product is broken or failing, and everything to suggest that the means by which money is made from the product is the problem, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the innovators. They have figured out how to track how your product is consumed — do we have the metrics on that?  — and so they are going to use that information to suggest changes to how you do what you do.

Every innovator comes up with the same idea: just produce more. They swear up and down that they don’t want the quality of your product to change, and seem to believe that somehow amid the deluge of documents and plethora of phone calls, you can easily produce three, or even more, original products a day. You are still one person and the length of the day has not changed.

Then they introduce a number. It’s your quota.

A recent Bloomberg Businessweek story on media companies’ frustration with Facebook — specifically the social platform’s demand for “TV-quality videos” to compete with YouTube — noted that the New York Times “reduced its production of Facebook Live videos because Facebook’s quotas made it too tough to produce quality clips.”

Journalists have been struggling with quotas for more than a decade. In 2004, a reporter wrote in to Poynter, worried her new job with quotas would leave her “so disillusioned, I’ll want to leave the profession, or worse yet, I won’t have the kind of clips I need to move ahead.”

The question was answered by news recruiter Joe Grimm, who at the time believed “this newspaper appears not to reflect most newspapers.” But four years later, Grimm responded to another query about quotas by saying they “are real as newspapers try to serve increasing numbers of niches with declining staff.”

In 2014, the Chicago Newspaper Guild tried to fight a new rule that imposed a quota on its members working at the Pioneer Press, arguing the system imposed on journalistic integrity. That same year, the Willamette Week obtained internal documents showing that a quota system was being implemented at The Oregonian:

Beat reporters will be expected to post at least three times a day, and all reporters are expected to increase their average number of posts by 40 percent over the next year.

In addition, reporters have been told to stir up online conversations among readers.

“On any post of substance, reporter will post the first comment,” the policy says. “Beat reporters [are to] solicit ideas and feedback through posts, polls and comments on a daily basis.”

In a column, the late David Carr wrote of the Oregonian‘s new policy:

If that sounds like it won’t leave much time for serious work, the new initiative also calls for reporters to “produce top-flight journalistic and digitally oriented enterprise as measured by two major projects a quarter,” which will include “goals by projects on page views and engagement.” In the more-with-less annals of corporate mandates, this one is a doozy.

Carr noted that quotas came about due to “the availability of ready metrics on content” — the ability to see how much “engagement” a post or article gets. Those metrics are now so sophisticated, news outlets can track exactly how far into an article a reader gets, how long they stay on a page, and more.

Last year, Quartz wrote about the impact metrics are having on journalists and editors:

Most of the time, when we talk about journalism and media, we talk about ad dollars, circulation revenue, and attention (let’s be real—clicks) from the audience. I’m not the first to write about the decline in the quality of editorial content or ad dollars. But it is rare that we discuss what online media in particular is doing to journalists, writers, and editors in the fast-moving digital age.

Essentially, many newsroom writers and editors feel that they are bumping up against their maximum output, even as their bosses demand ever-more productivity.

And former Chicago Tribune reporter Bridget Doyle pointed out:

This type of mass-produced, assembly line-style journalism jeopardizes the quality of stories (number of sources, time spent writing) along with leaving more room for error. It’s no knock to those who are placed in this type of work environment – the expectations are high and the stress levels are higher. These web-based metrics systems not only measure how often a reporter posts, but also includes the number of “clicks” a story receives. I can tell you from experience, it’s often not the hard-hitting news with the highest readership – it’s more often the silly cat photo gallery or the police arrest involving an attractive girl’s mug shot.

In an article on the Oregonian controversy, a management professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business is quoted saying, “In the case of The Oregonian, employers want a greater quantity of journalism. They’ll get it; but the quality will likely go down.”

The article notes that quotas “tend to succeed when correlated to clear-cut, predictable tasks, such as manufacturing and mechanical jobs; when they are instituted on a short-term basis, and when employees work independently (meaning employees are not working in teams).” In the business world, “numerous studies have shown that setting a specific and challenging goal leads to considerable increases in employee productivity.” And yet, even in the sales world:

Only a third of quota-setting companies are satisfied with the effectiveness of their approach, according to the Deloitte survey. The inherent distrust of quotas coupled with an uneven economic recovery could have big implications for a company’s compensation costs, not to mention its retention of high-performing salespeople and the integrity of its sales force — all points highlighted by the study.

Wharton also notes that quotas can “cause some employees to commit fraud,” echoing the Chicago union’s concern about journalistic integrity. After Benny Johnson was fired from BuzzFeed for plagiarism in 2014, he blamed “a culture of ‘get this piece out, get this out now.'”

Journalism isn’t the only field where quotas have led to misconduct. Policing has been led astray by their own version of metrics: The NYPD’s fabled CompStat, introduced in 1994 by Commissioner William Bratton, allowed law enforcement to track crime trends and “hot spot” locations. It gave rise to a quota system that brought the department’s stop-and-frisk policy under scrutiny, forced New York City to settle a lawsuit filed by a whistleblower in 2015 and to pay a $75 million settlement earlier this year. An article in the Canadian magazine Macleans highlights the ethical landmines created by CompStat-style “predictive policing,” from reinforcing racial and other biases to decreasing accountability.

Both in journalism and policing, quotas allow superiors to blame failure on subordinates and take credit for their success. Newsroom innovators champion quotas to increase traffic and it’s a win-win for the innovator: If the reporters meet the quotas and traffic goes up, the innovator was right. If they fail to meet the quotas, or they mess up a story out of haste, or traffic doesn’t increase, it’s on the reporters.

It’s worth noting that while the impacts of work-output quotas are dicey, quotas can be helpful in other areas of business — hiring, for example. The Independent reported on a recent London School of Economics study that found gender quotas in hiring “increase the competence of organizations by leading to the displacement of mediocre men.” Writing for the Columbia Journalism Review in 2013, Ann Friedman looked at how All In With Chris Hayes differed from his cable-news competitors:

It wasn’t all white dudes. Specifically, 57 percent of the show’s guests were not white men…

Out of four panelists on every show, he and his booking producers ensured that at least two were women. “A general rule is if there are four people sitting at table, only two of them can be white men,” he says. “Often it would be less than that.”

If they did end up booking a show that featured a majority of white men, they’d call it “taking a gender hit.” Hayes explains, “and then we’d be like, well, we have to make up for that either in the second half of the show or on the Sunday show.”

In other words: quotas. Hard quotas.