Media and motivation: The effect of performance pay on writers and content

Crawford School of Public Policy
Photo by Piqsels

Event details

ACDE Seminar

Date & time

Tuesday 23 March 2021


Weston Theatre , Crawford School of Public Policy, No 132, Lennox Crossing, The ANU


Emilia Tjernström, University of Sydney

A growing literature examines how political and economic forces shape media content at the news source level, but we have little evidence at the journalist level. We provide direct evidence of how individual journalists’ incentives affect their productivity, reach, content, and tone. We study an online media firm in Kenya as they randomly switch some writers from a per-article piece rate pay structure to a pay-per-view (PPV) contract. With the new contract, writers produce more popular articles: PPV writers increase their per-article page views by 180 per cent and page views across all articles by 120 per cent -despite a 40 per cent reduction in the number of articles submitted. We identify several trade-offs that accompany these page view increases: PPV writers increase their supply of political news at the expense of local news. Further, sentiment analysis shows that PPV writers’ political and general-news stories use more negative language. We detect no difference in clickbait prevalence or article quality, as rated by the firms’ editors. The incentive changes affect writers risk averse writers differently: reductions in output are driven primarily by risk averse writers, and risk-averse writers are more likely to select out of the output-based contract if given the choice. Our study suggests that output-based incentive contracts have substantial implications for journalists’ effort and content choices, and more broadly for selection into risky gig work.

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