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Summary:

Journatic, a local-journalism aggregation startup that used to provide content to newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, has been criticized for a series of ethical lapses. But that doesn’t mean the kind of outsourcing it represents isn’t part of the future of journalism.

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There has been a debate raging in the media sphere lately over the practices of a journalism-outsourcing startup called Journatic, which used to provide hyperlocal news content to papers like the Chicago Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle. The service was dropped by several newspapers after it was revealed that some stories it distributed had fake bylines on them, and others have stopped using it due to more recent reports of plagiarism. But those errors don’t invalidate the idea of outsourcing and/or automating the kind of information that Journatic specializes in — something more cash-strapped newspapers are likely going to have to consider, even if they produce or manage it themselves.

The latest incident occurred last Friday, when the Chicago Tribune said it had found evidence of plagiarism by a Journatic writer — who allegedly used a quote from another news report without attributing, and fabricated a second quote — and said it was suspending its use of the service (which it is also an investor in) indefinitely. Shortly afterward Journatic’s editorial director, Michael Fourcher, resigned, saying, “The founders and I fundamentally disagree about ethical and management issues as they relate to a successful news business.” Journatic, meanwhile, said that it had planned to fire Fourcher anyway.

Outsourcing is a reality, like it or not

For many critics, this cavalcade of errors reinforced their views about the whole idea of outsourcing local journalism in the first place, something former Journatic freelancer Ryan Smith compared to the sort of “pink slime” processed food that some companies have been accused of serving their customers. But as journalist and author Craig Silverman noted in a recent post at Poynter (and as we have pointed out before as well), that doesn’t change the fact that newspapers are going to need alternative processes — including outsourcing and/or automation — in order to survive the financial pressures they are under. As Silverman put it:

[E]ven as I abhor the plagiarism, fabrication and fake bylines, I also know that no matter how bad the behavior, there will absolutely be more companies like Journatic. Outsourcing, content farming, Mechanical Turk-like records/data processing — these things are going to increase and find their place within journalism at news organizations large and small.

As Silverman correctly points out, the idea of aggregating data around local communities isn’t unique to Journatic: A Knight Foundation–funded startup called EveryBlock, founded by pioneering data journalist and former Washington Post staffer Adrian Holovaty, started doing exactly that five years ago and was eventually acquired by MSNBC. While critics complain about Journatic’s impact on hyperlocal journalism, much of what the service was doing involved police blotters, real-estate sale reports, community award presentations and other kinds of information that are seen by many (including journalists) as a commodity.

Commodity news needs a new business model

Founder Brian Timpone — who was trained as a journalist — said in an interview with GigaOM that the whole point of Journatic is to outsource and/or automate those tasks so that reporters can have more time for the kind of journalism newspapers would rather spend their scarce resources on, including investigative or in-depth reporting. The fact that the Tribune and other papers have laid off dozens of staff at the same time as they started using Journatic makes it harder to believe that they actually want to do this, but that doesn’t mean the principle isn’t still sound. Even Fourcher argued in his blog post that the idea behind the service still makes sense:

Journatic’s core premise is sound: most data and raw information can be managed much more efficiently outside the traditional newsroom; and, in order for major market community news to be commercially viable, it needs be conducted on a broader scale than ever before.

It would be nice to think that newspapers could continue to finance a local bureau in every small town, with a reporter who could get to know the community and cover town-council meetings, human-interest stories and so on. But that simply isn’t economically viable for many papers any more, thanks to the rapid decline in the print-advertising income that makes up the bulk of their revenue. Journatic critics argue that they should see hyperlocal reporting as more valuable, but many newspapers like the Tribune simply don’t have the resources to do that in addition to the kind of civic reporting they are supposed to be doing.

Outsourcing to an aggregator like Journatic isn’t the only solution to this problem, of course. Instead of using cheap freelancers in other countries, Digital First Media has taken a different approach by setting up “community newsrooms” in the towns it serves with its daily and weekly papers as a way of bringing members of the community into the process. Another venture in local journalism called TBD developed a network of local bloggers as an attempt to cover some of the communities it couldn’t afford to send staff reporters to.

As both Silverman and David Cohn of Circa — who also founded a previous crowdfunded-journalism startup called Spot.us — point out, there are many lessons to be learned from what Journatic has done, including the importance of journalistic standards and a professional approach. But that doesn’t mean outsourced and/or aggregated news isn’t going to be a part of the media environment, because it almost certainly is.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Stewart Chambers and George Kelly

  1. Shafqat Islam Wednesday, July 18, 2012

    Outsourcing content has always been part of the game – that’s the need filled by the Associated Press, Reuters, AFP and other newswires. Outsourcing content is not going away. In fact, it will only become more important, allowing news organizations to focus on their core competitive advantage (which is never “everything”). In fact, we’ve built an entire business around it, and it’s getting to be a substantial size and growing fast – proof that there is not only demand, but that the demand is accelerating.

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    1. Thanks, Shafqat — good point. Journatic is on the same spectrum as Associated Press and others, even though it may seem different. Appreciate the comment.

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      1. Yes, but their “core competitive advantage” has always been local news. It’s one thing to let AP cover Moscow because your daily couldn’t afford setting up a bureau there. Quite another to put local journalists out of work so that people 3,000 miles away — in Manila it seems — can cover your community.

        By abandoning this core competency, and laying off local journalists in the process, local papers are writing their own obituaries… Or will they have some fake reporter abroad do that, too?

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  2. I have followed the publishing and its outsourcing industry for quite a few years, and have always maintained that among all the segments that constitute print publishing, newspapers always have spent considerably more on procuring content from external sources – be it freelance journalists, agencies such as AP, Reuters, etc. In fact I would go to the extent of saying that newspapers are heavy syndicators of content whose inherent value lies in editorial opinion and prioritizing what is news. Outsourcing in the newspapers context is not cost driven, but very much a strategic need – and it if its strategic, its not outsourcing right? Its partnering.

    The core advantage newspapers have is telling readers what is important (and what isn’t) – an important value addition, given the rate at which consumers are getting exposed to news and content in general. In this scenario, its important that newspapers continue to focus on their core (like Shafqat mentions) and look at partnering for others. Cost is a factor (which will invariably get addressed) but it will bring a newspaper publisher much needed optimization and ‘leanness’ in operations.

    Specifically to Journatic – ensuring standards is an operational issue and can be overcome. As their service matures, such issues can be addressed through stringent checks.

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    1. You say that like “stringent quality checks” of Journatic’s content are ever actually going to happen.

      Journatic’s entire business plan is based on the concept that remote outsourcing of writers from lowest-cost foreign countries will offer a substitute for local reporters with real contact with sources in the community at the lowest possible cost. Journatic’s “automatic” actions not only disprove that such quality checks could happen, they actually demonstrate clearly that the company’s culture ensures that they will NEVER happen.

      Bogus, Anglicized bylines to hide the fact that reporters and initial copy edits are actually happening in the Philippines. Manufactured quotes to fill in when local quotes of “local sources” when contact through hidden overseas long-distance phone patches, cannot be obtained.

      When you pay the lowest possible cost for talent that is disconnected from the local market and will never have to answer to local residents, you get shoddy results. Admittedly at the lowest possible cost, but shoddy nonetheless. Journatic actively sets itself up to hide its own truth in its business processes, so what makes anyone think it has any interest in reporting truths for its local newspaper clients?

      And to the commenter above who related Journatic as an equivalent to legitimate wire services like the AP, Reuters and Agence France-Presse, there is very little, if any, similarity. Those wire services are designed to bring news from around the world to local newspapers. That’s an entirely different thing than finding the lowest-cost writers from anywhere in the world to bring local news to readers from remote locations with no access to the local community. Journatic’s business model is NOTHING like a legitimate wire service. It’s disingenuous, and perhaps self-serving, for you to assert that it is.

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  3. So far the game is the player. You get what you pay for, especially when you are paying some guy a boatload to honcho sub-minimum, piecework and advertorial content. It’s already a failed model.

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