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Pay For Performance (cont'd)

Down the merit pay wormhole we go! Ezra responds to my post by saying that it "sort of proves the point" he was making:

According to the Department of Labor, "Merit pay, also known as pay-for-performance, is defined as a raise in pay based on a set of criteria set by the employer." That fits the definition used in discussions of education, where merit pay is tied to student improvement, test scores, etc. It doesn't fit a situation in which "my editor likes me" results in a fuzzy and undefined increase. What're the criteria? Agreement with said editor? Fun writing? Personal relationships? Good ideas around the editorial table?

Actually, the criteria could be any of those things--and it would still qualify as a merit pay system. Ezra quotes the first sentence of the Department of Labor's definition of merit pay, but he doesn't bother with the next two sentences which, if I may be so bold, sort of prove my point:

This [i.e. merit pay] usually involves the employer conducting a review meeting with the employee to discuss the employee's work performance during a certain time period. Merit pay is a matter between an employer and an employee (or the employee's representative).

I think most journalists have a good sense--and many have even been told quite explicitly--what their bosses want from them. And they know their pay will be based on whether or not they deliver. That sounds like pay-for-performance to me.

But to the larger point, Ezra writes:

I think merit pay, in fact, would be a good thing for journalists, if you could figure out some decent criteria. The profession is full of deadweight, and every magazine has folks pulling paychecks and not turning out a proportionate amount of work. But it's not something we currently have. It's not how I get paid, and it's not how Jason gets paid, and it's not, in any primary sense, how the many people I know at The Atlantic get paid.

I just disagree with this. While I do think you're likely to find deadweight at some newspapers and the newsweeklies--where the writers belong to a guild or a union--I doubt you'll find much at places like The American Prospect or The Atlantic or The New Yorker or TNR. For better or worse, these places can't really afford to pay underperforming staffers--budgets are too tight and profit margins (if they exist) are too thin. And since writers at these publications have no labor representatives to look out for their interests--I'm pretty sure writers at The New Yorker aren't even offered health insurance--they have no choice but to produce.

I guess I'm interested in this topic because it tangentially relates to a larger issue which Ezra didn't raise but that certainly gets bandied about on blogs all the time--and that's the growing perception that journalism isn't a meritocracy. Jon Chait touched on this in his Netroots piece earlier this year:

They [i.e. Netroots bloggers] are, by their way of thinking, self-made men and women who pulled themselves up from obscurity by dint of pure merit. They see the Washington establishment, by contrast, as a kind of clique, filled with mediocrities who attended the best schools or know the right people. The netroots shorthand for this phenomenon is "Washington cocktail parties"--where, it is believed, the elite share their wrong-headed ideas, inoculated from accountability. "They still have their columns and TV gigs," Moulitsas wrote on his blog last December, describing the Beltway elite. "They still get treated with reverence by the D.C. cocktail party circuit."

There are some obvious exceptions to journalism's meritocratic rules. And, although I don't live in Washington and don't go to cocktail parties, I have no doubt that these shindigs occur. But I do think that, in large part, at least at the publications I mentioned above, the quality of a journalist's work--and not the quality of his or her cocktail party conversation skills--is what accounts for his or her continued employment.

And with that, I've now fulfilled my daily quota for blog posts, earned my pay, and will therefore have nothing more to say on the topic (unless I have trouble filling my quota tomorrow).

--Jason Zengerle