Since February 2017 one of the leading media houses in Switzerland, the Tamedia Group, has been testing a new compensation model for approximately 30 of its online journalists. These writers will receive a couple of Sfr100 bonuses per quarter for the most clicked (not necessarily read) articles. Team written articles will also benefit.

In addition, the journalist with the highest number of clicks will be paid Sfr800 per trimester, with Sfr500 and Sfr300 paid to the journalists in second and third place. Entire teams will benefit from a Sfr1,500 bonus if they can increase the total number of clicks from the previous month.

With these monetary incentives, Tamedia intends to motivate its online journalists to make "dry news agency releases" more attractive for readers. The journalists should be motivated to present bulky but relevant news in such a way that it improves how readers (or clickers) notice it and recognise its significance. However, the drawbacks of this new compensation system are obvious – online journalists might be tempted to think short term by putting up lurid headlines or selecting shrill content simply to boost clicks.

Comparable payment models have been in place for some time in the United States and across Europe, where different media groups have developed performance-oriented pay models in recent years. The Gawker website – which was recently discontinued due to an expensive legal dispute – paid $5 to so-called 'recruits' per 1,000 visits, meaning that some of the recruits were able to attract up to 1.25 million clicks. The recruits were obliged to comply with the website's publishing guidelines and not aim only for short-term maximisation of visitor traffic.

Two years ago, stock exchange platform 'thestreet.com' created a payment model, according to which a journalist would receive $50 for an article when he or she recorded 60,000 page views within one week. A similar approach was taken by a regional newspaper in Wales, which received considerable protest from local unions.

For five years the US business journal Forbes chose a different path. Not only were article clicks counted, but customer satisfaction also played a role – when a consumer repeated a visit to an article within one month, this new visit was compensated 20 times compared with the first visit. Based on this model, one journalist earned approximately $100,000 in 2012.

Little research is available on the effects and consequences of performance-based wage models for journalists, since this is a niche phenomenon thus far. However, this may change now that one of the largest Swiss media groups is testing the waters.

The pressure on journalists to keep track of the quantitative success of their work is set to increase, regardless of whether such data will have a direct impact on pay. Indirectly, quantitative factors already characterise journalistic work. The digitalisation of journalism in the online age has changed the rules, as almost any data is now available in real time to assess editorial work, at least in respect of numbers.

For further information on this topic please contact Thomas Rihm at Rihm Rechtsanwälte by telephone (+41 44 377 77 20) or email (thomas.rihm@rihm-law.ch). The Rihm Rechtsanwälte website can be accessed at www.rihm-law.ch.

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