UC Davis Agricultural and Resource Economics

Emilia Tjernström, University of Wisconsin

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

Date and Location

Tuesday, March 6, 2018, 4:10 PM - 5:30 PM
ARE Library Conference Room, 4101 Social Sciences and Humanities


We study the causal effect of journalist incentives on the quantity, quality, and composition of media content. Using a field experiment that randomly allocated writers either to a contract paying a flat rate per article or to a contract that rewards writers based on pageviews, we demonstrate that output-based performance pay reduces the number of submitted articles, modestly increases per-article effort, and sharply increases pageviews -- findings that are in line with our theoretical predictions. Specifically, the output-based contract results in a doubling of total pageviews, a 150 % increase in pageviews per article, and a sharp reduction in the firm's cost per "click." Preliminary results suggest that the treatment has limited effects on quality or the prevalence of clickbait, but ongoing work employs supervised machine learning to better understand the impacts on content and quality. The experiment takes place within an online news firm in Kenya, where writers operate in a complex environment, choosing how many tasks to undertake and how to allocate effort across them. Our study suggests that output-based incentive contracts have substantial implications for journalists' effort and content choices, with short- and long-term implications for firm profitability and for the quality of news.

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