The uncomfortable truth behind the Journatic byline scandal

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Updated: A Chicago-based media startup called Journatic, which we profiled earlier this year, has sparked a firestorm of controversy over the outsourcing of hyper-local journalism by newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, after a staffer revealed that the company added fake bylines to its material — which in some cases is compiled by freelancers in other countries. A number of the startup’s clients have dropped the service as a result, while others are trying to essentially recreate it within their newsrooms. But despite the furor over what some see as Journatic’s unethical methods, the harsh reality is that the economic conditions that led the Tribune and others to make use of the service are not going away any time soon.

As we described in our post — which was based on an interview with Journatic founder and former journalist Brian Timpone — the service uses freelancers and staff to compile the kind of local news that typically appears in weekly community newspapers or the local section of a daily like the Tribune: that is, announcements about local sporting events, residents who have won awards, council meetings and so on. In many cases, the content is produced by a local staffer who pulls information from a database or website (or in some cases calls a local business) along with freelancers who work in the Philippines and elsewhere, and are paid either an hourly rate or on a per-piece basis.

Accelerating the death of newspapers or adapting to it?

In a recent interview with the public-radio show This American Life, a staffer who worked for Journatic described how the company would sometimes use fake bylines on its content — allegedly to disguise the fact that they were compiled by non-residents — and also how reporters working for the service in other locations would try to cover up the fact that they were not in the community they were writing about. Ryan Smith told the Poynter Institute’s Anna Tarkov that he came to believe that this behavior was wrong, in part because it was doing a disservice to local journalism:

I felt like the company I was working for was accelerating the death of the newspaper, luring many members of the industry into their own demise with the promise of short-term savings.

This week, many of the newspapers that were working with Journatic said they have severed that relationship, including the Chicago Sun-Times and a number of papers owned by the GateHouse chain. A spokesman for GateHouse told Poynter that the newspaper company is working on a project that will more or less duplicate what Journatic was doing, by centralizing the production of local community news for the entire chain — and also said that the service didn’t really achieve what GateHouse hoped it would, which was to free up staff to take on more in-depth journalistic pursuits.

Journatic founder Timpone, meanwhile, told media blogger Jim Romenesko that the idea of using fake bylines was implemented for a sister company called Blockshopper, which automates and aggregates real-estate listings. He said that fake names were used because some freelancers had been the target of harassment — and also because the items were often produced by a combination of algorithms, U.S-based editors and freelancers rather than a single person. That practice has stopped, said Timpone, and items that are part of the Tribune’s TribLocal sites now say they come from the “Neighborhood News Service.”

Much of the reaction to the Journatic story has focused on how the fake bylines — and the way reporters described who they were in phone interviews — were designed to simulate hyper-local content, and how this is an unethical or at least unappealing thing for newspapers to do (although some have pointed out that newspapers have always used content that appears with “fake” bylines, including advice columns such as Ann Landers). Mandy Jenkins, who works at Digital First Media and writes a blog called Zombie Journalism, said that readers should demand locally-produced content from their newspapers as part of a “Buy Local” campaign.

Outsourcing and automation are part of the future

The uncomfortable reality, however, is that the Tribune and other newspapers started using Journatic because it was a lot cheaper than generating that kind of content with staff reporters, and newspapers have been scrambling to cut costs as their print-advertising revenue continues to free fall. The Tribune, for example, laid off 22 employees when it outsourced its hyper-local content to Journatic — and while GateHouse says it plans to create similar content in-house, it is still centralizing the production of that content somewhere else (although it may be closer than the Philippines).

Even AOL, which has tried hard to recreate some of the community-newspaper model with its Patch network of local bloggers and reporters, has found that the costs of doing this are almost prohibitive (it has spent over $150 million so far) and the advertising revenue that it derives from those operations is barely worth the trouble. Local bloggers — who have a much more personal connection to their audience — can fill some of the gap, but that is likely to be more of a labor of love than a commercial enterprise.

Is faking hyper-local content the answer? Probably not. But it’s also true that most newspapers can’t afford to continue producing a lot of the kind of content that Journatic generated. The fake-byline issue is a bit of a red herring in that sense: while it would be nice to think that a “Buy Local” campaign would convince newspapers to devote more resources to it, the fact is that most people don’t buy that kind of content at all. And the newspapers that outsourced it wanted to do so in part so they could (theoretically at least) concentrate on more important journalism, although whether they actually do so or not remains to be seen.

At the end of the day, centralized and partly-automated production of that sort of generic content is likely a reality for newspapers — or even fully-automated production, from services like Narrative Science, which generates sports stories, business stories and an increasing range of other content using algorithms instead of human reporters and editors. It may not be the kind of future that all journalists or news consumers would like to see, but it is probably the future nevertheless.

Update: In a phone and email conversation after this post was published, Brian Timpone said that the Journatic contracts with both GateHouse and the Chicago Sun-Times had already expired before the fake-byline report came out, and that only one client has dropped the service because of the report. He also said that fabricated names were only ever used for BlockShopper real-estate listings, and that most of these were created in 2009 and was given to newspapers as a placeholder until more local content could be created. The Journatic founder said the decision not to remove these fake bylines was “absolutely a mistake” and that the company is changing its process so that doesn’t happen again — and also to prevent writers from using pseudonyms, which happened with some Journatic stories from one writer that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user David Boyle and Jim Romenesko

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