Ranjona Banerji: These bizarre news media appraisals (and variable pays)

20 Nov,2015

By Ranjona Banerji


Anyone who has ever had to fill up management-created appraisal forms for journalists knows what a terrible job it can be. Almost nothing in those forms, created by too-clever-by-half bureaucrats with fancy degrees or perhaps just by paper-pushing clerks with regular degrees, these appraisal forms often bear no connection with the job of a journalist. They are also unable to distinguish between the many jobs in a newsroom which put a journal together or bring out a news programme on TV.


The Times of India, ever the innovator waiting for the other ducks to walk in a straight line behind it, has now come up with a new idea. The “target variable pay”, which in the old days was known as a good old salary hike or sometimes increment, is now linked to how well you “break news” on Whatsapp groups. Earlier, TOI journalists were asked to give up their Twitter and Facebook passwords to the company. Their social media profiles had to be linked to the journal they worked for. If they had personal accounts, their posts could not be news-related.


Imagine the effort that goes into tracking all this. You probably have to set up some cyber hacking cell to spy into what your employees are up to on social media (Hello, NSA!). And plus, if you are an editor who has staff which reports to you, your life is hell from now on. Not only do you have to assess how well people do their actual work, you have to also watch them on social media. Of course, algorithms can do some of the job but that’s more money spent of course.


Decades ago, a magazine I worked for set up a system where someone counted all the words that everyone had written and hikes were based on that. The problem was the most obvious: not all journalists write so what do you do with the sub-editors? Secondly, how do you distinguish between a journalist who rewrites press releases and therefore generates plenty of copy compared to someone who goes out into the field and produces perhaps one story per edition, but a truly excellent story?


The system was thus abandoned when mediocre reporters did better than the stars! But as the media has become more and more corporatized, the appraisal system has become more complicated and moved further away from reality. Incidentally, when I worked with Times of India over a decade ago, I had to do enormous arithmetical calculations with my staff and sit with each one individually explaining why I had given them the marks I had. They had a right to protest and this was taken into account. However, often the amount of money given to them had no connection with my assessment. Also, no one ever assessed me in the same way. I received some extra money every year, with no corresponding explanation. God knows who assessed me either. I faced the same problem with my staff in DNA. My reason for putting this down here is that the reality of a newsroom found no expression in the appraisal system and there was no uniformity in how it worked.


The problems are manifold. The people who set down the parameters have no idea how a newsroom functions and who does what. Senior editors are all too eager to kowtow to managements who do not trust journalists. Earlier, such editors were known as management stooges; now they are known as, well management stooges. I have worked with some and seen the rise of some. Unfortunately, they almost never get their comeuppance because they have learnt how to manipulate the system.


And when it comes to Whatsapp, anyone can manipulate that system too. It doesn’t mean that you are a good journalist. It just means you are a good player.


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