Click, click... doom! At least The Daily Telegraph's 'pay for popularity' plan is honest — it's finished with facts

Bosses at the political right's favourite fanzine want to dole out rewards for writing the most-read rants.

The world’s worst Chris Evans, Daily Telegraph editor Chris Evans, sent an email to staff this week. His latest dastardly plan, as revealed in a leak to Archie Bland at The Guardian, is to link journalists’ pay to the popularity of their stories. Evans isn’t content with a race to the bottom; he wants to get there on rocket skates — the instability of traditional rollerskates with the terrifying addition of kerosene.

Bland’s piece explains:

[Evans’ email, sent] last Thursday told staff that “in due course” the outlet wants to use the “Stars” system, which scores stories published online according to factors such as how many subscriptions they drive and how many clicks they get, “to link performance to reward” using subscription data.

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”.

Telegraph journalists are “alarmed and dismayed” at the plan, fearing that it will “seriously warp editorial priorities”. Given the paper’s current output — which rages from somewhat deranged on its news pages to outright unhinged in the comment section — worrying that its priorities will be distorted is like a clown wondering if his full face of makeup is “a bit much”.

One staff member quoted by Bland says:

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… now that’s going to affect their pay packet.

Two words in that quote — “boring things” — are already pretty instructive of the culture inside the current Telegraph. Actual news should not be lumped into the category of ‘boring things’. There’s virtually no story that can’t be made interesting or relevant to readers if it’s a story that is newsworthy enough to make it into the paper. Believe me, I know — my first job was on Pensions World, where I used the caption ‘Gordon Brown: Texture like sun’ purely to lighten up a piece on tax thresholds.

I’m actually in favour of The Telegraph moving to a pay for popularity system as it will a) induce the few remaining good journalists at the paper to leave b) speed up the inevitable destruction of the Telegraph titles which have become a carbuncle on the right arse cheek of British public life.

Shifting to a clicks-at-all-costs strategy would at least be honest. The Telegraph gave up on producing journalism as its central means of making money some years ago. The decline began in earnest when then-editor Tony Gallagher was fired in January 2014 and replaced with Jason ‘Psycho’ Seiken, a Mekon-like big brain from America, who became ‘Head of Content’ and proceeded to fuck up the paper in every possible way.

Between 1923 and 2004, The Telegraph had just six editors (Arthur Watson, Colin Coote, Maurice Green, Bill Deedes, Max Hastings and Charles Moore). Between 2004 and 2015, as noted by Peter Oborne in his public divorce from The Telegraph, the paper got through the same number. There were three ‘editors’ — actually given the bloodless ‘Head of Content’ — in 2014 alone.

The paper’s once-formidable foreign desk was stripped bare. Most of its sub-editors were sacked, which explains the frequent occurrence of typos on even its front pages and solecisms that can be found in practically every edition.

The Seiken-era was so brief that even Wikipedia does not list him as a former Telegraph editor but it was destructive all the same. Despite his witless Californian canards about replacing the newspaper’s history with a new “digital native” culture and speeches that promised a future of drones and databases, Seiken knew the square root of fuck all about what makes a good story.

Tony Gallagher, the editor bounced out of the building by Seiken’s fleeting coronation, had wanted to build on The Telegraph’s agenda-setting MPs Expenses coverage, which had dominated headlines and awards shortlists in 2009. His plan had been, as laid out in a behind-the-drama piece from The Financial Times, to “build a new politics operation, inspired by Politico”. It would have cost £400,000 to create and was never approved.

Instead, Murdoch MacLennan — installed by the Barclay Brothers as The Telegraph’s chief executive in 2004 and essentially their eyes and ears among the mortals — has pursued a strategy of clickbait and rage. The current editor… I mean, Head of Content Chris Evans — no, not that one, or that one — a Daily Mail alumnus who started out in journalism at the distinctly downmarket South West News Service — has enabled and encouraged that. The pay for popularity plan is the logical next step in a mindset that values profit above all things.

Peter Oborne left The Telegraph with such a splash in 2014 because he believed it had been underplaying, burying and even deleting stories about HSBC, a big advertiser, which was at that point embroiled in a number of scandals. He wrote:

I researched the newspaper’s coverage of HSBC. I learnt that Harry Wilson, the admirable banking correspondent of the Telegraph, had published an online story about HSBC based on a report from a Hong Kong analyst who had claimed there was a ‘black hole’ in the HSBC accounts.

This story was swiftly removed from the Telegraph website, even though there were no legal problems. When I asked HSBC whether the bank had complained about Wilson's article, or played any role in the decision to remove it, the bank declined to comment. Mr Wilson’s contemporaneous tweets referring to the story can be found here. The story itself, however, is no longer available on the website, as anybody trying to follow through the link can discover. Mr Wilson rather bravely raised this issue publicly at the ‘town hall meeting’ when Jason Seiken introduced himself to staff. He has since left the paper.

Then, on 4 November 2014, a number of papers reported a blow to HSBC profits as the bank set aside more than £1 billion for customer compensation and an investigation into the rigging of currency markets. This story was the city splash in the Times, Guardian and Mail, making a page lead in the Independent. I inspected the Telegraph coverage. It generated five paragraphs in total on page 5 of the business section.

Following Oborne’s public repudiation of his former paper, Henry Mance wrote in the Financial Times that:

… another tactic was to placate advertisers. The Telegraph is instinctively pro-business — it was born from a tax break, having first published weeks after the British government abolished stamp duty on newspapers in 1855. But MacLennan’s interests were more naked.

When HSBC complained vigorously about an article in 2014, MacLennan lobbied editors to take it down. In 2011, MacLennan told the Leveson inquiry into media ethics that he did not determine which stories the Telegraph published. But former employees say his interventions — phone calls, meetings, words in the ear — were so brazen that senior editors advised him to be more discreet.

… “It wasn’t just commercial striking down editorial. There was huge self-censorship,” said one former employee. In November 2014, other newspapers wrote about how ceramic poppies from the Tower of London had been broken by a delivery company. But the Telegraph did not. The company, Yodel, was owned by the Barclays.

MacLennan and The Telegraph denied both Oborne’s claims and those contained in Mance’s reporting. They would though, wouldn’t they? The evidence of The Telegraph’s venality and partiality is present in every edition of the paper and splattered all over its website.

Pay for popularity in journalism is not new. Notably, Gawker under Nick Denton used pageview bonuses as an incentive for its writers to go harder and faster than their rivals. The now-dead gossip site — which was murdered by the toxic combination of Hulk Hogan and Peter Thiel — put a ‘big board’ display up in its lobby with each writer’s numbers, but switched to performance goals based on unique visitors when it realised that endlessly pushing the pageviews button led to editors leaning on endless image galleries and rabidly click-bait headlines.

Ben Rooney, a former senior Telegraph journalist who helped to launch the paper’s first website among many other things, told me that the ‘pay for popularity’ idea is not even a new one for the organisation:

Moving to ‘pay for popularity’ won’t be a huge leap for today’s Telegraph though. The Stars system is already used there to assess the impact of articles, with journalists ranked by their score and judged by editors on number of comments attracted, readers’ time on page and other metrics as well as page views.

Evans’ email, quoted by Bland, says:

Stars is helping us establish what’s working best when it comes to attracting, engaging, and retaining subscribers.

The Telegraph currently has 600,000 online subscribers — a number that jumped by 150,000 in 2020 — so the tactics are working. However, the paper endlessly pushes cheap subscription deals and I’d be very interested to see the attrition rate for those subscriptions as I suspect a lot of people don’t stick around for the long-term, as well as the number of subscribers who never log-in aka ‘zombie subscribers’.

There’s a chance that ‘pay for popularity’ never gets off the ground — after all The Telegraph had to swiftly backtrack in 2016 after a plan to install motion trackers under reporters’ desks led to open mutiny — but I suspect it will. The Telegraph needs growth at all costs, especially as the remaining Barclay brother still hopes to offload the titles to a new owner.

Bland quotes two very unhappy Telegraph journalists at the end of his piece:

… a journalist who works outside news said:

‘He can say what he likes, the reality is that subscriptions are driven by the stories that get people frothing at the mouth. It will seriously warp our editorial priorities.

The idea that I’m punished and meanwhile a columnist writing about woke culture gets a bonus really grates. If you’re doing reviews or environmental reporting you’re screwed.’

Another staff member said in an email:

‘It’s grotesque. Algorithmic commissioning linked to pay is a crime against journalism. It will tip The Telegraph down a clickbait plughole.

I can understand why the last person is kidding themself; how could you get out of bed every morning and get to work if you really reckoned with what The Telegraph is now?

But the truth is that The Telegraph has been well around the u-bend for some time now. In his 2014 article on the paper’s sorry state, Peter Oborne wrote about the story of a three-titted woman that had made it onto The Telegraph’s website despite editors knowing it wasn’t true:

On 22 September Telegraph online ran a story about a woman with three breasts. One despairing executive told me that it was known this was false even before the story was published. I have no doubt it was published in order to generate online traffic, at which it may have succeeded. I am not saying that online traffic is unimportant, but over the long term, however, such episodes inflict incalculable damage on the reputation of the paper.

Almost 7 years on, the multi-boobed bullshit is still there on website, nestled alongside the many tits of The Telegraph’s comment desk.