Let’s get personal: could we learn to live with – and even love – audience targets?

Teachers do it, factory workers do it, even educated GPs do it.

So let’s do it, let’s fall in love …. with personal targets for journalists.

Okay, so it’s not exactly Victoria Wood, let alone Cole Porter.

But there’s no doubt what the talking point in regional newsrooms has been over the last few days.

Trinity Mirror’s plans to introduce individual web audience targets for its journalists – and the statement that its publications are no longer ‘papers of record’ – have been roundly condemned in some quarters.

Among those who have weighed in have been heavyweight commentators Roy Greenslade and Peter Preston.

But is it such an unreasonable – and, more importantly, fundamental – change?

Can journalism forever be the only part of a media business that can’t be pinned down, assessed and measured?

The answer has to be no. And mostly because it’s already happening.

Some of the journalists with whom I spend the most quality time are pretty much the sole reporters on their papers and websites.

Each week, they get a set of figures showing how well their edition has performed against its sales target, how their website is doing against five different criteria, and how effective their social media efforts have been.

As I have said before, they are accountable and exposed in ways that I never was when starting out as a reporter.

And there are now more ways of measuring engagement and story interest than ever before, thanks to sites such as Parse.ly.

My fellow blogger, Trinity Mirror digital publishing director David Higgerson, has already mounted a spirited and fairly persuasive defence of his firm’s journalistic measurement plans.

It’s well worth a read.

And he acknowledges that there are real concerns to overcome.

The most obvious is clearly that long-form journalism, investigations, complicated stuff, and anything that takes time, will fall by the wayside, as reporters go for quick wins such as listicles and lottery results. And galleries of cats. Cats have become the new shorthand for dumbed-down clickbait.

I’d make three points here.

The first is that – despite lottery results giving some titles their biggest web successes at the weekend – man and woman cannot live by lotto and lists alone.

Our best websites rely on a bedrock of strong local news content that sets agendas, tells people something they don’t already know, and emerges from contacts and curiosity.

We don’t want drive-by, one-hit wonder, readers. We want an audience which returns on a regular basis because it likes what it sees.

Which brings me on to my second point. We can no more force people to read what we write than King Canute could control the tide. They are our customers, not our pupils.

One of my colleagues coined the phrase ‘dull but worthy’ for a certain sort of coverage, and he was right.

Thirdly, though, if newsrooms organise themselves well through proper advance planning, they could build in off-diary time for everyone, ensuring there is a level playing field and that slow-burning stories can still be told.

None of this is easy.

Will individual targets damage team spirit? What about part-time reporters? What about people who also sub? What about the stories you get simply by beating someone else to the right phone call?

And how do we organise a performance measurement system that doesn’t mean we spend more time counting stories than writing them?

However we do it, it must be done constructively, with consultation and debate, perhaps targetting subject areas, specialisms and patches as much as individuals.

And, in the same way that the target regime for commercial staff is softened by a bonus system, there ought to be consideration of carrot as well as stick.

There are lines in journalism that I worry about my profession crossing, or being forced to cross.

But I’m not convinced this is one of them.

For newsrooms already operating under detailed daily targets, dividing those up within teams should actually help achieve the right result.

It’s worth finally dealing with that paper of record business.

As long as news editors have had a finite number of staff, a functioning brain in their heads and decent judgement, they have been picking and choosing what to cover.

It’s a point well made today by Holdthefrontpage editor Paul Linford.

Attempting to be a paper of record risks trying to please everyone and ending up pleasing no one.

It gives a green light to that worthy but dull stuff that web analytics can now show us goes completely unread.

And actually it makes it harder to do the kind of challenging – in both senses of the word – journalism that lifts us above so-called churnalism.

What we need are papers of information, of interpretation, of imagination, and most of all, of inspiration.

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