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Summary:

The controversy over new-media startup Journatic and its hyper-local news service says a lot about how difficult it is to find new ways of producing journalism, in part because the traditional media industry and its supporters want to force everything into old models and familiar formats.

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We’ve seen a ton of digital ink spilled over the implications of media startup Journatic faking bylines for some of its content, including my post about the underlying economics that have forced newspapers like the Chicago Tribune to outsource their hyper-local content. While some critics choose to see outsourced journalism of the kind Journatic produces as unethical “pink slime,” the controversy over the startup’s practices actually says a lot about how difficult it is to find new ways of producing that kind of content — in part because the traditional media industry and its supporters want to force everything into old models and familiar formats.

Just to recap, Journatic is a Chicago-based startup founded by former journalist Brian Timpone as a way of helping news providers cover local and community news more efficiently. The company has worked with a number of mainstream outlets such as the Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, as well as the GateHouse newspaper chain, providing the kind of commodity news that community papers specialize in: notices of events, local residents winning awards, real-estate transactions and so forth. Journatic pays staffers and freelancers — some of whom work in the Philippines — to produce this content from publicly available data.

The company was engulfed in a firestorm of criticism last week, after a Journatic employee (who has since resigned)told the public-radio program This American Life that it routinely used fake bylines for some of the content it provided to the Tribune and others. Timpone said in an interview with me that these manufactured bylines were only used for data-based stories that came from a sister company called Blockshopper, which aggregates data about real-estate sales in various communities, not traditional journalistic stories that were provided to newspapers — but he admitted that using the fake bylines was “absolutely a mistake.”

Why does the new have to look like the old?

As media industry blogger John Bethune pointed out in a blog post about the Journatic incident, the source of the mistake was a desire to make the content that came from Blockshopper look and feel like the stories that both newspaper owners and readers would be familiar with — in other words, a traditional newspaper story with the name of the author at the top. As Bethune put it:

The real issue was not that the company used fake bylines on its stories, but that it used bylines at all. Journatic screwed up because the company wanted to have it both ways: to embrace new-media principles while trying to disguise them. Instead of looking forward, it looked backward.

Timpone effectively admitted the same thing in his interview with me — that part of the mistake Journatic made was in thinking that the content it was producing needed bylines in the first place (much of what it provides to the Tribune for that newspaper’s TribLocal sites now simply says “Neighborhood News Service). Some critics of the practice have assumed that the fake bylines were intended to disguise the fact that contributors were from the Philippines, but Timpone said the practice was mostly designed to make the content look like a traditional story because that’s what the company thought newspapers would want.

But much of the content that comes from both Blockshopper and Journatic doesn’t really fit that model at all. Instead of being a story that a single individual produces (along with some editing), they are an amalgamation of data and contributions from multiple sources, some of whom scrape databases or make phone calls and others who edit or fact-check or perform other functions to produce the “story.”

Critics of the Journatic model, including Mandy Jenkins of Digital First Media and Anna Tarkov at the Poynter Institute, seem to want newspapers to continue to produce hyper-local community journalism in the traditional way, with reporters based in the community writing traditional stories. But given the kinds of financial pressures on the newspaper industry, that may simply not be viable for outlets like the Tribune or GateHouse. That’s not to say they shouldn’t devote resources to those communities, but it does mean that looking at alternative models for some kinds of content makes sense as well.

Not “pink slime,” just a potential new model

I think what’s important with a new model like the one Timpone is trying to implement is not to find ways of dismissing it as the “pink slime” of the journalism industry, but to see whether anything in it is ultimately worth keeping or is providing a worthwhile service for readers. Does Journatic or Blockshopper content inform readers about things that they might be interested in, and does it do so accurately? It seems to (no one has raised concerns about inaccuracy so far, just bylines). Do readers really care who wrote the post about the high-school student winning an award or the sale of a local property? I don’t know.

In a recent presentation about the future of media, Richard Gingras — former CEO of Salon and now director of news products for Google — notes that many of the models that newspapers and other media entities continue to rely on, including the traditional story format, are throwbacks to the days of print. Why do we need to use them online, where content is more fluid? Why not experiment with new forms? As Gingras puts it:

These were models that barely changed in 100 years — what, they added color? So people didn’t have a reason to evolve. [But] you now have people on the outside looking at the problem with a clean slate.

In many ways, this is related to the discussion that media theorist Jeff Jarvis and others have been having for some time now about how the news “story” needs to be blown up or dismantled, or at the very least re-thought. Since the way that news occurs and the ways in which information reaches us has been completely disrupted by the web and the democratization of distribution, the argument is that we need to have different models and formats for handling that information intelligently — whether it’s with tools like Storify or new ways of aggregating and filtering data in order to make it meaningful.

Could Journatic be one of those ways, at least for certain kinds of hyper-local content and information? It’s possible, or at the very least worth considering. And demonizing that approach as “pink slime” or something that is antithetical to journalism doesn’t really help.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Zert Sonstige

  1. FWIW, I don’t think that what Journatic does is entirely useless and without merit. Why can’t they do all the data-driven stuff and just feed those databases and info to local reporters. THAT could be the service. Why do they have to write “stories?” Even stories about (I’ll note you don’t mention this) about the local government bodies in town. Those to me are those most egregious examples of what Journatic should NOT be doing.

    And Mathew, I respect you and what you do, but please next time you want to know how I feel about something, ask me. Don’t just surmise and write it. I know you said “seem to want,” but people have a knack for glossing over phrases like that and assuming that it’s what a person actually thinks or believes.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Anna — although if Journatic just feeds data to reporters, how does that make things more efficient? And as for my comment about what you believe, I was basing that on your posts about Journatic and some of your responses on Twitter as well. If I misrepresented the way you feel, I apologize for that.

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      1. How does it NOT make it more efficient? Reporters would then be able to create the same content that Journatic does or an in-house team like the one GateHouse is building could do it. And even they said the work of that team would be somewhat limited to briefs only. We’re not going to have people writing about the city council in another state from Rockford, IL, the guy told me.

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  2. Toby Beresford Thursday, July 5, 2012

    Newswires producing data based, raw stories are nothing new. Journalists are trained to reposition a news wire story into a social and political context. This is what turns a piece of data into something relevant to the reader.

    After all, one persons cut to services is another persons tax break. It depends on your political beliefs.

    All news comes from a point of view and we judge that news based in part on who writes it and who publishes it.

    Using fake bylines removes these signals and makes the news story more difficult to digest.I don’t have a problem with stories written by robots, the general public or by remote workers for that matter, but I would like to at least know their name. That way over time I can start to judge their reliability and that is what builds my trust in their reporting. The byline Neighborhood news service still obscures the source and doesn’t help me that much.

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  3. I too am a bit perplexed as to how my blog post was extrapolated into me “seem[ing] to want newspapers to continue to produce hyper-local community journalism in the traditional way”. I didn’t mention anything about that.

    I work with very small newspapers who are trying lots of new ways to cover their communities with less-than-ideal resources. My company, Digital First, is actually sort of known for experimentation and moving away from traditional practices. I wouldn’t work there if I thought they operated otherwise.

    Generally speaking, I don’t have a problem with Journatic’s business model. Like Anna said earlier in this thread, I think there’s real value in businesses that will get/parse out local data and do rewrites of publicly available info. I think they might be a bit exploitive and I certainly hate seeing local news reporters lose their jobs to outsourcing, but the goal of efficiency they’re working toward is something everyone’s tackling in one way or another.

    What bothered me most is that this company is intentionally trying to mislead readers into thinking these writers are local, when they are most definitely not. They – and their customers – need to be honest about who is doing this work and where it is coming from.

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    1. Thanks, Mandy — I apologize if I misinterpreted your post. I am a fan of what Digital First is doing when it comes to community-level journalism. And I agree that Journatic was wrong to try and make its content look like something it wasn’t. I just don’t think that should prevent us from looking at the model to see if there is anything useful there.

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      1. Mandy Jenkins Thursday, July 5, 2012

        Agreed – there might be something in there that could be part of a new way of doing parts of local journalism at lower cost. They just didn’t handle this well at all, in my opinion.

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  4. Robotization/automation of data-driven journalism is not only inevitable, but desireable. Algorithms can do a lot of scut work and free-up humans to enhance the value of the overall news product.
    Using anglicized noms de electrons to create the impression of local authorship is the opposite of community engagement. It shouldn’t need to be mentioned that it hacks at the core value of a newsroom: credibility. Even if the readers don’t find out about the duplicity, they will sense it and reject any such attempts at “neighborliness.”
    Local publishers beware: Local newspapers are failing due to drain-circling product quality. Any attempt to use off-shoring or automation to reduce headcount will only accelerate the spin.

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    1. I forgot to add that even crediting to “Neighborhood News Service” is a duplicitous attempt to imply local origination.

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  5. Trace Cohen Friday, July 6, 2012

    For most of the news I get, I don’t care who the writer is, I just want my news. There are a select few top tier writers like yourself Mathew that I follow as you cover interesting topics but with so much noise out there, just give me the headlines at the end of the day. If it’s something interesting, everyone will cover it and eventually the truth/facts will come out. But that’s for “real” stories when it seems that the issue here for is hyper-local content that isn’t for the mass market – that job definitely doesn’t pay enough to keep someone full time covering it, hence content farming.

    In the end though, can you blame these newspapers for trying to be relevant when their business models are failing because “regular” people like you and me are covering what they can’t faster and for free? Think of all the news they want to cover but can’t cover – they cover what they think will get them eyeballs for ad dollars.

    Every one is a writer these days, you don’t need a degree to prove it.

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    1. David Thomas Friday, July 6, 2012

      The issue is actually much stronger than you characterize — the Chicago Tribune is using Journalitic for local content. So whatever gets produced and published there is carrying a banner of “authenticity” and supposedly a brand name impact. You should care about who is writing the news because it will shape opinion, even when its limited to your neighborhood. And everyone is not a *good* writer these days, and certainly not every writer is a journalist. I’m not comfortable with your blind faith that “eventually the truth/facts will come out” attitude toward news — not very long ago the US was in a large scale, expensive, and lethal war effort long before the “truth” eventually came out. That problem telescopes down, too: remember the adage that corruption starts with a fixed parking ticket? The problem with Journalitic isn’t its business model or the need for new processes, the problem is editorial authenticity being sacrificed for efficiency.

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  6. Ex-GateHouser (who left on own terms) Friday, July 6, 2012

    GateHouse fired Journatic over a month ago, if not longer, because the quality of content was severely lacking. Also, GateHouse is in terrible financial shape thanks to considerable overreaching during more flush years, so I’m not sure that one wants to use it as any sort of model whatsoever.

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  7. John F. Harnish Friday, July 6, 2012

    Back in the eons of time in the early 1960s, I was a stringer for the AP and UPI. I’d phone collect to a copy-desk and when the copy-editor was on the line I’d read my news story word-for-word—just the facts with the names of people and places correctly spelled. Not to be crass but I was more interested in the checks than getting a byline.

    In the Digital Age of the 21st century with blogs and “live” news feeds, it seems everyone is a “stringer” generating posts with incomplete facts and misspellings. Of course there’s a byline even if it’s a pen name, but rarely is there cash paid for the posted content. The Internet exposure and perhaps making an elusive point matters more—it makes no sense to buy the cow when the milk is free. Frequently the quality and accuracy is seriously lacking.

    I can understand their reasoning behind using an invented byline to make the story appear to have a local connection. But what happens if the name of the contrived contributor is the same name as a real person living in the community??? But then again, maybe that’s nothing more than an elusive point.

    Enjoy often… John

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  8. Reblogged this on vijaya prasad.

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  9. Gee, you think Journatic used bylines because people think that reading a real person’s work is valuable?

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  10. Re. Journatic/Blockshopper’s accuracy: Michael Miner checked some transactions listed on Blockshopper and reports he found several that were “bizarrely wrong” — http://www.chicagoreader.com/Bleader/archives/2012/04/24/tribune-company-does-deal-with-journatic

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