Before Washington City Paper* published its annual “Best Of” issue in April, it set what Publisher Amy Austin called an “uber goal” for advertising — a “goal that was above the goal,” says Austin. If sales reached that level, Austin declared, editorial staffers at the paper would receive a bonus in May.
Done: Later this month, each editor and reporter at the publication will receive a check for $250. “I’m going to spend it on everything,” says Jenny Rogers,* 30, an editor at the paper. It’s the first bonus Rogers has received in her professional life. She formerly worked as a reporter at TBD.com* and then as a gossip reporter at the Washington Examiner. Both of those jobs no longer exist.
Austin says that the bonuses are the first in a decade for the editorial department at City Paper. “I think we are heading out of the dark ages,” says Austin. “We’ve got our footing and have a steady ownership.” SouthComm Inc., which runs a number of niche publications, bought the paper in 2012.
Mike Madden, City Paper’s editor, says he’s been in journalism for 15 years, and this is the “first bonus I can definitely recall getting myself.” Under the previous owner, Creative Loafing, salaries for City Paper employees were cut by 5 percent. “They weren’t giving out bonuses with the pay cuts,” says Madden.
What of the ethical considerations of incentivizing editorial staffers over a specific issue? Madden sees no problem: “We had already assigned the copy in the issue before they told us about this plan,” he writes via e-mail. Plus, he says, advertisers appear to care more about how they fared in the Washington City Paper reader poll — which is run by the business side of the paper — than about the staff’s expert opinions.
“I think everyone involved — advertisers, sales reps, writers — understands that those ads would be less valuable if readers didn’t trust the independence of the editorial product,” notes Madden.
Small editorial bonuses happen elsewhere in the world of alt-weeklies. The Colorado Springs Independent has been giving out “modest” bonuses of between $250 and $500 since around 2005, according to chief executive Francis J. Zankowski. The bonuses stem from “very specific special issues” such as the paper’s dining guide.
Not from, say, very specific investigative stories on the local water utility.
Blair Barna, advertising director at Charleston City Paper, says that this year’s “Best Of” issue was the biggest ever, so everyone on staff got a bonus of $100.
Meanwhile, reporters are earning less than the average wage.
*Disclosure: The Erik Wemple Blog has no connections to Charleston City Paper or with the Colorado Springs Independent. With respect to just about every other named entity in the story, I do. I served as editor of Washington City Paper and was dismayed when our year-end bonuses were phased out in the 2000s; am friends with current staffers of the paper; and was editor of TBD.com.